Cain Velasquez (left) and Junior Dos Santos will battle Saturday in prime time on Fox. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
The Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts will take a monumental leap on Saturday when the world's leading promotion debuts its first live event on Fox.
However, it wasn't always NFL lead-in promos and mainstream press coverage.
The sport's battle to get on television has had many rounds during the last decade. MMA fought its way onto cable for the first time in 2002, but wouldn't have a regular presence there until 2005.
And as the UFC took on and eventually dominated the pay-per-view market, waiting its turn for the network deal it wanted, other promotions pushed the sport onto mainstream television with mixed results.
It took more than a few steps (and stumbles), not to mention some gutsy TV executives, to get the UFC to its landmark seven-year deal with Fox Sports Media Group, home of the Super Bowl and NASCAR. SI.com takes a look at the notable milestones that helped get it there.
June 25, 2002: Lawler blasts Berger on FSN
Milestone: First fight on cable television
Platform: Fox Sports Network, availability unknown
There was no time to secure to an arena. There was barely enough time to print off a poster and tickets, but the six-fight UFC 37.5 (named such because UFC 37 and 38 had already been scheduled and advertised) was thrown together at break-neck speed when FOX Sports Net offered Zuffa LLC, the new owners of the UFC, an opportunity to air one fight during an episode of its popular talk show, The Best Damn Sports Show, Period!, in the summer of 2002.
The event, held three days earlier in a carpeted Bellagio Hotel ballroom with no more than 2,000 spectators on hand, was headlined by a No. 1 contenders' bout between light heavyweights Chuck Liddell and Vitor Belfort. That fight was saved for a later pay-per-view, and with FSN executives squeamish about blood and punches to a grounded fighter, a striking-heavy affair between welterweights Robbie Lawler and Steve Berger was selected form the five remaining bouts. Lawler finished Berger neatly with a looping right hook and swift follow-up shots 25 seconds into the second round.
It was the most substantial TV exposure Zuffa had been able to land since purchasing the UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group for $2 million in January 2001.
Joe Rogan, persuaded by UFC President Dana White to color-commentate for the first time after watching the comedian gush about MMA on The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, remembers "the same feeling" for UFC 37.5 as Saturday's historical event.
"They were so excited it was going to get some mainstream exposure," said Rogan. "You have to remember this was pre-TUF, pre-bump. We were all fans ourselves, we all believed in it, but there was a lot of excitement that people were finally going to get to see this."
Ratings for the episode were never announced, though they were strong enough to merit two one-hour taped UFC specials later that summer before the relationship fizzled.
Jan. 17, 2005: The Ultimate Fighter Debuts
Milestone: First weekly series to host fights on cable
Ratings: 1.667 million viewers
Platform: Spike TV, 90 million homes
Spike TV President Kevin Kay remembers his reaction to MMA when he first watched it in 2004.
"I thought it was interesting, but I didn't know what to do with it," said Kay, who turned away UFC owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White on a few occasions as they made the rounds trying to sell live fights to all of the networks.
But on their third or fourth visit, Fertitta and White brought Pilgrim Films and Television producer Craig Piligian with them to pitch a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter.
"Sixteen guys living in a house, vying for a six-figure contract in the UFC," said Kay. "I was like, 'There you go. That's the idea. That we can do because that will help the audience understand what this sport is about…that it wasn't just about two guys in a cage, trying to beat the hell out of each other."
In June 2004, Spike and Zuffa announced a partnership to produce and broadcast the new series. Already $40 million in the hole and getting little traction with its pay-per-view sales, Zuffa agreed to pay for production costs in exchange for the precious airtime.
Piligian's team, Zuffa and Spike completed casting on the fly and fleshed out the concept on set during a 50-day shoot that summer in Las Vegas with the aim to get it on air before NBC aired The Contender, a similar competition series revolving around pro boxers.
UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, who coached a first-season team opposite Chuck Liddell, said White told him the show needed a .08 household share to be considered a success. With a strong lead-in from the WWE, the first episode cleared a 1.42 share with 1.667 million viewers, steadily climbing to over 2 million by its fifth episode.
That April, The Ultimate Fighter season finale was held at the 2,500-seat Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus in Las Vegas. UFC employees gave away tickets and still couldn't fill the room – a practice that would soon become a thing of the past.
Anchored by a shared three-round beating between finalists Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar, the live event netted 2.6 million viewers – the highest ratings ever for a fight on cable television at the time. Spike renewed for a second season on-site following the event, adding to the deal pre-taped and more live fight programming, including four UFC Fight Night events a year, which promptly began airing that July.
The second season of The Ultimate Fighter debuted to 2.1 million viewers and Zuffa began to grow exponentially in all areas, from live-event attendance to media coverage. Mostly importantly, its pay-per-view revenues steadily climbed for the next five years.
During its Spike TV tenure, the UFC drew its highest live-event ratings ever in 2006 for Shamrock-Ortiz III (4.2 million viewers with a 5.7 million peak during the final fight) and earned its highest event ratings to date with a re-play of UFC 75 from London, England (4.7 million viewers with a 5.9 million peak for the Dan Henderson-Quinton "Rampage" Jackson championship bout).
On Dec. 3, Spike will air The Ultimate Fighter 14 live finale, the culmination of a seven-and-a-half year relationship with the promotion. As part of its new seven-year deal with Fox, Zuffa will move a re-vamped Ultimate Fighter to FX next spring.
Sept. 14, 2007: HDNet Launches Inside MMA
Milestone: First weekly MMA news show on cable
Platform: HDNet, 26 million homes
Of all the fans lured in by MMA's boom in the mid-2000s, billionaire sports zealot Mark Cuban had the biggest bankroll to do something about it. Searching for new content to broaden his men's interest cable channel, HDNet, the forward-thinking Cuban began airing World Extreme Cagefighting events from Lemoore, Calif., in January 2004 – one year before The Ultimate Fighter hit the airwaves.
In 2007, the Dallas Mavericks owner enlisted UFC veteran Guy Mezger and HDNet Fights CEO Andrew Simon to produce the network's own MMA events. After two shows, Simon said the team quickly realized HDNet would prosper more as broadcaster and not promoter. Cuban also eyed another void.
"There were no news sources on TV that played highlights, discussed fights and showcased the sport's personalities," said Cuban via email. "I saw the opportunity and created 'Inside MMA.'"
On Mezger's urging, dynamic former UFC heavyweight champion Bas Rutten was hired alongside FSN and NBC announcer Kenny Rice to lead a rotating three-person panel through discussions about the latest matchups, fighters, and pressing hot topics. The weekly half-hour show quickly expanded to an hour, while guests included champion fighters, celebrity fans of the sport, promoters and prominent journalists.
Celebrating its 200th episode on Sept. 16 and a switch to a live format on Oct. 17, Inside MMA has tackled everything from steroid and testosterone abuse to contract disputes to promotional buyouts. The show has also shown highlights from hundreds of regional shows around the world, all with the aim to boost awareness and educate its viewers, young and old.
"It's a light show. I just shoot from the hip," said co-host Rutten. "The way we present it, a lot of parents are watching it with their kids. You'd be surprised how much fan mail we get from kids."
Most importantly, Inside MMA – a precursor to ESPN's MMA Live and other news shows that followed – gave MMA the same respect, serious reporting and consistent exposure afforded any other legitimate sport.
May 31, 2008: Slice-Thompson Go Primetime
Milestone: First live event on broadcast television
Ratings: 4.3 million viewers, 6.51 million peak for Slice-Thompson bout
Platform: CBS, 115 million homes
In 2006, Showtime Sports VP Ken Hershman saw value for the premium pay channel's subscribers in adding MMA to its diverse programming. He met with Pro Elite, a forming Los Angeles-based promotion, led by co-founder Douglas DeLuca, a co-executive producer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, and decided to give it a shot.
