In January 2005, most of the MMA world, from its fighters to vendors, had no idea that the sport's immediate future hung in the balance with the debut of
Zuffa LLC, the company formed in 2001 by billionaire brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to promote the Ultimate Fighting Championship after purchasing it from Semaphore Entertainment Group for $2 million, hadn't come near to returning on its investment.
A million-dollar magazine campaign into 2002 featuring spokeswoman Carmen Electra hadn't made a dent, while millions more had been poured into rebranding the promotion in the sports market and beefing up its live-show experience. Outside of the sporadic spectacle-or-sport features piece, the UFC had only been able to muster a few minutes of cable airtime on the Fox Sports Network (with a taped fight) in June 2002.
Zuffa was very good at hiding its business missteps and early failures, but the figures didn't lie. In four years, the new UFC had promoted 21 pay-per-view events -- 19 of them back on major platforms -- but only three had managed to break past 100,000 buys.
UFC president Dana White would later be quoted as saying that the company had gone $40 million in the hole and that
The marriage between floundering fight promotion and fledgling cable network came together because they were either desperate or daring enough give it one roll of the dice together.
"There were people at MTV Networks [also in the Viacom family] that thought we were crazy," said Spike TV president Kevin Kay, who greenlit the reality series in June 2004. "There was trepidation coming from every corner. But we were the perfect platform because we were just starting out. We we're known for taking risks. I wanted something that fit into the male 18-34 demographic and this seemed to be it."
With no marketing on the cable network's end (they had no inventory to do it),
Kay said there was no "magic number" the show had to surpass to keep its place on the channel. The TV executive was looking for growth, which he got in spades as the episodes aired one week after another. By its fifth episode, the show drew in two million viewers and ended its regular season with a 1.6 average share.
The big payoff or bust would the live finale, held on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus in the 2,500-seat Cox Pavilion. The card consisted of the 16 contestants, with the two finalist matches in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions and a bonus headliner between Ken Shamrock and Rich Franklin. Zuffa quietly passed out free tickets to fill the venue, but the crowd was enthusiastic.
Like many others, Kay said he realized he was onto a "gold mine" during the light heavyweight showdown between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, as the two battered each other to bloody pulps back-and-forth for three electric rounds. During the 15-minute whirlwind, Kay surveyed the room. Fans were stomping their feet on the bleachers between rounds, then stood up again when the pair reconvened in the octagon.
At one point, Kay noticed a cluster of excited fans standing behind him, many of them with their heads down in the cell phones.
"I turned around to ask them what they were doing and they told me they were texting their friends to turn on Spike," Kay said.
Music to a TV executive's ears.
Afterward, Kay motioned to Fertitta that it was time to talk and they drifted outside. Standing on the sloped loading-dock entranceway behind the arena next to a production truck, Kay, the Fertitta brothers, and then Spike senior vice president Jim Burn hammered out a handshake deal for multiple seasons, additional live fight nights, and library programming.
"Essentially, they'd paid for the production and we'd split the inventory," Kay said. "What we wanted going forward, obviously, was to own all the inventory and pay a licensing fee for the product."
Kay said Spike TV also assumed all commercial revenue from that point forward.
For the 16 fighters who'd dropped their lives to shoot an experimental reality show for 50 isolated days in Las Vegas, the impact was virtually immediate. Griffin, the first-season winner, received the type of welcome previously reserved for the salty veterans like Couture, Liddell, and Tito Ortiz, when he walked into the New Jersey arena for his first post-show pay-per-view fight. Bonnar, the season-one runner-up, said a fan bought a 10-pack of disposable cameras just to get one shot with him when he walked into a local Best Buy. Other season one veterans, including winner Diego Sanchez, runner-up Kenny Florian and Josh Koscheck, were to parlay their newfound fame into substantial careers in the UFC afterward.
With a new deal hashed out quickly, Spike broadcasted its second live UFC event that August, the Ultimate Fight Night (later rebranded as UFC Fight Night).
Season two of
Rolling into season three, Zuffa was finally able to lock down bitter rivals Ken Shamrock and Ortiz as coaches, which would garner the show its biggest ratings yet. Finding fighters to fill the 16 slots was also no longer a problem. Hundreds showed up to advertised auditions for each new season.
Finding just the right combination cast was still paramount and taken very seriously. The fighter pool had drastically improved, many inspired to audition for the show after seeing how its veterans could parlay their appearances into healthy careers.
"You had the capability in doing this television show, that someone's life was going to change," said Andrea Richter, the show's co-executive producer for the first 10 seasons and the set's
Dreams did come true for some. Season two winner Rashad Evans, a college wrestler with five pro fights under his belt, had worked in a mental hospital, among other occupations, prior to getting discovered. Evans would be one of a handful of
Debates over fighter casting between Spike, Zuffa and Pilgrim continued each season, as the schedule was tweaked and trimmed down to 30-day shoots. Richter said the casting process could best be described as "push and pull." Some good fighters got away, later to be discovered in the UFC anyway, while gambles were taken on novice competitors, like season seven winner Amir Sadollah, who made it onto the show without a single pro fight under his belt. Others were sidelined by the stringent medical examinations and background checks (anyone with a criminal record was promptly exorcized for legal reasons).
