The game is going to change forever; again. UFC 200 fight week has arrived to mark yet another major milestone for a promotion which has both shaped and transformed the perception of mixed martial arts on a global scale.
From its brutal inception – MMA was once banned on TV and labelled as “human cockfighting” – to near bankruptcy, it is difficult grasp the modern-day mainstream success the UFC currently enjoys.
The fighters have improved, as has the marketing and the money, elevating the company to a level of prosperity few could have ever envisioned. You can now confidently assert the UFC is too big to fail, its only direction is up, up and up.
It’s been an exotic 23-year voyage, from the unknown to the known, from the spectacle to the sport and from the beginning to the dark age. And UFC 200 is the perfect spectacle to stand back and take stock of the evolution of the brand under president Dana White, alongside owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.
It’s taken them 15 years to orchestrate the prominence MMA now holds on the sporting landscape. Every barrier placed in their path has been broken down and for a company which was once searching for an identity, it has now established a personality appreciated globally. The development in recent years has been more subtle though.
When you think back to UFC 1, that primitive era was chaotic. Fans had little idea what to expect.
The competitors were hardly athletes, and they themselves were unconscious as to what they were getting themselves into. The pay-per-view opened with a Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau, kicking a near 400lbs sumo, Teila Tuli, in the mouth – the scene of his stray tooth flying out the cage a shuddering reminder of the early rawness.
But by the time UFC 100 arrived, the game had changed dramatically.
The introduction of weight classes and a clearly defined set of rules meant the sport had shed its brutal perception. Fans went into that celebratory event knowing exactly what to expect. Fighters were now appreciated as world-class athletes and there were more dietitians, managers, trainers and sports psychologists than ever before. The show was now a sport.
The change from UFC 1 to UFC 100 was dramatic, heading into this bicentennial card, the differences are understandably more slight.
The UFC has settled on its identity and while UFC 100 was a time to appreciate the evolution of the sport, UFC 200 is a time to consider what the next step is. The emergence of superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey has allowed the promotion to enter the mainstream consciousness.
Crucially, they have remained there despite booting McGregor off UFC 200 and the cloud hanging over a Rousey return. It has meant that Zuffa stand to make an exponential return on their investment. It is no secret they are on the verge of selling up. Having bought the company for just $2million, they are said to have accepted a $4.2billion bid from a group led by WME-IMG. How apt would it be to announce the completion of that takeover with an event celebrating the immense success and development of the sport which has been authored by Zuffa.
It would mark the perfect turning point for the next stage of the evolutionary process and act as a springboard for future prosperity.
The game has altered dramatically from UFC 1-200 and the palpable feeling is that it’s about to change again.