So as you already know, the UFC is a huge organization, and the biggest MMA promotion in the world. Over the years, it has continued to prove that it is the prime source for high-level MMA competition. But the UFC wasn’t always the big promotion that we know and love.
And that’s how you ended up here. So in this post, we’re going to be talking about the history of the UFC’s infancy.
When did the UFC start?
The UFC was started in November 1993, by business executive Art Davie, director/producer John Milius, and martial artist Rorion Gracie. The first UFC event was held on November 12th of that same year. It was started as an eight-man tournament, under the tagline “There are no rules”.
Let’s go into the history of the UFC’s first event, and the events that followed.
Before Their First Event: The Concept
Of course, all ideas have to start somewhere. And initially, The Ultimate Fighting Championship was just that: an idea. In short, the creation of the UFC can be credited to just three men: Art Davie, John Milius, and Roriion Gracie.
Art Davie was a businessman from Brooklyn, New York, who one day had a great idea for an event. Inspired by videos of the prominent martial artists of the Gracie family in no-holds-barred exhibition bouts, he came up with a combat event of his own.
Businessman Art Davie was the driving force behind the creation of the UFC.
Davie has always envisioned an event in which martial artists would compete against each other in order to determine which style was more successful. In order to make this competition a reality, Davie looked to enlist the help of an expert martial artist (Rorion Gracie) as well as a director who could put the event together (John Milius).
John Milius was a well-known screenwriter, director, and producer of Hollywood films when he was approached by Art Davie to take part in creating the first UFC event. John’s role in the event would be to participate as the creative director, making any decisions necessary for the event’s design and layout.
As a successful director and producer, John Milius brought a lot of credibility to Art Davie’s event.
In fact, the decision to make the competition stage an Octagon shape was John’s idea. Due to John’s association with the event, and the fact that he was well-known and respected in the industry, Art Davie was able to attract many potential investors.
Interestingly enough, John just happened to be a student of a prominent martial artist…
Rorion Gracie was a member of the Gracie family, who are known for their expertise in the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Art Davie’s inspiration for the UFC was watching members of the Gracie family compete in vale tudo events, which is Portuguese for “anything goes”.
By the time Davie approached him, Rorion had been teaching Jiu-Jitsu in southern California for some time. Rorion had even played a role as a technical advisor and fight choreographer in several movies.
Rorion Gracie was approached for his martial arts expertise, and he wished to prove Jiu-Jitsu’s effectiveness at UFC 1.
Rorion did not share the same interest as Art Davie in finding the best discipline. Rorion was already sure of the fact that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was the best discipline. Rorion’s only interest was making BJJ’s effectiveness known to the world.
For this reason, Rorion used his involvement in the event to hand-pick the representative for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: his younger brother, Royce Gracie. Royce was chosen specifically for his small size, as he was the smallest man at UFC 1, at 6’1 and only 176 pounds.
With an emphasis on Royce’s relatively small size, Rorion’s plan was to have Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu emerge from the tournament as the only viable and effective way for a small person to defend themselves against a larger opponent.
The Making Of The First Event
With the three main men involved ready to start production of the event, Art Davie and Rorion Gracie started traveling in order to recruit fighters. The fighters were chosen for their unique fighting styles, as the purpose of the event was to demonstrate which style was most effective.
Zane Frazier was recruited for UFC 1 after Art Davie and Rorion Gracie witnessed him beat up martial arts instructor Frank Dux in a street fight.
Art Davie then created a business plan for the first event. When coupled with the association of John Lilius as creative director, Davie’s plan attracted many investors. In total, Davie managed to secure 28 investors who funneled capital into the promotion company which was to hold the UFC event, WOW Promotions (inspired the event’s initial naming of “War of Worlds”).
With his newly created WOW Promotions, Art Davie went to several pay-per-view producers to get them to partner with him on the UFC’s first event. The only producers to entertain Davie’s proposed event was Semaphore Entertainment Group, who were known for hosting one-off and odd pay-per-view events.
The partnership between WOW Promotions and SEG was made official in May of 1993. They booked the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, to host the event, which eventually took place on November 12, 1993.
Royce Gracie won the first UFC tournament, proving Jiu-Jitsu was the most effective martial art, and winning the $50,000 tournament prize.
As most of you know by know, Royce Gracie dominated the tournament, proving the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by submitting all three of his opponents, despite his significant size disadvantage.
The Early Days Of UFC
It is widely speculated that the UFC was intended to be a one-off event, something which has been stated previously by UFC President Dana White. However, due to the amount of attention the initial event received, they continued to produce new events.
UFC President Dana White has said that the UFC was initially planned as a one-off event, although Art Davie disputes those claims.
Art Davie disputes Dana’s claim however, and notes the five-year deal put in place between SEG and WOW to prove it. In his book, Is This Legal? Davie states, “Clearly, both Campbell and Meyrowitz shared my unwavering belief that War of the Worlds would be a continuing series of fighting tournaments—a franchise, rather than a one-night stand”.
Eventually, Art Davie and Rorion Gracie sold their ownership of the UFC to SEG.
In the years following the inaugural event, the UFC struggled to comply with new regulations surrounding the growing sport. The SEG worked extensively with Athletic Commissions to secure sanctioning for their events.
Unfortunately, by the time the SEG held it’s first sanctioned event at UFC 28 on November 17, 2000, it stood on the brink of bankruptcy.
Pictured here with Dana are Lorenzo (left) and Frank (right) Fertitta, who funded the purchase of the UFC from SEG in 2001.
At the turn of the decade, the SEG was approached by none other than Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, Frank and Lorenzo, who were looking to purchase the UFC. By January 2001, the Fertitta brothers had purchased the UFC for $2 million under their parent company, Zuffa LLC.
With the influence of the Fertittas, and the leadership of President Dana White, the UFC began to grow in popularity. And the rest is history.
In short, the UFC started in November 1993 as a one-off combat sports tournament to determine the best fighting style. The event was led by Art Davie, with help from martial artist Rorion Gracie and director/producer John Milius. The initial event was an eight-man tournament, and was promoted with the phrase “there are no rules”.
I hope this post helped you learn a bit about the history of the UFC. If there was anything you would like to know, or that I missed in this post, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
If you enjoyed the post, please consider checking out similar posts on the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!