Fifteen years ago, a new championship was established to discover who was the ultimate fighter. Could a karate expert defeat a wrestler? Would the skills of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu exponent overcome a boxer? The one-off event, in Denver Colorado, was a huge hit. It also established that mixed martial arts could have a future as popular sport, says The Daily Telegraph.
Unfortunately, the Ultimate Fighting Championship immediately shot itself in the foot. "There are three ways of winning," proclaimed an over-zealous marketing campaign, "by knockout, submission or death."
The response was predictable. Senator John McCain, labelling the championship "human cock-fighting", called for it to be banned. The label stuck, and by 1997 the event had been driven underground. Eventually, a former boxing promoter, Dana White, decided to resurrect it. Short of cash, he found a pair of brothers who had made a fortune from Las Vegas casinos and were prepared to take on the rights to the UFC brand for $2m.
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Seven years on, says Forbes, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta find themselves in possession of a $1bn money-machine poised to clean up globally. The premise, as they see it, is simple. Americans will never understand cricket. The British can't grasp football. But what makes the UFC so great "is that every single man on the planet gets it immediately. It's just two guys beating each other up."
The atmosphere at UFC events is electric, drawing celebrities (hip-hop star Jay-Z is an aficionado), high-rollers and fans, "like spectators at a gladiator fight", says Forbes. They pay an average $340 per ticket to witness nine fights. Half a million more people pay $45 to watch the fights at home. The total haul from a single event comes in at around $25m. Last year, UFC generated a whopping $222m in pay-per-view revenue alone.
The Fertittas are at pains to stress that the UFC has moved on: some of the more dangerous moves such as headbutting are no longer allowed. Even so, this is no spectacle for the squeamish. At a recent fight-fest in Las Vegas, a tattooed brawler wearing "five-ounce fingerless fighting gloves" saw off his Brazilian challenger in two five-minute rounds. The Brazilian's face was so swollen that he could barely see. "Pro wrestling is fake. This stuff is for real."
The Fertittas might have created a billion-dollar blood-sport, but their roots lie in gambling, says The New York Times. Frank, 46, and Lorenzo, 39, are viewed by Vegas old-stagers, such as Steve Wynn, as typical of a new generation of "smart kids" who will "remake this city in their image". "Of course, us old guys aren't done yet," he adds. "But the new energy is nothing but exciting." The brothers got a good head-start in the business, thanks to their father, Frank Fertittas Jr, who arrived in the city as a 20-year-old to work as a dealer. He soon saw that Vegas had no casinos actually catering for the city's residents, so he borrowed to build one making his main gambit bingo and "loose" (i.e. better odds) slot machines.
His son, Frank Fertitta III, took over Station Casinos in 1993. He and Lorenzo then went on a massive expansion binge: they now own 17 casinos around Vegas and are estimated to be worth $1.3bn each. With UFC riding so high, are they tempted to sell out? "I'm sure we could find something to do if we did," says Frank. "But we're having too much fun."
How mixed martial arts became almost as popular as fishing
There's no surer sign of the appeal of anything than the appearance of rivals, says Forbes. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is "drawing competitors like flies to blood". They include the broadcast giant CBS and the billionaire Mark Cuban, who recently created HDNet Fights and plans to make "our network the de facto destination for mixed martial arts (MMA)".
The Fertittas say these newcomers can't match their brand now as synonymous with MMA as the NFL is with American football. They may have a point, says The Daily Telegraph. The UFC has a cult internet following and what's more, Dana White, the championship's charismatic president (he owns 10% of UFC), has become as much a celebrity in the States as some of his fighters, and is regularly mobbed by fans.
Still, there might be room for more than one player in the market. The marketers certainly think it's here to stay: sponsor Harley Davidson sees "advertising to such an engaged group of young males" as crucial to selling "to the next generation of motorcycle riders". And you only have to look at the popularity of martial arts to see the potential. The Daily Telegraph reckons that if you include every martial art, "MMA is the second-biggest organised participant sport in this country, after fishing".
Moreover, concerns about safety are overdone: there has never been a death in a sanctioned mixed martial arts event. In boxing, there are about eight a year on average. Like it or not, "there is little doubt that UFC is here to stay", says White.
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