The UFC has grown from fledgling bare knuckle pay-per-view spectacle to a major league TV staple running just about every Saturday night on cable and broadcast television. Throughout this journey, the company has often found itself misunderstood in the larger pop culture and sports landscape. At any given point in its history, whatever status the UFC has seen itself as having, the public always viewed it as a level below that.
The UFC has gone through several image changes over the years, but has always been counter-culture and has lived on the fringe of popular sports and entertainment. When Art Davie envisioned the first UFC tournament, he saw it as the perfect showcase to prove the best fighting discipline. But to the public, it was going to be little more than a freak show, and the company embraced that in its infancy, focusing marketing on “No rules. No weight limits. No referees.”
The personification of the UFC’s early years came in the form of the “Just Bleed” guy. During the broadcast of UFC 15, from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the camera cut to a man in the crowd with the words “Just Bleed” painted in white across his chest in an apparent attempt to parody Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” slogan. The man, clenching his beer, along with every other muscle on his body, screamed and flexed as the camera held on him for several seconds. And why wouldn’t they? This guy was wearing the UFC brand of 1997. Bay St. Louis became a reference point for this era of UFC as well, being referred to by Mike Goldberg to illustrate how low and on the peripheral the company used to be.
Once UFC found itself on Spike TV, they were really able to focus their branding on being hip and young. From Goldberg’s frosted tips to Dana White dropping f-bombs all over “The Ultimate Fighter,” UFC was a rebellious teenager who took no guff from nobody. What was once a spectacle that resembled a sport became the anti-sport without the stodginess that came with the major sports leagues. UFC was the sport for people who wanted to like sports, but didn’t.
Instead of a commissioner in a suit doing his best to appease network executives and give the media the bare minimum of information to keep coverage flowing, UFC had White in a t-shirt and jeans, swearing, not worrying about offending anyone while being very open with the media that was growing along with the sport.
Instead of the shirtless, painted, beer squeezing meatheads of the previous era, UFC fans of the Spike era more resembled what you might see in a nightclub. UFC shows became a place to be seen. Fans would be sure to show up fashionably late, well dressed, and with a pretty girl on their arm. Only the main event mattered, but that was okay as the novelty of seeing a crazy knockout or wild brawl was enough.
Like anyone who frequents nightclubs on a regular basis, eventually you home to achieve something more and be a real adult. This is what happened when UFC moved to Fox in 2011. They were on a “real” channel now and started to make moves to being more of a “real” sport. This maturation process has taken much of the edge off of the once rebellious UFC. The most glaring example of this was the institution of Reebok-issued gear for all fighters. The “fight kits” were clean, uniform, and as inoffensive as possible. No more Condom Depot or Venum logos on the back of a tattooed cage fighter’s camouflage shorts. Now we got black on white, or white on black, with your name barely legible on the side.
The idea of UFC show being a hot spot to be seen has been done with in the Fox era as well. The crowd is more diverse and less dressed up. Showing up late is not cool anymore because, now, the fights matter. Important fights are placed early in the card to encourage Fight Pass viewership. Prelims are not just to provide filler for cards with time to spare. They are part of the overall package and part of UFC “canon,” so to speak. If you skip UFC prelims, you might miss seeing the next title challenger for a show in a couple months.
As UFC has grown into this Fox era, they’ve tried to distance themselves from some elements of their youth that made them popular. “Face the Pain,” the heavy metal ditty that’s opened every UFC pay-per-view since forever, was remixed into a nearly unrecognizable, modern, and inoffensive version of its former self. This change did not last however, as some things are meant to last forever, and “Face the Pain” is one of them.
And that guy in the t-shirt and jeans who would answer all questions and tell it like it is? He’s gone too. White has become the stereotypical sports commissioner he was always counter to. Always in a suit, a slave to the TV network, and largely inoffensive. The latter has been achieved mostly by keeping White away from the media as much as possible. But much like “Face the Pain,” you can give people a remix, but sooner or later you’re going to go back to the original.
But with all of this growth, there’s still the lingering sense that UFC is where they want to be, despite the $4 billion sale figure. For example, the “Just Do It” in the title of this article is still out of reach for UFC as they ended up with Reebok, a significant player in sportswear, but certainly secondary to the juggernaut Nike, who had dabbled in fighter sponsorship when they were allowed to.
Speaking of second-tier partners, UFC is on Fox through 2018. Fox is a major broadcast network that has the NFL and Major League Baseball contracts, but still doesn’t carry the cache that the big three NBC, CBS, and ABC carry in television.
UFC has come a long, long, way in 23 years. They no longer have to deal with as much of the human-cockfighting criticisms or questions if they’re fake like pro wrestling. But in their pursuit of legitimacy, they should be wary not to lose too much of what got them to where they are. You can’t be the anti-sport sport when you embrace everything that makes major sports sterile and uninteresting to the audience that discovered the company in the mid-2000s.
UFC should be proud of its growth but also should be careful what they wish for, because once you’re on par with the NFL or NBA, you’re playing with the big boys and you’re competing for the same TV rights money, sponsors, and media coverage – and that could prove to be a fight that’s impossible to win. Sometimes being on the fringes is the best place to be.
(Michael Hiscoe is a new MMATorch live events reporter and editorial columnist. He has written reviews for movie websites such as DVDTown.com and MovieMet.com in the past. He has been an avid follower of MMA for over 10 years and now provides his experienced writing and perspective on live MMA events for MMATorch.)