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The New Main Event
L. JON WERTHEIM
May 28, 2007
The rising interest in mixed martial arts is tied to ULTIMATE FIGHTING, which changed its ways to gain acceptance. Now its success is changing the sports landscape
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May 28, 2007

The New Main Event

The rising interest in mixed martial arts is tied to ULTIMATE FIGHTING, which changed its ways to gain acceptance. Now its success is changing the sports landscape

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The fans seemed to enjoy UFC 69 all the same; no one asked for a refund on seats that ran as high as $450. When the last of the ticket sales and Budweiser beer-concession receipts were tallied, UFC 69 was the highest grossing event in the history of the Toyota Center. The second-highest? A 2005 Rolling Stones concert.

In the winter of 1994 Bruce Beck sat in a television production meeting in Tulsa. Beck was a freelance sportscaster who had hosted Showtime's Championship Boxing and done play-by-play of Golden Gloves events, and his agent had just landed him a gig covering a fledgling sport called ultimate fighting. He was paired with former Olympic wrestler Jeff Blatnick. Beck had some initial misgivings, but listened eagerly as UFC officials explained the sport's rules. There would be no biting, no eye-gouging and no fish-hooking. Beck waited to hear the rest of the regulations ... and he waited. Groin kicks, head butts, hair-pulling? All legal. There would be no rounds, no judges, no weight classes, no weight limits. "At least," Beck thought to himself, "it must be hard to cheat."

Bob Meyrowitz, a New York City entrepreneur perhaps most famous for creating the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show in the 1970s, is generally credited with bringing Ultimate Fighting Championship to the masses in '93. The premise was simple: Why should fans of combat sports belly up to a bar and argue hypothetically over who'd win a fight between Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee, or over who was tougher, a Brazilian jujitsu master or an Iowa wrestler, when you could put the two guys in a confined space and let 'em have at it?

In the beginning, UFC events were more spectacle than sport, a banquet of violence that lowered civilization's limbo bar. The fights were held in small amphitheaters and civic centers, invariably in states in which boxing commissions were either inept or nonexistent. But bloodthirsty crowds showed up, and, more important, the cards were available on pay-per-view. In 1994, in a fight that typified the UFC's early existence, 200-pound karate expert Keith Hackney beat a 600-pound sumo wrestler into submission, jackhammering his opponent with kicks to the groin and punches to the back of the head. "Before each fight I prayed no one would get killed," says Beck, now an Emmy-winning sportscaster at New York City's NBC affiliate. (For the record, no UFC fighter has died as a result of injuries suffered in a sanctioned event.)

The UFC was, justifiably, an easy target for politicians, including John McCain, who took the Senate floor in 1996 and famously dismissed it as "human cockfighting." Time and again, cards would be scheduled and then canceled or hastily relocated after civic leaders learned what exactly would be going on in that steel contraption being assembled inside their town's auditorium. Eventually the political outcry rose to a roar, and even the moral arbiters at pay-per-view carriers were growing queasy about showing Ultimate Fighting Championship events.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Dana White, a scrappy Boston native and gym owner with an outsized personality, was training professional boxers; one of his fighters, Derrick Harmon, was once fodder for Roy Jones Jr., but mostly White was a fringe player. He supplemented his income by leading boxercise classes and giving lessons to Las Vegas's landed gentry for $45 an hour. On a lark he took a mixed-martial-arts class with a UFC fighter. "I never really [cared about] the ground game," he recalls, "but when I got on the mat, I was like, This is so cool. For every move, there's a countermove." White even began managing a few of the fighters.

He spread the gospel to two casino magnate friends, Frank Fertitta III and his brother, Lorenzo. (Lorenzo was also a respected member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who distinguished himself as a voice of reason in the 1997 Mike Tyson ear-biting affair.) Hooked on the sport, White and the Fertittas took MMA classes together and sparred with each other, traveled to UFC events and befriended more fighters. When the UFC was gasping for air, White seized on an idea. "Let's buy the thing!" he suggested to his millionaire pals. The brothers would put up the money; White would be the front man. The three purchased the property from Meyrowitz in January 2001 for the larcenous price of $2 million.

White, now 37, has no college degree, no formal business training and an unshakable habit of dropping f-bombs in most sentences he utters. By his own admission he can be volatile and polarizing, but he has proved to be the ideal leader for UFC.

While his ultimate loyalty is to the Fertittas and their financial interests, White comes across not as a sports executive but as a fan. Much like his sport, White, who has a shaved head and wears skintight T-shirts and a silver belt buckle adorned with a skull, doesn't much traffic in nuance. To help persuade fighter Tito Ortiz to re-sign, White agreed to box him. ( Ortiz was no-show.) When boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. recently slammed the UFC--"UFC ain't s---. It ain't but a fad," he said. "Anyone can put a tattoo on his head and get in a street fight"-- White fired back, daring him to get into the Octagon.

Mostly because of stunts like this, White is as recognizable a character as any UFC fighter. Not unlike a jujitsu master, he has deployed all the right moves and countermoves while running UFC. He recognized that while the Octagon was essential to marketing, UFC had to lose the image of barbarity and trumpet the safety precautions it adopted in November 2000, when the league added weight classes and 28 rules first proposed by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board to the original three.

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