Just over 20 years ago, mixed martial arts was still very much a niche sport. Boxing was the world-renowned top combat sport, with its history and clarity through the purity of the practice allowing people to catch on when top pugilists came together.
In 2000, however, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White saw an opportunity in the struggling Ultimate Fighting Champion promotion. Lorenzo Fertitta famously said that they paid $2 million purely for the name “UFC,” which was enough to push them forward.
In the decades since, the UFC’s profile has skyrocketed, both in its native USA and around the world. The brand was globalized and brought MMA to the limelight, even to the extent that some who are unfamiliar refer to the sport of MMA as UFC.
So, how did the UFC pull MMA into the mainstream, growing it beyond the realms that most mainline sports have been able to achieve?
Creating the modern gladiator
In the early days of MMA, the general public knew that it was a sport where any trained fighter could take on another within a cage, with it carrying an almost “anything goes” persona. Of course, this wasn’t really the case, as it’s a sport of tremendously high-trained athletes using their martial arts expertise in an attempt to find and exploit weaknesses in another.
So, it was important for the UFC to make people want to watch their events and cultivate at least a semi-knowledgeable audience – an audience in the know is an engaged audience. As such, the UFC became a marketing machine, hyping up its best athletes as modern-day gladiators.
The must-see events built through marketing was major, but the genius pivot into reality television is what really shot the sport and the UFC into the stratosphere. The Ultimate Fighter, which is set to return, showed just how much work and technical skill went into the seemingly primitive sport, further emphasizing this gladiator persona for all of the promotion’s stars.
A symbol that everyone can relate to
The UFC has perfectly crafted the image of martial arts fighters being incredibly powerful and intelligent combatants, with their efforts already rubbing off beyond the sport. Just as being the quarterback for the college football team relays a person of high social status and athleticism, training MMA now means that you’re both gritty and smart, tough but logical, thanks to how the UFC has shot the sport into the mainstream.
Perhaps the most evident showing of this is with the total reboot of the classic game character Lara Croft’s image. In the new series of video games, Square Enix opted for a more realistic depiction of the Tomb Raider but still required her to be athletic and smart. The new Lara Croft resonated with the modern audience and other creatives, including those behind the online casino who brought the ever-popular Lara Croft: Temples and Tombs game to the gaming platform. Her image doesn’t need explaining in a slot game, but in the reboot movie, scriptwriters had to find a way to show off Lara’s physical prowess and smarts, leading to them showcasing her as an MMA trainee.
This has become an increasingly popular way to show smarts and strengths, leaning into how the two are required to perfect a martial art, let alone several. In the series Billions, the focus is on a locking of horns between a ruthless lawman and an influential hedge fund manager. One season features an ongoing allegory of one of the protagonists taking up jiu-jitsu, applying the lessons of John Danaher to his work efforts.
With the UFC forcing MMA into the limelight and crafting its persona, it has become a status symbol that’s instantly recognized by audiences outside of the sport, allowing the promotion to surge further.