We live in a time where the UFC is already considered a global company, immense at an economic and sporting level, capable of generating incredible audience numbers and cradle of world superstars, however, it has not always been so.
The truth is that years after its debut in 1993, the UFC was on the verge of disappearing from the map in its initial stages, among many reasons, because the product was considered barbaric and violent, reducing the interest of television stations and channels.
Among so much darkness, there was a light that allowed the rebirth of the UFC forever, a fight that changed everything, to give rise to the sport we have today.
In 2001, brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the UFC for $2 million, trying to save a declining product, that they and Dana White believed had enormous potential.
Recovering the UFC was not easy, since in 2004, the Fertitta brothers had already invested more than $40 million, in contrast to the initial $2 million with which they bought the company. The unreturnable losses were remarkable and it was already getting to the point of making the decision to abandon the business, to avoid further expenses in vain.
With one last chance to rescue the company, president Dana White had an idea with which they would try to win: a reality show, where 16 fighters live together in a house and face each other in the octagon, to get a contract with the UFC. The Ultimate Fighter was born.
“We literally met with every network, every sports network — from the big broadcasters, NBC, ABC, CBS, the obvious, ESPN — multiple times,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, the CEO of the UFC in 2004. “Met with anybody that would take a meeting. We couldn’t get anybody to bite because everybody was very concerned that the product was too violent, not something they could put on TV. It was too bloody. They didn’t want to see guys bleeding on the mat. TV executives were saying this is flat-out boring.”
With 10 million dollars, the last bet was made to keep the company alive, covering production costs for the show to be broadcast by Spike TV channel, who, being a new network, accepted the proposal, since they had nothing to lose.
“Our last hope was a new network called Spike,” said UFC president Dana White. “They were supposed to be a network for men. So we felt like we fit perfectly there. We met with the guys out in L.A. They couldn’t wait to get the hell out of that meeting and go to a Dodgers game.”
With a good time slot, The Ultimate Fighter being aired right after the end of WWE’s “Monday Night Raw”, all that was needed was a good cast to fuel the show, starting with the coaches, legends Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, faces of the UFC at the time.
“It was a great concept and a great idea, and I thought the show was going to be really good for the sport, to give us the kind of exposure the sport was looking for”, Couture stated. “It wasn’t a hard decision to sign on.”
The 16 fighters lived in the same house for 54 days, sharing everything. There were no books, telephones or television. It was training, resting, recovering. Sitting by the pool. Eating. Drinking. Playing chess or poker. This continued, isolated from the world, during the whole time, while the fights took place, eliminating competitors until a final match was defined.
On April 9, 2005, the final event was held to define the two winners of the first edition of The Ultimate Fighter, in the lightheayweight and middleweight divisions. The event held in Las Vegas was headlined by the clash between Rich Franklin and Ken Shamrock.
After Diego Sanchez defeated Kenny Florian to become the first winner in the history of The Ultimate Fighter, securing a contract with the UFC, it was the turn of Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar to fight for a contract. The best was yet to come.
For three rounds, Griffin and Bonnar kept the crowd on their feet, fighting relentlessly, exchanging blows at every moment, as if their lives depended on that fight. For many critics and fans, the bout showed the true heart of the MMA fighter.
The intensity of the fight was on display from the start, “What a war we’re seeing between these two,” exclaimed Joe Rogan on the broadcast, barely halfway through the first round.
In the second round both fighters were hurt, Griffin with an important cut near his eye. The athletes did not slow the pace, for every punch landed, two were thrown, it was a war from start to finish, provoking a live audience never seen before for the company, with three million viewers through Spike TV.
At the end of the fight and a standing ovation, Forrest Griffin was named the winner by unanimous decision, however, Dana White made the decision to award UFC contracts to the two warriors for their dedication in battle.
Thanks to the success and buzz generated by the Griffin-Bonnar fight, Spike TV offered the UFC a contract to produce a second season of the show, this time, with the network investing in the production costs.
After the fight, the Spike execs said, “Hey, we got to talk to you.” I said, “What’s up?” trying to play it cool. And we went back literally behind the arena, where all the satellite trucks were and everything, and they said, “Hey, we want to do Season 2.” I said, “What will you pay me?” They said, “We’ll pay you this.” I said, “You got to pay this plus a little bit more.” We agreed to an amount.
The TUF 1 final between Griffin and Bonnar marked a before and after for the company, allowing it to survive and from there grow into the global organization we know.
The Ultimate Fighter reality show, has already aired for 29 seasons, where future champions such as Julianna Pena, Michael Bisping, Matt Serra, Kamaru Usman, Rose Namajunas and many others have been unveiled.
In 2013, both Griffin and Bonnar were inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame for their fight in The Ultimate Fighter finale, considered one of the best of all time, changing the UFC forever. Griffin was also a former world champion in the 205 weight class.