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UFC thrives despite myriad obstacles

11/11/2013
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Dana White: Evolution of Style

UFC President Dana White tells Todd Grisham how his style as president has changed since 2001.

For the past 20 years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has made the most of these basic facts: Given the chance, some human beings will engage in hand-to-hand combat; and, given the chance, most of the rest of us will stop and watch.

At its inception in 1993, the UFC wasn't exactly avant-garde. It was more like repackaged. The type of stuff happening inside the show's trademarked chain-link octagonal enclosure had, after all, gone on for more than a couple thousand years.

Said to be founded by Hercules and Theseus themselves, ancient Greeks labeled the martial style that combined boxing with wrestling as "pankration," which they intended to mean absolute control. There were two prohibitions for us mortals: no biting or eye gouging. This, then, made arena-born bloodlust palatable for crowds at Olympic Games between 648 B.C. and A.D. 393. Civilizations came and went, placing more or less importance on this shade of entertainment along the way, yet that DNA-embossed connection between fighters and the people compelled to watch them didn't change.

Because I felt locked to the floor during my birthday while a string of 1995's best UFC fights replayed on a friend's television, I've long dubbed the sport "sticky." I'd just turned 20, and, like every red-blooded American male, was well aware of the UFC and its reputation.

Soon enough, so was everyone else. Two years after debuting on pay-per-view, UFC was thriving. The action of mixed style fighting, with its wild transitions between standing and ground confrontations, plus the personalities and shock value, made those first few years unforgettable.

Some suggest that UFC's rise out of the ooze into mainstream sports culture was improbable, but history says violence between combatants of varied skills almost always puts butts in seats. If anything is improbable about the fact that UFC matured to the point that it airs live cage fights on national television and served as a lynchpin for the launch of a major cable sports network, it's that all the maneuvering, assuaging, adapting and evolving actually paid off. As UFC's early popularity spiked like a moonshot, detractors attempted at times to neuter or ban the sport outright, as is the current situation in New York state. Arizona Senator John McCain is well known for his description of the action as "human cockfighting," notwithstanding that the men he referred to aren't roosters to be lorded over. For some participants, in fact, fighting in the Octagon was as much an act of free will as it was about competition or a way to make rent.

Today, we know the action as "mixed martial arts" -- a regulated, sanitized, televised, marketed multibillion-dollar venture that neatly encases brawling men and women into something intoxicating. Chalk it up to the completeness, temperament and implication of the fighting. Who's the baddest fighter on the planet? Not the boxer. Not the grappler. It's the heaviest man who can do both best. Today and for the considerable future, he's found in the UFC. Currently, Cain Velasquez is the man.

The route to UFC's 20th anniversary at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas this Saturday is an incredible story.

A family of fighters, the Gracies, sought to showcase their grappling to the world, so they came to the United States from Brazil.

Throughout UFC 1, Royce Gracie made it clear that absent the ability to defend oneself on the floor, odds of winning a fight go down big time. Tough guys. Strong guys. Hard guys. Skilled guys. The warrior class picked up on this. Innovation occurred. Skills improved.

Uncorking a modern-day pankration makes the Octagon a petri dish of pugilistic Darwinism.

Survival of the fittest. In real time.

That's how cutthroat it got outside the cage as well, where the string-pullers responded to opportunistic politicians and countless critics by offering to scale back gore and up legitimacy. "Two men enter, one man leaves" rightly disappeared under media and political pressure. Forced change was responsible for rounds and weight classes.

It's why tried-and-true self-preservation techniques like headbutts, and kicking or kneeing a person to the head while they were grounded, and hair pulling, and groin strikes, and back-of-the-head shots, were all eventually banned. In today's world, smashing a person in the face with an elbow is more socially acceptable than doing it with the crown of the forehead, so tweaks were made.

These right-minded acts were done under the watch of UFC's first ownership pact between WOW Promotions and Semaphore Entertainment Group. But despite the ownership's best efforts, anything-goes marketing made the event so radioactive that the UFC brand was as good as comatose. For a time the only way followers knew what was happening with the company and its fighters was to keep track on fan forums.

In actuality, the UFC may be the first sports property to come of age in the Internet era. Fans kept the sport afloat during its darkest chapters at the end of the 1990s, stoking the conversation online since it wasn't happening anywhere else.

Similar passions also prompted Dana White and Las Vegas casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to pick up the UFC from the scrap heap for $2 million in early 2001; to lose 25 times that initial investment trying to make it work; and to stick with it and turn a traveling circus into a content-creating worldwide media juggernaut.

The introduction of Zuffa -- the parent company of the UFC run by the Fertitta brothers and White -- altered the course of UFC history for the better, though its future remains rife with challenges.

The effect of serious head trauma, for instance, is better understood and more widely discussed than ever before, suggesting it's a topic UFC executives will need to address. The same goes for performance-enhancing drugs, which most insiders believe are rampant. And as with other major sports leagues, Zuffa could very well endure labor strife down the line.

But the obstacles won't matter much -- at least not based on the track record. There are men and women walking around with a desire to test themselves in spirited, aggressive, violent competition. Some will be better than others, and a large group of people will love watching them on a visceral level.

That's the history. That's the present. And that's the future.