“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I don’t have to make an introduction about the UFC. Most people nowadays know about that brand. Today, the UFC would be worth around 3.5 billion $ (or more) making it among the most lucrative sport franchise in the world. They host fights all around the world including Japan, China, Australia, Brazil and United Kingdom. They have major TV deals around the world, most importantly a deal with Fox in the United States. UFC is now mainstream. Whatever we can say about the actual star power problem and the performance drug crisis, UFC is getting bigger year after year. They own the majority of the “mix martial art” market around the world.
It all began with Ultimate Fighting Championship 1 in 1993. It was the idea of Rorion Gracie (a jiu jitsu expert from Brazil) and Arthur Davie. It was launched with the backing of SEG. They thought about making a tournament where experts from different martial arts disciplines would face each other. A discipline would be crown the best at the end of the event. The tournament featured experts in kickboxing, karate, wrestling, boxing, sumo and jiu-jitsu. The first event was a success. People were asking for a second tournament. It was a surprise. It was supposed to be a one shot thing. They didn’t even know they were about to create a sport.
It was different from today. There were no weight classes (not before UFC 12). Fighters could wear clothing traditional to their discipline. No time limit. No judges. No gloves. Almost no rules. The referee was only present to stop the fight after a knockout or a submission. The UFC had to choose states that didn’t have athletic commissions to avoid regulation. Their was an aura of clandestinity to those fights. SEG used that to its advantage. They promoted the fight as brutal and “no holds barred”. Using the shocking aspect of violence helped being talked about. Talk good, talk bad, but talk about it. You can guess what happened next.
Critics started to emerge from everywhere to attack the UFC. One of them was United States Senator John McCain. He claimed that the UFC was a kind of “human cockfighting”. He asked states governors and cities to forbid UFC to held fights. It worked and UFC started to have a lot of opposition. It was banned in 36 states. It was harder and harder to organize events. Cable companies started to refuse the broadcasting of the pay-per-views. At that point, UFC needed to get into an adaptation mode. They milk the cow as much as they could. They surf on the popularity of the brutality aspect. But changes were necessary to reach a broader audience. In 2001, UFC was bought by a group led by Frank and Lorenzo Ferttita (which will become Zuffa). Lorenzo Ferttita said later that he knew UFC wasn’t worth that much in itself, but he was after the image.
“What you don’t understand is I’m getting the most valuable thing that I could possibly have, which is those three letters: UFC. That is what’s going to make this thing work. Everybody knows that brand, whether they like it or they don’t like it, they react to it.” – Lorenzo Ferttita
From that point, the sport evolved to what it is today. A deal was done with the Nevada Athletic Commission, which gives the UFC the chance to held fight in Las Vegas. It crossed the line to become mainstream. Today, it’s still a brutal sport, but the changes of rules make it much more legitimate. As you can see, UFC own a big part of its success because they didn’t follow the trends. They didn’t care that people would talk bad about it. You can see examples of brands that go against the grain today, one of them being Tesla. We can see that Elon Musk is trying to make shift in the automobile industry. Uber is another brand that is making a lot of noise recently. They want to change the current model of personal transportation service. It’s a total war with the cab business. Like the UFC, they both want to bring something new to the table. By wanting to bring changes, they fuel the army of dissidents. On the other side, the more they talk about them, the bigger the become. Being the bad guy isn’t always a bad thing in itself.