"There were times we'd argue about coaches," Kay said. "There were many times that Dana and I got on the phone and he'd say, 'You're crazy! I know this guy. This guy's going to be a great coach,' and I'd say, 'No, he's not. Nobody's going to watch him on TV.' I'd ask Dana how to promote the guy and he'd always come back with a good line because that's what he's good at. He's a tremendous promoter. Nine times out of 10 he convinced me."
Some coaches exceeded expectations, while others fell short.
"I think that Tito was an amazing coach, one of the best I'd ever seen," said Richter. "He came up with really innovative ways to help and teach his guys. He was very supportive and in tune with his team. He was a really good leader, which I think was a shock for most people, but that was all genuine -- no prodding or editing on our parts."
Richter acknowledges that Ortiz's rival coach, Ken Shamrock, wasn't received as well by his fighters.
"You either embraced the situation or you didn't and it was very apparent when coaches couldn't get into the situation and couldn't bond and I think that, unfortunately, was Ken's demise," she said.
Franklin, a former Ohio high school math teacher who had to topple middleweight champion Evan Tanner to earn his slot on the show, said his coaching appearances on season two and as a late replacement for Ortiz in the 11th season were blessings, but still came with great responsibility.
"If I had missed that first opportunity on season two, I wouldn't be as popular a fighter as I am today. It would have been a swing and a miss," Franklin said. "But I really went into the show with a general concern for my fighters. I wanted them to leave better fighters than when they arrived, but it was very difficult juggling the training, teaching, and preparing them for fights on a couple days' notice at times."
Like Franklin, the fighters, usually young men in their early to mid 20s, were Richter's biggest concern.
With no television, radio, books, video games, phone texting or emails to keep them occupied in their downtime at the fighter house, Richter said they would do all sorts of random things to pass the time.
Richter remembers being called to the season-five set one night when the contestants set fire to a palm-frothed gazebo in the pool area.
"They were trying to make a bomb," said Richter, describing the scene that never made the show's final cut. "The were setting things on fire, boys being boys, so we were watching it with fire extinguishers in hand, waiting, while they put random things in soda bottles, set them on fire and threw them the pool. They finally got something lit pretty well and it caught the thatched roof on fire."
Flare-ups between agitated competitors were also commonplace in the house, Richter said.
"We came up with a pretty standard protocol for that quickly, where we'd talk to the fighters about it at the top of each season. Dana was amazing at backing me up on this and many fighters stepped up as mediators and buffers to help diffuse situations. We rarely had to intervene."
Most fighters were levelheaded and generally compliant with the show's strict regiment, she said.
"I came in as an adult and treated them as adults," Richter said. "As a female, I think we were able to avoid some pissing matches, especially in the first few season. They tended more to listen, because I could serve as their mother, sister, whoever they needed to talk to in that moment."
Richter's other focus was to make sure fighters stayed for the duration of the show, a task that got harder as the days wore on. Inevitably, the pressure of being told what to do day in and out got to some. It never got to the point where a professional had to be brought in, but there were times that concerned her.
For example, Ed Herman, a model contestant on the show's third season, pulled in plants from around the property and built a jungle in his room the last week of the show.
"There were those times where'd you go and talk a fighter off a ledge and try and keep him focused on the goal," Richter said. "I'd tell them there was only a few days left, that this would be massive for their careers, things that would get their heads back in the game."
Richter said she and her staff encouraged the fighter to be themselves, whatever that may be, but to stay engaged and open to the process. Behavior produced for the sake of camera-time was easy to spot, she said, and remained on the cutting-room floor.
"Some fighters would come into casting with the greatest personalities and they'd come on to the show and become worried about what this or that person was going to think of them," she said. "You can't do that on a reality show and hope to be remembered. There are fighters from season one that you'll never remember and then there are fighters who came and let it all hang out and were who they were, like Josh Koscheck. Love him or hate him, you wanted to watch him and you did."
Richter left the show on a high note following the series' record-breaking 10th season with Kimbo Slice, touting episodes that drew upwards of five million viewers. Now working on her latest TV show in New York, Richter said her only disappointment is that some storylines from the show never made it to air, but such is that reality of reality programming.
"You look at many cable networks and they're defined by their hits," Kay said. "Comedy Central has
Kay hopes to keep that streak running with Viacom's latest acquisition, Bellator Fighting Championships, which begins airing live tournament-style fights each week on Spike in 2013.
"The proof of what we've done is now [the UFC] will go on hopefully be successful in its next venue and we will build the next one, because the space is still very vibrant for [the] 18-49 [demographic]," said Kay. "Kids have grown up understanding all the disciplines of MMA and become fans for life. They'll continue to watch good fights, wherever they are."
The UFC and Spike TV will conclude their historic seven-year ride together on Saturday with