Zuffa purchasing the UFC back in January 2001 was a pivotal moment in the organisation’s history.
At that point, the company was lightyears away from becoming the globally recognised brand that it is today.
Before the Station Casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, along with Dana White came on the scene, it’s crazy to think the UFC was haemorrhaging money.
Back then, it was owned by Semaphore Entertainment Group who were on the verge of bankruptcy when they sold the UFC to Zuffa.
Even though the organisation is now the leading force in MMA, it was seemingly dead in the water even years after the Fertitta Brothers and Dana White took over.
Thankfully, today it’s thriving thanks to the resilience of Frank, Lorenzo, and Dana. Other factors like the TUF boom and lucrative television deals can’t be underplayed either, but without Zuffa there would be no UFC today.
The first UFC event under the Zuffa banner took place on the 23rd of February 2001. Making it 20 years since the Zuffa era started this very week.
That event was UFC 30: Battle on the Boardwalk at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The eight-fight card was the beginning of an arduous yet fruitful road for the UFC under the guidance of the Ferttita brothers and Dana White.
On that fateful night two decades ago, fans inside the venue were treated to some high profiled fights.
The card was headlined by a middleweight championship fight. The division would be later renamed to the light heavyweight division that we know today.
Champion Tito Ortiz defeated Evan Tanner in 30 seconds with a devastating slam. This was Ortiz’s second title defence; he would successfully retain his title a further three times. He eventually lost the gold to Randy Couture at UFC 44 in September 2003.
Tito Ortiz is regarded as an MMA legend and was one of the first true stars in the UFC. He was even inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame pioneer wing in 2012.
Evan Tanner couldn’t replicate his adversary’s notable fame, but he is still a former UFC Middleweight Champion in his own right. Tanner beat David Terrell at UFC 51 to win the strap, but ultimately lost it during his first defence several months later.
The other marquee fight on the card was for the vacant bantamweight title between Jens Pulver and Caol Uno.
Pulver walked out victories via decision. However, the bantamweight division would also be renamed to lightweight following this event in accordance with new unified rules at the time.
This resulted in Jens Pulver becoming the inaugural UFC Lightweight Champion, firmly placing him into the record books.
Fans would have to wait until 2011 to see bantamweight again.
The division wouldn’t make an appearance until the UFC/WEC merged, bringing in an influx of talent from lighter weight divisions into the UFC.
Elsewhere on the main card, Fabiano Iha submitted Phil Johns with an armbar two minutes into the first round.
Elvis Sinosic would submit Jeremy Horn with a similar armbar also two minutes into the opening round. This would just be a blip in the mental professional career of Horn which consists of 119 professional MMA fights, with a record of 91-22. Two of which were for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship against Frank Shamrock and Chuck Liddell, respectively.
Bobby Hoffman and Mark Robinson kicked off the main card. Hoffman initially won the fight, but it was later overturned to a no contest after Hoffman failed a drug test.
Interestingly, a fight between Pedro Rizzo and former UFC Heavyweight Champion (let’s just forget he was stripped due to a failed drug test) Josh Barnett.
The prelims also gave UFC fans their first glimpse of Sean Sherk and Phil Baroni. Both debutants picked up the win.
Sherk would go on to become lightweight champion during his second spell with the promotion at UFC 64 in 2006. Ultimately, he would be stripped after his first defence and say it with me folks, for failing a drug test.
It wasn’t only fighters making their first UFC on-screen appearance that night.
Current UFC President Dana White addressed the fans for the first time during the broadcast.
While it was far from the typical Dana White we would expect to see today, like the company itself it took him some time to come out of his shell and become the animated individual fans have come to admire.
While UFC 30 was a newsworthy event, it still took time for the UFC under the tutelage of Zuffa to find its feet.
Popularity would slowly but surely begin to rise.
Initially, people thought the Fertitta brothers were crazy to buy the organisation for $2 million back in 2001. They would have the last laugh as they understood the UFC would become a recognisable brand in the world of sports.
Lorenzo Fertitta used his connections at Nevada State Athletic Commission to secure sanctioning in the state of Nevada.
The following year the promotion would hold UFC 40, almost selling out the MGM Grand Arena in the process. This event also sold 150,000 PPV’s due to the fantastic marketing and cross promotional work done ahead of the event.
During this time, UFC also signed its first television deal with Fox Sports Net.
Despite all of this, the UFC still wasn’t turning any sort of profit. In fact, by 2004 Zuffa lost $34 million and was struggling to stay afloat.
Of course, that all changed with the inception of the Ultimate Fighter.
TUF was the organisation’s chance to expand from just the PPV model and take their first steps into television.
Reality television was all the rage back in the early noughties and the UFC needed a piece of the action with the possibility of folding becoming very real.
After been rejected by multiple major television networks, Spike TV offered to flip the $10 million bill for production costs.
Fans reading this won’t need me to tell them that the show was an ungodly success.
It really kicked started the success of the UFC.
Off the back of the first season of the Ultimate Fighter, UFC and Spike continued their relationship.
The surge in popularity and growth within the company took off during the 2000s. This has turned the company into the global phenomenon we all know and love today.
It was a long and often uncertain road, but Dana White and the Fertitta brothers turned their fledgling promotion into the leading brand in the fight game.
So much so that in July 2016 the compamy was sold for $4 billion and that’s all down to the astonishing work and belief put in during the Zuffa Era, which all started at UFC 30.