Early days of the UFC: Robert Meyrowitz, SEG and the law

Due to the deal with Fox, we are also seeing articles about what Zuffa has done for the UFC and the sport in general. It's undeniable that Zuffa have done many great things and steadily brought MMA into the mainstream. The Ultimate Fighter is and was a big hit. Top level sponsors have taken notice and the standards of fights have gone up.

However, not much has been done about what happened with the UFC before Zuffa took control. Most of the time, we just hear things like the following:

"When we first bought the company, the only thing we ended up buying was the name, ... This guy had stripped it down and sold everything away. The company was in a lot of trouble. Basically, they were on their last show."


"They were running from athletic commissions, ... Senator John McCain actually went after them. Instead of working with him, (Meyrowitz) ran from him. But if it wasn't for McCain it wouldn't be the sport that it is today."

Surely it can't have all been bad?

This is the first in a series of posts that will take a look at what happened during the SEG-era of the UFC. I'll be focusing on some of the key figures, the achievements and things as problems with sanctioning. This particular post is about the influence of Robert Meyrowitz and the battle for regulation.



Before the UFC

Meyrowitz was involved with entertainment and radio. The most notable was a syndicated radio show with a bizarre name - 'The King Biscuit Flower Hour' (I'm a Brit and have never heard of this before I did the research. Maybe some of the Americans on here know about it?), which he founded. It featured performances from various rock artists. In 1992, he sold his interest and it began selling records of archived material. It was also around that time that it ceased original programming and went into a long repeat run.

Other than that, he has been involved with concerts and some TV programming, which you can find out more about by reading this short bio.

His pay-per-view television company - Semaphore Entertainment Group - wasn't the largest, but it was considered by some to be a pioneer. I was interested why some had this opinion. After doing some research, I came to the conclusion that it was only a pioneer in the art of promoting bizarre events, such as the Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors. If anyone knows anything else about other SEG programming, please leave a comment.

War of the Worlds

'War of the Worlds' was the name Art Davie thought up for the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu vehicle that eventually became the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

WOW Promotions (basically Davie and Rorion Gracie) needed a television partner to maximise attention. HBO, Showtime and Meyrowitz's SEG were approached, but Meyrowitz was the only one who accepted. I feel that this is a crucial point in the development of Mixed Martial Arts. Just think what might have happened if Meyrowitz hadn't followed the SEG business model of promoting anything that was different. It might have been years before the sport got any television coverage. That could have meant the development of fighters would have been much slower and we might not have the sort of events that we enjoy today.

Other developments

If you watch some DVDs of the early UFCs, you'll note the frequent adverts for Compuserve. Whatever you think about that company, it demonstrated that Meyrowitz's UFC was willing to embrace the power of the internet (Ultimate Ultimate '95 was streamed online). There was also information about the UFC on SEG's own site.

Of course, I should also mention, one of the early internet radio stations, which went from 1999 to 2001. This was another Robert Meyrowitz creation and was a great idea at the time. It meant more coverage of the sport - especially during the 'dark days' when it was banned from television. Eddie Goldman, from what I could tell, was the main presenter and often interviewed major MMA personalities from that era.

Regulation/sanctioning woes

This is where it gets interesting.

The following gives you an idea of what was going on during the 'dark days':

"In the field of violent spectacle, Robert Meyrowitz, president and CEO of SEG Sports, is the brainchild (and Executive Producer) behind the regularly scheduled Ultimate Fighting Championships where "almost anything goes — elbow chops, head butts, knees to the groin (only eye gouging and biting are frowned upon)." PLUMMER, p. 86 Meyrowitz, noted Forbes, in his earlier years, was "one of the leading radio impresarios in the United States, supplying hundreds of stations with canned programs." NEWCOMB, p. 328 His new company markets brutal fighting on pay-per-TV, in 1995 reaching 300,000 American homes for $24.95 per showing. By then, however, his bouts were formally banned in three states — Kansas, Ohio, and South Carolina. Senator John McCain of Arizona joined many protesters, saying that he objected to the UFC on "a moral level ... It embodies the decay of American society. And I'm opposed because of risk to the health of the combatants." PLUMMER, p. 86 By 1998, because of continued angry nation-wide condemnation, Meyrowitz's promotions were formally banned on many pay-per-view networks, including Cablevision Systems, InterMedia Partners, CI, TIme-Warner, Adelphia, Jones Intercable, and Request."

There's a lot more to it than the above though.

