How the WWE Almost Killed Mixed Martial Arts in America

Photo by Mauricio Vasquez / HQ Productions via img.thesun.co.uk

In 2004, the mixed martial arts industry was struggling in America. The Fertitta brothers had purchased the UFC at the turn of the decade, but five years later, there was very little return on investment. The brothers dropped tens of millions into the promotion, but it was starting to look like a money pit. They made some strides bringing back the legendary MMA pioneer Ken Shamrock and had done well building up Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz as major stars. But make no mistake-the business was failing. Television was the medium to save the promotion-everyone knew it. But finding an outlet wasn't as easy as it seemed it would be when Zuffa bought the promotion in 2001. Lorenzo Fertitta was growing frustrated:

We went around when we first bought the company, and got together with United Talent Agency, UTA. At the time UFC was a small deal. I think they felt like we were lucky that we were working with them. Today it would be a whole different story. Dana and I flew to LA maybe 50 times. We met with—you name it. MTV. CBS. ABC. ESPN, HBO, Showtime, Spike, USA. We probably met with the Food Channel too. I don’t know. We met with everybody. And to a ‘t,’ every single person said ‘this won’t work. Get out of my office. This is a joke. It’s boring.’ We were just looking at each other going, ‘what are we missing here?’

Today, that seems like ancient history. As Forbes Magazine reported back in 2008, today's Zuffa is like a Tapout ensconced ATM:

It's the Ultimate Money Machine. That night before the Super Bowl 10,700 fans packed the arena, paying an average of $340 for a ticket to witness nine mixed martial arts fights. Another 500,000 fans paid $45 ($55 for high definition) to watch five of the nine fights at home. The total haul from the event: $25 million.

This year UFC is likely to generate $250 million, capturing perhaps 90% of mixed martial arts revenue. The majority of UFC revenues come from the monthly pay-per-view events. Additional cash is made from ticket sales to live fights and licensing fees from its Spike cable shows The Ultimate Fighter and UFC Fight Night . These shows in turn act as promotional tools to drive fans to pay-per-view events. More scratch comes from sales of DVDs and T shirts, as well as downloads from UFC's library of past bouts.

 

But all the success might not have ever happened if World Wrestling Entertainment hadn't made an important decision. The wrestling promotion's RAW show was the flagship program on SPIKE TV, drawing millions of young viewers and remaining near the top of the cable ratings week after week. WWE owner Vince McMahon had veto power over similar programing on SPIKE. The struggling UFC had finally gotten a television partner on the hook for their inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. Now, as former WWE writer Paul Heyman told Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, McMahon held the life of the UFC in his hands:

I was there in the room when we decided whether to let The Ultimate Fighter come on after Monday Night Raw. They had the right to approve or decline any programming that followed them..."I told [the WWE], they better not let [the UFC] on ... Yeah, I'm the a--hole that almost turned it down...You should be afraid of anything that will take away from your pay-per-view dollar. They are going to reach into your pocket, rip it open, and all those dollars are going to flow right there.

McMahon's uncharacteristic display of mercy saved the UFC. The Ultimate Fighter, as chronicled in my book Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting, became an instant success and the promotion that had been sucking millions out of Fertitta's epically large wallet was suddenly breaking even. As the wrestling business struggled, the UFC thrived. Today, the UFC does well without RAW as a lead in-but in 2005 it made all the difference, all thanks to the largess of one Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

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