The Fights That Bring Riches


A human cock fight or a real-time display of martial art prowess? However you choose to describe it, the fact remains that the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a money maker.

Headquartered in Las Vegas, the UFC is the largest mixed martial arts organization in the world. Its programs, featuring martial arts duels that include kicks, grappling, and moves never contemplated in a typical boxing match, can be seen regularly on cable television in the United States and 35 other countries around the world.

It's a remarkable rags to riches and turnaround story. The UFC can trace its roots to the early 1990s when various martial artists, spurred by questions about the alleged superiority of individual fighting styles and schools, pushed for so-called "War of the Worlds" tournaments to settle the matter. Those bouts, which came to be sponsored and aired by Semaphore Entertainment Group in the early days of pay-per-view television, drew a surprisingly big audience. Indeed, over 80,000 pay-per-view subscribers were believed to have tuned into the first championship bout.

But the contests also drew criticism for their violence and barbarity. Individual states began to enact laws against such fighting, reducing venues and cable television distribution. Audiences dwindled.

In response, the UFC tried to refashion itself into a more legitimate sport. It adopted stricter rules and promoted more of the technical elements of martial arts fighting, emphazing the grappling and boxing features of the fights. It also started working with state athletic commissions in an effort to make its matches sanctioned sporting events.

But Semaphore was feeling the financial strain. It sold UFC to Station Casinos, an outfit run by fight enthusiasts Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, in 2001. Today, Station, in conjunction with boxing promoter Dana White, runs UFC through Zuffa, LLC. UFC eventually won its effort to get sanctioned by some state commissions, notably Nevada's in 2001.

That opened the door for UFC bouts to be aired on cable television again. But UFC's real success came after 2005 airings of a reality show, "Ultimate Fighter", based on ultimate fighting wannabes vying to get a shot at the big time.

The show's success boosted UFC's general popularity. There are now approximately twelve to fourteen live pay-per-view events annually that are distributed vua cable and satellite TV. UFC says 95.7 million viewers saw at least 1 minute of its programming in 2005, translating to 34.4% of the U.S. population or one in three Americans. In 2006 the UFC is believed to be the pay-per-view industry's top sports draw, generating over $200 million in revenue.