It's worth starting the timeline of legal events on January 15th, 1997, when a New York Times article was published about MMA sanctioning:

"A little more than a year ago, city and state officials found a certain style of fighting competition so offensive that they blocked its promoters from holding a match in New York City. Human cockfights, they called it. Blood sport.

But the competition, known as ultimate or extreme fighting, is back, and this time its practitioners are protected by more than just mouth guards. While at least two states have banned the sport as too brutal and others have debated similar measures, New York has become the first state in the nation to sanction it legally. The first matches are to be held in Niagara Falls next month and in Manhattan in March."

Some of you who are new to MMA might be thinking 'isn't MMA illegal in New York at the moment?'. Well, it's true that it isn't at this point in time, but the fact remains that while Robert Meyrowitz was running the UFC, MMA got sanctioned for a brief time in New York. This is something that Zuffa-era UFC hasn't achieved.

However, the problem was that times change and so do the minds of politicians. Concerns over fighter safety had still not been addressed and the marketing of the product was not helping at all. This New York Times article from 28/01/1997 tells us that the sanctioning decision had (sort of) been reversed and now heavy restrictions were made on fights. This decision was obviously going to be contested as it was felt that the rules would make the fights dull and effectively "kill it" (the words of David Meyrowitz, Robert's brother and the chosen lawyer).

During the court proceedings, John McCarthy was even brought in to provide evidence on safety. You could say there was a conflict of interest as he is supposed to be an independent official with no ties to the UFC, but you could also say he was defending the sport and not one of it's organisations.

A 111 page document was produced, which detailed these restrictions. They included the wearing of headgear and gloves (I accept the latter is in place, but I don't know the exact nature of the gloves that were specificed at the time) and the banning of chokes and certain punches and kicks. The following is from this USA Today article:

"Chokes are a crucial part of the tactics, says Mark The Hammer Coleman, a former Olympic wrestler and one of Friday's competitors. It won't be a real full-contact martial arts competition if they force us to wear gloves like boxers."

Anyway, the restrictions weren't accepted and Meyrowitz's battle had failed. He had to move his product somewhere else. UFC 12 ended up taking place in Dothan, Alabama instead of Niagra Falls Convention and Civic Center in New York. This was a bitter blow for Meyrowitz and would have had financial and PR effects.

My personal favourite moment about this whole timeline of events might have been the sudden and strange change of heart from the politicians, but it ended up being the biased opinion of one New York Times journalist after the modified UFC 12 event had taken place:

"Blood spilled in all but two of the nine bouts, as fighters used nearly any tactic to gain an advantage in an event that has been likened to human cockfighting. One 323-pound fighter spent much of his match atop his 215-pound opponent, battering the smaller man's face with his knees and fists for almost 10 minutes, until a referee finally stopped the bloody fight."

So, this journalist's opinion of an entire sport is based on one fight (I think it was Scott Ferrozzo vs Jim Mullen). What an incredible lack of research!

After the sale

According to the Australian Daily Telegraph, the UFC and it's assets was sold by SEG to Zuffa for $2m (US). So, even though the organisation was apparently buried in debt, it was still worth that much to someone. I've used that website because the article contains a quote from Dana White which says Meyrowitz and SEG were just in it for a 'quick buck'. You could understand that argument as it was marketed as a unique spectacle (PT Barnum-style). However, the battles with the courts and lawmakers should prove that Meyrowitz was in it for the long haul.

After that, nothing much happened. Eyada had died and the UFC had been bought. I have no idea what's happened to SEG. The URL doesn't go to any website. Can anyone on here help me with that?

Now he seems to be a Director of Rudder Capital and doesn't do much else.

Of course, he did make one brief return to the world of MMA. YAMMA Pit Fighting was billed as innovative, but it wasn't in any great way. It failed after one show. If you don't know about it, you might find this useful.

Summary and Conclusion

I think it's completely wrong to ignore what Robert Meyrowitz did.

It's true, he did make some poor decisions that were mainly to do with marketing. If he got that right the legal troubles might never have surfaced and he might not have needed to sell the UFC as more investment could have come in.

However, it's worth noting that he was one of the first people to realise the UFC could be a popular commodity. He was in control when MMA was briefly sanctioned in New York. He made several attempts to assure people that it isn't something that should be banned. Meyrowitz also hired people like John Perretti (who I will cover in another post) who helped to create some early stars in the organisation.

Robert Meyrowitz certainly didn't do everything right, but he doesn't deserve to be erased from MMA history or criticised all the time.

So, what do you think?

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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