Ultimate Fighting Decade: A Look Back at the UFC’s Last Ten Years
For the MMA community, 2010-2019 represented the greatest decade in the sport’s brief but storied history. The sport’s premiere organization, the UFC, made tremendous strides in the mainstream acceptance of the sport. Finally, the image of fighters as barbaric savages began to fade and the public began to perceive them as legitimate athletes, no different than the foremost boxers or football players of the world. From signing lucrative television deals to implementing a dress code to initiating an anti-doping policy, each step forward was, in reality, a giant leap away from the misconceptions of years prior. The UFC had worked tirelessly to improve the sport’s image, and looking back as we approach 2020, it is abundantly clear that these efforts paid off.
To start, let’s examine the first major event of the decade – the UFC’s 2011 merger with WEC, subsequently bringing bantamweights, featherweights, and an abundance of skilled lightweights to the organization. The UFC traditionally had five weight classes (lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight). However, with two additional weight classes, fans were exposed to stars such as Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, Donald Cerrone, and a handful of other elite talents. For members of the hardcore community, it was clear that WEC was a fantastic promotion with must-see matchups. However, these fighters were always hidden in the shadow of the UFC. If a fighter did not compete in the UFC, it was hard for him to gain the respect he deserved. Now, however, the WEC had finally been legitimized, and the fact that many of the fighters experienced prolonged success adds to the gravity of the merger. The WEC fighters gained the respect they long deserved, and people like Aldo, Cerrone, and Faber will forever be remembered as some of the greatest talents of the modern era.
Later in 2011, it was announced that the UFC signed an extensive television deal with FOX Sports, therefore leaving Spike TV. If you were a fan of the sport at this time, there is no way you do not remember the bizarreness of seeing an ad for the UFC during Sunday football, with Fox sportscasters desperately trying to pronounce names like “Renan Barao” and “Junior Dos Santos” whenever a FOX card was being promoted. For the first time ever, the UFC was given a mainstream platform akin to other major sports. While the deal certainly had some stumbling blocks (the first ever broadcast saw Dos Santos defeat Cain Velasquez in just over a minute; and by the way, none of us miss the three hours of commercials in a five hour fight card), there is no denying that the deal ultimately led to more exposure and more mainstream acceptance of the sport.
In November of 2012, it was announced that Ronda Rousey had signed with the UFC and would be the first woman ever to compete for the organization. She made her debut just months later in February of 2013 at UFC 157, defeating Liz Carmouche with her patented first-round armbar after a frenetic battle. The message was immediately clear: the women are here to fight, and more importantly, here to stay. As I’m sure you know by now, Rousey would go on to become one of the most influential and popular figures in the sport, breaking pay-per-view (PPV) records and galvanizing the masses in support of women’s MMA. Her dominance at the time cannot be understated nor her influence exaggerated. Although she left the sport in a rather unfavorable manner, she ultimately ushered in the elite female talents we celebrate today.
Speaking of influential and impactful figures, just two months later a popular European prospect would make his debut on the prelims of a fight night. Irishman Conor McGregor defeated Marcus Brimage via strikes in just over a minute. His performance was sensational, and fans were immediately captivated by his brash persona and exciting fighting style. Months later, he defeated Max Holloway by dominant decision, injuring his knee in the process. Despite the year-long hiatus, he remained at the forefront of the collective community’s consciousness with his personality. When he returned, he wasted no time catapulting himself through the stratosphere, defeating Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier, and Dennis Siver via strikes before cementing himself as an elite champion with wins over Chad Mendes and, of course, the record-breaking knockout over Jose Aldo. The latter half of the decade saw McGregor engage in two wars with Nate Diaz, a destruction of Eddie Alvarez, a boxing super-fight with Floyd Mayweather, and a dominant defeat by Khabib Nurmagomedov. Whatever the next decade brings for Conor McGregor, one thing is for certain – he brought more new eyes to the sport with his genius self-promotion than perhaps any fighter that has ever existed.
In 2014, the UFC signed an exclusive apparel deal with sports brand Reebok, implementing a plethora of changes to the UFC’s operations. To start, fighters were no longer permitted to wear custom shorts (we all fondly remember Anderson’s black and yellow shorts and Cro Cop’s Croatian flag trunks, among others). Now, they had to wear traditional Reebok “fight kits,” which many critics have characterized as being utterly devoid of personality. Additionally, the initial launch featured numerous mistakes (i.e. Giblert Melendez), which further angered the public. However, perhaps most controversial was the prohibition of sponsors beyond Reebok. For many fighters, their primary income relied on sponsorships. Fighters like Demetrious Johnson, who frequently wore XBox apparel to the cage, was now making a significantly smaller amount of money with the Reebok deal. There were many vocal critics of the deal; in fact, this deal is what kickstarted the exodus of numerous fighters from the organization, like Rory Macdonald, Ryan Bader, and Gegard Mousasi. Fighters began realizing that much money was to be made beyond the confines of the octagon.
In a further effort to legitimize the sport, the UFC instituted its first comprehensive anti-doping program, partnering with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Whereas fighters were indeed previously drug tested, the responsibility fell upon the athletic commission. Now, however, a third-party would be responsible for carrying out anti-doping measures and enforcing punishments. Fighters are required to update USADA of their whereabouts at all times and are subject to random drug tests. First-time offenders are suspended for two years, second-time offenders for four, and third-time offenders are suspended for eight years. Reception regarding USADA has been mixed, with many praising the efforts to “clean up” the sport, while detractors emphasize the harsh punishments, lack of standardization regarding the absolution of wrongdoing, and the fact that fighters have no choice but to participate lest they lose their job. Whether the UFC continues to work with USADA is unknown, but its presence has undoubtedly led to some of the biggest stories of the decade, such as the promotion moving the location of UFC 232 to accommodate Jon Jones, the Hunt-Lesnar lawsuit, and numerous other positive test scandals.
The day after UFC 200, fans and media members woke up to the news that Zuffa had sold the UFC. Zuffa’s Fertitta brothers, along with Dana White, worked tirelessly to legitimize the sport. With the promotion at its peak given its recent deals with Reebok, USADA, and stars like Rousey and Mcgregor breaking records with every new PPV, it was the perfect time to sell. Endeavor, formerly known as William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, purchased the UFC for $4 billion dollars. Since the UFC is not a public stock, this was the first time the masses saw the true value of the company, and it was utterly stunning. No one imagined that the UFC, once a small promotion struggling to survive, would be worth about as much as the New York Yankees. Certainly, this deal saw its fair share of critics, with many urging the UFC to increase fighter pay in light of the new financial information. While not much has changed on the consumer’s side, as the product is largely the same and Dana White still operates as president, it will be interesting to see what changes the next decade brings to the ownership and production of the UFC.
The final major story of the decade came in 2018, when the UFC struck a five-year, $750 million deal with ESPN. While FOX is certainly a respected sportscasting brand, ESPN is without-a-doubt the world leader in sports news and media content. Now, all UFC events would be broadcast via ESPN, ESPN2, or the ESPN+ app, which requires a monthly subscription. In fact, an addendum to the initial deal gave ESPN+ exclusive broadcasting rights in America for all UFC PPVs. Now, the UFC would receive even more comprehensive coverage than ever before.
If the beginning of the decade saw the UFC chip away at the base of the mainstream tree, the end of the decade saw them topple the whole damn thing over. Now that the organization is settled with ESPN as one of the world’s premier sports, let us sit back and enjoy as the fruits of the UFC’s backbreaking labor are finally ripe for eating.