After one hell of a night at UFC Denver on Saturday, the world’s most well known MMA promotion officially celebrates its 25th anniversary today (November 12).
The organisation has certainly come a long way in that time, and for the benefit of those who are committed to doing their best impression of John McCain circa 1996 – such as Joe Brolly, let us take a stroll through 25 years of progress.
Back at UFC 1 the young MMA outfit essentially boasted it had ‘no rules’ as it pit pure fighting styles against one another, with mixed results.
Step up Teila Tuli and Gerard Gordeau, the first men to step inside the now infamous Octagon, Sumo vs Savateur – spoiler, things didn’t end well for Tuli.
It was undeniably a brutal, bare knuckle (gloves mandatory as of UFC 14, 1997), and bloody introduction to mixed martial arts.
Tuli, also of Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame, hunted his opponent down but was pushed to the canvas and Gordeau needed no further invite .
Stepping away from the aggressive sumo neatly, the Dutchman sent a quite literal teeth-shattering (mouth guards are now mandatory) kick to Tuli’s jaw, followed by a right fist to the downed Hawaiian.
Check it out:
And that was all she wrote.
A visibly disappointed Tuli later told of his relief that his brother had thrown in the towel on his behalf after 26 seconds of the UFC’s maiden bout.
The advertised ‘no rules’ wasn’t exactly true – there were some rudimentary codes of conduct; no biting or eye gouging, kicks to the groin were permitted (no longer – a cup is also now mandatory), as was hair pulling. Times have changed significantly…
On November 12, 1993, there were only three means of ending a fight; submission, knockout, or throwing in the towel.
It wasn’t until UFC 21, six years later, that timed rounds were introduced. Prelims featured two five-minute rounds, main card bouts three five-minute rounds, and as we’re accustomed to in the modern era, title fights consisted of five five-minute rounds.
Step two on the whistle-stop tour of the evolution of MMA since Teila bravely stepped up to be the first man to tackle the unknown; the head kick which sent him to the dentist is also now illegal.
This change actually came about sooner than the introduction of rounds, how progressive, with kicking the head of an opponent who was floored banned as of UFC 12 (February 7, 1997).
For clarity’s sake, to qualify as a ‘downed fighter’ your knee must be in contact with the canvas, which conveniently leaves your hands free to protect your head from other legal strikes. It’s almost like someone has thought about fighter safety before Mr Brolly.
At the same event, the refining of spectacle into respectable sport continued with weight classes introduced – albeit there were just two divisions at the mini-tournament; 200lbs and over, and 199lbs and under.
Now, the UFC has 12 divisions – which is dropping to 11 as we wave farewell to the men’s flyweight division – with eight classes for male fighters, and four for female fighters.
— UFC (@ufc) November 11, 2018
These changes and developments were rapid in nature – none of the furore you see with football and VAR here – no, in fact you had an organisation that wanted to be legitimate. It couldn’t grow if it wasn’t countering the criticism which prevented its legalisation across the US.
When John McCain labelled MMA and the UFC ‘human cockfighting’ in 1996, he created a crossroads for the sport. Evolve or die at the hands of combat purists who know no other ‘respectable’ means of fighting outside the terms laid out by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. NO HUGGING!
Dana White actually credited McCain with being the man behind the UFC fans know and love in the modern era.
As reported by MMA Fighting, and as originally told to Sports Illustrated, White commented:
I consider John McCain the guy who started the UFC. If it wasn’t for McCain I wouldn’t be here right now.
What people don’t understand about mixed martial arts and the UFC is, what [McCain] was saying to the old owners is that you cannot put on fights in states that aren’t sanctioned. It’s illegal. You can’t do it. You have to be sanctioned by an athletic commission, which we agreed with him on 100 percent.
John McCain wasn’t saying this thing shouldn’t happen, or it shouldn’t be running. He was saying, if ‘You’re going to do it, it has to be sanctioned by an athletic commission.’ We agree.
White and the Fertitta brothers (Frank and Lorenzo) got to work, purchasing the company in 2001 for a measly $2 million – they sold it in mid-2017 for $4 billion.
That figure alone speaks volumes for how much progress the UFC made in the 16 years of Zuffa LLC ownership. Companies only reach such a value with marketing potential, and in these modern ‘snowflake’ days, major advertisers don’t sponsor ‘bloody freak shows’, it’s bad for brand.
No, no, such sums are only possible because the UFC is a legitimate sport.
11 years ago McCain actually reconsidered his opinion – just six years into the reign of White as president.
He told NPR in 2007:
They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting any more.
I think they’ve made significant progress. They haven’t made me a fan, but they have made progress.
That was over a decade ago. We already know the evolution did not stop there, nor will it stop in the future.
It’s not a sport for the faint of heart, nor is it a sport for the elite. It’s not a sport for combat purists, nor has it ever been.
The beauty of MMA as a sport is in its constant evolution. The fact it doesn’t rely on single disciplines. Fighters will keep getting better as training methods and their opponents do, and thus it should never go stale as combat sports such as boxing have at points in history.
Evolve or die has been at the heart of the promotion for 25 years, and why, we as fans, should be confident issues which remain prevalent, such as difficult weight cuts, CTE and concussions, will be addressed further as our understanding of them on the whole develops with research – just as every emerging issue before them has.
And so, judgmental headlines of banning ‘freak shows’ aren’t worth the shallow reactionary click, so long as you’ve brushed up on your history.
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An NCTJ Journalist with an MA in Sports Journalism, Kieron is an experienced social media journalist who has worked in the industry since 2015. His experience includes work with ITN, the MEN, WISH/WIRE/TOWER FM, and 8:50 Sports Digest… not forgetting his time at ASDA.