A core appeal for the show was to find an answer for sports fans: “Can a wrestler beat a boxer.” As was the case with most martial arts at the time, fighters were typically skilled in just one discipline (for example boxing, Judo, Jiu Jitsu) and had little experience against opponents with different skills. Some competitors were also rumored to have inflated their credentials to legitimize their presence. (Kimo Leopoldo, for example, was touted in UFC 3 as having a “third degree black belt” in Tae Kwon Do. Kimo’s fighting is best described as freestyle and he holds no such rank.)
With no weight classes, fighters often faced significantly larger or taller opponents. For example, Keith “The Giant Killer” Hackney faced Emmanuel Yarborough at UFC 3, with a 9″ height difference and a 400-pound weight difference. Many martial artists believed that technique could overcome these advantages, that a skilled fighter could use an opponent’s size and strength against him, and with the 170-pound Royce Gracie dispatching many larger opponents, the UFC quickly proved that size does not always determine outcome.
Although “There are no rules!” was the tagline, the term was not strictly true; the UFC operated with limited rules. There was no biting, no eye gouging, and techniques such as hair pulling, headbutts and groin strikes were frowned upon, but allowed. In fact, in a UFC 4 qualifying match, two competitors agreed not to pull hair as they both wore pony tails tied back for the match. UFC was similarly characterized, especially in the early days, as an extremely violent sport while having very gracious and respectful competitors.
The UFC became a hit on Pay-Per-View and home video almost immediately due to its originality, realism and wide press coverage, although not all of it favorable. The nature of the burgeoning sport quickly drew the attention of the authorities and UFC events were banned in a number of American states. After repeated criticism, and letter writing campaigns led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the UFC was dropped from the major cable pay-per-view distributor Viewer’s Choice, and individual cable carriers such as TCI Cable. The UFC continued to air on DirecTV PPV though its audience was miniscule compared to the larger cable PPV platforms of the era.
To survive, the UFC increased its cooperation with state athletic commissions and redesigned its rules to remove the less palatable elements of fights, while retaining the core elements of striking and grappling. Weight classes were introduced at UFC 12, and gloves became mandatory at UFC 14. UFC 15 saw the introduction of limits on permissible striking areas, barring headbutts, groin strikes, strikes to the back of the neck and head, kicks to a downed opponent, small joint manipulation, pressure point strikes, and hair pulling. And with five minute rounds introduced at UFC 22, the UFC gradually became rebranded as a sport rather than a spectacle.
As the UFC continued to work with state athletic commissions, events were held in smaller US markets including Iowa, Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming and Alabama. SEG could not secure even home video releases for UFC 23 through UFC 29, in a period known by some fans as the UFC’s “Dark Ages.” With other MMA promotions working towards US sanctioning, the International Fighting Championships secured the first US sanctioned MMA event, which occurred in New Jersey on September 30, 2000. Just two months later, the UFC held its first sanctioned event, UFC 28, under the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board’s “Mixed Martial Arts Unified Rules”.
After the long battle to get sanctioned, and on the brink of bankruptcy, SEG was approached by Zuffa, LLC, a partnership between Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Ferttita, and boxing promoter Dana White in 2001, with an offer to purchase the UFC. A month later, in January of 2001, Zuffa took control of the UFC. With ties to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (Lorenzo Ferttita was a former member of the NSAC), Zuffa secured sanctioning by the Nevada State Athletic Commission in 2001. Shortly thereafter, the UFC returned to PPV cable television.
After Zuffa purchased the UFC, it steadily rose in popularity, due partly to effective advertising, the return of cable pay-per-view, and subsequent home video and DVD releases. With larger live gates at casino venues like the Trump Taj Mahal and the MGM Grand Arena, and pay-per-view buys beginning to return to levels enjoyed by the UFC prior to the political backlash in 1997, the UFC secured its first television deal with Fox Sports Net, showing one hour blocks of the UFC’s greatest bouts. By UFC 40 in 2002, pay-per-view buys numbered 150,000 (a mark not hit by the UFC since going “underground” in 1997).