Pro Elite -- which conglomerated four existing promotions, announced "alliances" with a few others and notoriously added veteran boxing promoter Gary Shaw to its leadership team all in a the span of a few months -- signed into a multi-year deal with Showtime (which also purchased 20 percent of the company) under the Elite Xtreme Combat and ShoXC brands. Showtime aired its first EliteXC event in February 2007.
Hershman also reached out to Showtime's sister broadcast network, CBS, which had already met with the UFC on a few occasions, but hadn't found the promotion's asking price economically beneficial. Kelly Kahl, the network's senior executive VP of primetime, convinced CBS executives to test-run a Saturday night live EliteXC event.
The UFC had bought its long-time rival, Pride Fighting Championships in March 2007 and already locked up most of the Japanese promotion's best talent, so EliteXC's options were somewhat limited for its main attraction. So, the organization led with its biggest draw at the time. Ironically, that was a Bahamian-born, 2-0 fighter dubbed Kimbo Slice, who'd achieved staggering Internet superstardom streaming his bare-knuckled, backyard fights in Miami.
The enigmatic Slice, whose real name is Kevin Ferguson, did as well as could be expected for a 34-year-old brawler with limited training, swinging for the fences before getting pinned underneath behemoth Brit James Thompson. When Thompson faded enough, Slice mustered up a controversial third-round stoppage via strikes. A top-caliber display of MMA it was not, but the staggering 6.51 million who tuned in to watch the bearded Slice fueled two more live events on CBS before the promotion's messy demise in October 2008.
The UFC would also cash in on the Slice phenomenon, casting him on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2009. Slice again delivered, drawing the series' highest-ever ratings with 5.3 million viewers, which peaked at 6.1 million when Roy Nelson defeated Slice with punches in the second round.
November 7, 2009: Strikeforce Leads with Fedor
Milestone: Second promotion lands network deal
Ratings: 4.04 million viewers, 5.46 million peak for Emelianenko-Rogers bout
Platform: CBS, 115 million homes
Though EliteXC wouldn't survive past its 21st event, the ratings MMA had drawn were too good for Showtime and CBS to pass up. In late 2008, the two networks met again with the UFC, the start-up Bellator Fighting Championships and Strikeforce, a San Jose-based kickboxing promotion whose first MMA event had broken the U.S. attendance record with 18,265 spectators in 2006.
In February 2009, and with Showtime's blessing, Strikeforce co-owner Scott Coker acquired Pro Elite's most coveted fighter contracts, as well licensing rights for its EliteXC name and library footage for $3 million. Showtime dissolved its broadcast deal with Pro Elite and replaced it with a three-year agreement with Strikeforce.
CBS activated its option to broadcast Strikeforce events shortly after the promotion signed Fedor Emelianenko, the world's No. 1 heavyweight and a holdout from Pride Fighting Championships, which had never initiated a formal contract with its most popular champion. The UFC attempted to sign Emelianenko in August 2009, but wouldn't concede to co-promoting events with the fighter's management group, M-1 Global, that Emelianenko headlined. Strikeforce, however, was amiable to M-1 Global's terms, and a deal was inked between the two promotions (M-1 later stated Emelianenko had signed directly with Showtime as part of the agreement).
Emelianenko, unbeaten in nearly a decade, faced Brett Rogers, a part-time tire salesman from Minnesota, who'd strung together ten consecutive victories, punctuated by a brutal 22-second knockout of former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski five months earlier. Rogers grounded and cut Emelianenko in the first round, but the Russian connected with an overhand right, dropping Rogers midway through the second round for the finish.
CBS would air two more Strikeforce events to less-impressive ratings, with the latter ending in an in-cage, post-fight brawl between camps. CBS hasn't revisited MMA since and Zuffa purchased Strikeforce for a reported $40 million in March 2011.
-- Loretta Hunt