How UFC became a billion-dollar business in 15 years

UFC went from the brink of bankruptcy in 2000 to the greatest sports success story of the 21st century.

Meryl D'Souza August 18, 2016

We enjoy making spectacles of milestones. They usually come in multiples of 10. Almost perversely, these milestones don’t necessarily turn out to be as grand as we think they have the potential to be. It’s a very true scenario in sports. We have sporting occasions that sometimes make history and others fail to live up to the billing.

The UFC is no different. UFC 200 was supposed to be spectacular, but it was underwhelming and easily outshone by UFC 196. Undoubtedly, the fight card and more importantly the storylines had a part to play in its downfall. You can bet that this weekend’s UFC 202 will be far more memorable than 200. Even Dana White, president of the UFC, expects the Conor McGregor vs Nate Diaz fight to break the all-time pay-per-view record by demanding the attention of more than two million eyeballs.

Ultimate Fighting Championship is a young competition in the annals of sport. By contrast, the English Football League – now, English Premier League – started in 1888, Major League Baseball in 1903 and the National Basketball Association in 1946. The UFC has had a lot of catching up to do and, especially in recent years, it has.

Disparaged as human cockfighting in its embryonic years since its launch in 1993, UFC has come a long way. Most recently, it was sold for a staggering $4.2 billion to WME-IMG. Not too shabby for a company that was flirting with bankruptcy in 2001.

About 28 years ago, Dana White – then just a 19-year-old kid straight out of high school – quit his job as a hotel valet. It was a spur of the moment thing, but White knew what he wanted to do: get into the fight business.

For the next decade, White did everything he could in the boxing circuit. He stepped into the ring himself before training and managing fighters. He set up gigs to train housewives, refereed bouts and ran gyms – anything that would keep him in the sport. It wasn’t ideal, but he was doing what he liked, and had big plans.

Legend says it was a friend’s wedding that played the spark to this UFC fire. White almost didn’t go to his friend’s wedding. His then-girlfriend, now-wife, couldn’t make it and like most of us, White dreaded sitting by himself at a table full of strangers. But this friend was important: the man drove White to school every day. With a pang of guilt, White attended the wedding.

It was when he was in line for the buffet that White ran into an old schoolmate, Lorenzo Fertitta. At the time, Fertitta was making a name for himself running Vegas casinos he co-owned with his brother Frank. The two took a trip down memory lane and bonded over their love for the book Sport of Kings by CE Morgan. At that wedding, the two agreed to someday do business together. 

In the time that followed, White’s love for boxing drew him into the world of Mixed Martial Arts. White soon made his way into the sport and started managing fighters who featured in Ultimate Fighting Championship. He went about his business as usual until he was offered “a huge position with a car and a house”. Seeking advice he called Lorenzo.

Lorenzo though reminded White of their promise and so White let the job go. Three weeks later, he found out that the UFC was for sale. White had the vision and the drive to take this company places, what he didn’t have was the money but that was not a problem for his friend. So he called Lorenzo again. 

In January 2001, Frank and Lorenzo set up Zuffa (Italian for fight) and bought the UFC for $2 million and instated White as president. Their success wasn’t overnight though, less than four years into their ownership, they suffered about $40 million in losses and were contemplating selling the company to Dan Lambert, founder of the American Top Team.

The deal was only delayed to see how the trio’s last-ditch effort, a reality series called the Ultimate Fighter, would pan out. So desperate they were, that the Fertittas agreed to take on all production costs just to get the show on TV. The show went on air and proved to be a hit. Still, it wasn’t until an hour after the season finale that Spike – the channel airing the show – met with White and the Fertitta brothers in an alley behind the arena on the UNLV campus to hash out a deal on the back of a napkin.

The UFC only became a profitable venture in 2007, but White’s vision was gaining momentum and he knew he was on the cusp of something big. With more advertising, more effective social media marketing and better distribution through partnerships, licensing money for video games, clothes and more began to roll in.

Today, UFC is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Aided by stars like McGregor and Ronda Rousey among 500 more under contract, the UFC dominates the MMA world with 40 live events a year that is broadcast to more than 1 billion homes in 30 languages across 149 countries.

But like most who follow the sport already know, the fight is not over, there’s still world domination left to achieve and White is not the kind of man to stop. After all, he was once a fighter himself.