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15 Years of UFC: From Underground to Mainstream?

The place: a dusty garage in a non-descriptive alley in Venice, California. The time: a warm spring afternoon in 1994. A good friend invited me to a kickboxing training session held by his trainer Fernando. By his name you would imagine a scrappy Hispanic fighter, while in fact Fernando was a tall, lanky fellow with clean-cut features who trained kickboxers in the garage of his Japanese chiropractor.

During practice Fernando learned of my wrestling and Judo background, so we started messing around with grappling moves. I was surprised to find out that he actually knew a thing or two about grappling, since I had never met a kickboxer who could grapple. Usually strikers looked down to grappling, while grapplers couldn’t strike to save their lives. The grappling and the stand-up fighting worlds were, at that point, completely separated. Most people were either strikers or grapplers and there was a deep divide and a fierce rivalry between the two sides.

After the training session, Fernando approached me and handed me a VHS tape. For those from the Ipod generation who don’t know what VHS is, imagine a bulky plastic brick with a tendency to un-spool. With a secretive air, Fernando told me what he had recorded on that tape: a no-holds-barred, open-weight, bare-knuckle, full-contact fighting tournament where EVERYTHING was allowed. Needless to say, I did not believe him. Bare-fisted strikes? Elbows and knees? Throws, chokes and arm-bars? Even head-butts? No way. Fernando was bullshitting me for sure. However, there was definite anticipation that night when I popped the tape in the VCR (a pre-historical machine with a built-in clock always blinking 12:00 a.m. and with a penchant for chewing up tapes). When the fuzzy images started rolling before my eyes I realized, with a cringe, that Fernando had not been joking. That was my introduction to UFC 1 and the beginning of the journey that would eventually lead to triple-digits UFCs and a fast-growing mainstream sport called Mixed Martial Arts.

The rules back then were simple: there were no rules other than no biting and no eye-gouging. As I watched the fights with a mix of excitement and anxiety, I wondered what fighting style would prove to be superior. Boxing or wrestling? Karate or Jiu Jitsu? Who would win this crazy and bloody tournament? In the end it was a skinny Brazilian guy who couldn’t strike and had no takedown or throwing skills whatsoever. He did excel in one thing though; he could choke you unconscious or break your arm as soon as he hit the ground. I must admit that, unlike the scores of instant Royce Gracie fans, I was a little skeptical. Chokes and arm-bars were familiar stuff to me. What would have happened if someone mastered the same submission techniques, but also had striking and grappling chops? Was there anyone out there who could truly do it all? Was this guy really the best fighter in the world? It didn’t matter. I was hooked and I wanted to see more! So I started following every UFC tournament from then on and never stopped watching.

What followed was a decade and a half of formidable fights, epic battles and fierce rivalries, the introduction of rules, regulations and weight classes, the birth of iconic fighters, but also controversy, bans and the sport being driven off cable TV. After the dark underground years there was the rebirth, more historical fights and new fighting heroes being born. The dawn of a new combat sport called MMA that took the world by storm.  Or did it?

June 13, 2009, fifteen years after that fateful spring afternoon in ‘94, I found myself in my brother’s basement in Berlin, Germany, watching UFC 99, the very first UFC event ever held in that country. So how was UFC 99 as seen on German TV? First of all, there wasn’t much press leading up to the event in mainstream media other than a few newspaper articles about how the sport is deemed brutal and controversial. That was such a throwback! What had long been accepted as a mainstream sport in the U.S. (due to the UFC’s massive marketing efforts) was still scrutinized and frowned-upon in other countries. UFC fighters gave interviews explaining how they were not violent street-thugs, but professional athletes, some even decorated Olympic wrestlers. I have memories of Don Frye doing just that, some fifteen years earlier. Rich Franklin was paraded around German TV as the mild-mannered, clean-faced former teacher with a friendly smile in an effort to give MMA a clean, positive image. It suddenly dawned on me that the path to mainstream acceptance for MMA is just beginning in the rest of the world.

UFC 99 aired free of charge on a sports channel. The event was tape-delayed in order to accommodate massive amounts of commercials during the course of the night. The advertising breaks between rounds were unusually long, which caused UFC 99’s run time to grow disproportionately long. The main event, Franklin-Silva, thus aired around 2:30 a.m., hardly prime time by any standards, indicating that the network had deemed the event marginally relevant. At such late hour, the commercials airing between rounds were mostly erotic infomercials for 1-900 hotlines and adult websites. These videos were sexy and fairly explicit, so the casual (and sleepy) viewer was treated to abrupt cuts between semi-naked hotties groaning in German and Wanderlei Silva’s puffy face as he cage-hugged Rich Franklin. The effect was jarring to say the least! I can’t imagine this being what Dana White had in mind when he put together UFC 99 for the German people. It was pretty surreal!

It’s been a long and wild ride since that warm spring afternoon in 1994. What was once a brutal showdown, designed to crown the best fighting style, is now a billion dollar business. MMA has taken giant steps towards public acceptance, but if one looks outside the U.S. borders it’s apparent that much work lies ahead for the UFC marketing team. Will we see Mixed Martial Arts as an Olympic sport one day? Only time will tell. Meanwhile it’s exciting to see the young athletes of today – and tomorrow’s champions – growing up kicking and punching as well as scoring double-leg takedowns and confidently locking in Omoplatas.

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