UFC President Dana White created headlines in 2010 when he claimed that his company, the leading promoter of mixed martial arts, was more popular than the NFL.
While some may have considered White’s comments sensationalist, he was right.
Unlike most US-based sports, UFC’s has a global audience and boasts legions of fans across several continents.
Given the NFL’s limited expansion outside the US – there are a handful of matches held each year in the UK – America’s most ‘popular’ sport could learn a lot from White’s project.
The UFC has offices in Toronto, London and Beijing, which bring live MMA events featuring the top fighters to five continents. The next event on the hectic UFC calendar takes place in Abu Dhabi this month, featuring 20 fighters from around the globe.
Despite the sport’s rapid rise, it has been a fight in itself for the UFC to achieve this growth.
New York state assemblyman Bob Reilly once described MMA as ‘violent and not worthy of our society’, and this image of uncontrolled violence has proved the biggest hurdle that the UFC had to overcome in its rise to prominence.
The battle still continues to a lesser extent today, as the sport remains illegal in the key state of New York.
MMA’s humble beginnings
The UFC was launched in 1993 but struggled to gain traction from mainstream media, as it shared Reilly’s opinion that MMA was a barbaric sport whose performers’ sole intention was to maim their opponent.
The reason for this negative portrayal in the media may be traced to the sport’s origins in ancient Greece; a society renowned for using brutal arena sports to maintain harmony among its blood-thirsty population. The Greek Olympic sport of pankration - meaning ‘all powers’ - allowed fighters to use a blend of fighting styles, though biting and eye gouging were strictly prohibited.
MMA, as we see it in UFC events today, evolved directly from a Brazilian combat sport known as vale tudo, Portuguese for ‘anything goes’, which was popular in the 1920s.
Reduced injury risk
In 2006, John Hopkins University commissioned a study that compared the level of danger for athletes in boxing and MMA. The study concluded that that there was 'a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking’, due to the reduced focus on attacking the head.
MMA fighters are experts in many forms of martial arts including karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling, some of which place far more importance on endurance, flexibility and agility than strength.
According to a study from The British Journal of Sports Medicine, only 28 per cent of MMA bouts ended with a blow to the head, as most fights are decided by a tactical wrestling match where one opponent forces the other into submission.
Garry Cook, former CEO of Manchester City Football Club who was brought in by the UFC to drive their global expansion in the EMEA market, goes further in suggesting that MMA is actually a thinking person’s sport.
“It is a fact that most of the UFC’s athletes have never been in a fight outside of the octagon (the UFC ring)," Cook told Al Jazeeea. "In our sport, the elite athletes use terms such as ‘strategic combat’ and ‘chess’ to describe mixed martial arts.”
It is a fact that most of the UFC’s athletes have never been in a fight outside of the octagon (the UFC ring)
In UFC’s history, there have been 17 recorded fatalities, none of them taking place at the organisation's sanctioned events. This figure would work out as average annual mortality rate in boxing (129 deaths since 1960).
Recently, rugby union introduced new ‘safety precautions’ that require a player who has lost consciousness during a match to miss three weeks of competition.
Compare this to Jon Jones who, in 2011, won the light heavyweight UFC championship and injured his hand in the process. The 23-year-old was barred from competition for three months until doctors were satisfied that the injury had healed, which demonstrates the increased importance the UFC places on its athletes’ safety compared to many other more established contact sports.
Record profit margins
By 2006, the UFC had already broken the pay-per-view industry's all-time records for a single year of business, generating over $200m in revenue, surpassing WWE and boxing.
As interest in the UFC continued to grow, the reality TV series Ultimate Fighter was launched where athletes could learn more about their favourite fighters and their personalities outside the octagon.
The show’s success meant the UFC no longer needed to rely on PPV income as Fox Sports bought the programming in a $700m, seven-year deal.
Cook explained that the UFC’s offering outside the ring was one of the most important factors in its rapid growth.
“It is not just about putting on just the fights and events, but about developing the brand as a whole. We now have one hundred UFC gyms around the world providing specific mixed martial arts training and plan to host a virtual world championships for the video-gaming community.
"These initiatives make it easier for the core audience to participate and feel more involved in UFC.”
Through the clever use of Facebook and Twitter, UFC fights were soon being marketed to homes as far as Britain and China on the internet with a level of success that no other sports league has been able to replicate. This year the UFC is celebrating its 21st year and MMA’s popularity is at an all time high.
If the current trend of popularity for MMA keeps continuing, we may just see New York’s legions of fans have their calls answered with a legalised UFC bout at the sporting Mecca that is Madison Square Garden.
**A previous version of this article suggested "in UFC’s history, there have been 17 recorded fatalities". We are pleased to clarify that no fighters have died during UFC events.