Dana White, left, and UFC business partner Lorenzo Fertitta (Photo by Gus Van Der Most).
On the afternoon before one of the biggest mixed-martial-arts fights of 2012, a group of Ultimate Fighting Championship employees takes up position in a sun-blasted parking lot outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. It’s July in Las Vegas. It’s 103 degrees of unpleasant. And it’s about to get worse—because UFC president Dana White just tweeted their location. White is giving away 20 $1,200 tickets to this weekend’s UFC 148 (most fight cards are named by number), headlined by a rematch between Brazilian middleweight champion Anderson Silva and his American nemesis, Chael Sonnen. Any fan who shows up within 20 minutes with a can of UFC-branded Edge shave gel will be entered into a ticket raffle.
It takes less than 10 seconds for Isiah and Dominique Quintanilla, teenage brothers from Visalia, California, to materialize from the back stairs with cans. “Some guy offered us $66 for one,” Isiah says. UFC fans, it seems, had cleaned out drugstores on the Las Vegas Strip.
Minutes later, a horde bursts from the casino—mostly men in the UFC’s coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, but women, too, in a dead sprint. They stampede toward the UFC team, grooming products in hand. Some hurdle a chain in the parking lot. One woman tries to scale a fence and bloodies her knee. In the fight business, these fans are known as hardcores. They buy the UFC’s pay-per-view shows, which blend wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and other combat styles into an action-packed, often-bloody sport known as mixed-martial arts, or MMA. They buy apparel and merchandise. Above all, they buy into a UFC lifestyle that celebrates everyone’s inner warrior.
“Fighting is in our DNA,” White likes to say. It’s an easy sell. But that dismisses a larger achievement: In a decade, the UFC turned what was essentially a no-holds-barred spectacle banned throughout the country into a sanctioned sport with mass appeal. MMA is now one of the country’s fastest-growing sports. And the UFC has become one of the world’s most valuable sports franchises, with annual revenue approaching $600 million, according to one of its owners—and a worth, if you believe the smoke signals, of more than $2 billion. That’s more than the New York Yankees, more than the New England Patriots, more than Real Madrid. And there’s seemingly more to come. In 2011, the UFC signed an unprecedented $700 million deal to air fights in prime time on Fox, the goal being to turn fringe fans into “casuals” and casuals into hardcores. Fight sports have been extremely rare on prime-time network TV since the 1980s.
Now the UFC is at a critical juncture. It could join the country’s major sports leagues—an ascension fueled by big profits, network TV acceptance, and aggressive international expansion. Or, the UFC could mismanage its growth—by fatiguing fans with too many events, failing to resolve labor tensions with fighters, or simply overreaching. And, of course, there’s an inherent question the UFC is finally large enough to confront: Is this sport too violent to thrive in mainstream America?
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