LAS VEGAS – Raise your bottles of Mickey's, fight fans. Plug that after-party at Studio 54, Chuck Liddell. The UFC turns 15 tonight.
It's only right the Ultimate Fighting Championship celebrates its 15th birthday on the eve of what UFC president Dana White is calling "the biggest fight in UFC history," Saturday's bout between UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar. I could throw a bunch of numbers and figures at you to highlight how far the UFC has come since that first show at Denver's McNichols Arena on November 12, 1993, but the true measure is the buzz that Saturday night's fight is already drawing on the street.
There used to be no better place to be in America for a sports fan than Las Vegas before a big boxing match. While boxing has waned in recent years, the UFC has carried on that big fight night tradition in Vegas. Talk of the Couture-Lesnar fight has put a chokehold on Vegas' neon-lit Strip, with everyone weighing in on the match as if it were "The Fan Man Fight" between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, which took place one week before the very first UFC show in 1993.
It is easily one of the biggest upsets in sports history that a start-up mixed martial arts company (the term MMA, by the way, hadn't even been invented 15 years ago) that staged its first show in front of about 7,800 fans (in an arena that seated over 17,000 for basketball games) and a pay-per-view audience of about 80,000 homes would 15 years later become bigger than boxing and one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. That's really a statement of fact more than opinion, since the UFC has been more popular than boxing for a couple years now. The UFC broke the pay-per-view industry's all-time records for a single year of business, generating over $222 million in revenue in 2006, surpassing boxing and professional wrestling. Many popular online sports books such as Bodog say UFC also has surpassed boxing in betting revenues.
Boxing purists will argue that the UFC and MMA is just a fad and that boxing is still doing well. They'll point at the Roy Jones Jr.-Joe Calzaghe fight last week and the Oscar De La Hoya-Manny Pacqiao fight next month as examples that the sport is still relevant. But they are only proving Dana White's point that the sport is dying by highlighting those fights. Boxing's problem is that it has only a handful of well-known stars with drawing power left such as De La Hoya, Jones, Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley -- and they're all over 35 and will (or should) retire by next year. Plus, none is a heavyweight in a sport that used to rely on heavyweight stars such as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. Boxing hasn't had a recognizable heavyweight since Lennox Lewis retired in 2004. Sorry, but Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir Klitschko, Nikolay Valuev, Sultan Ibragimov, Oleg Maskaev and Sergei Liakhovich just don't do it for the casual fight fan.
The beauty of the UFC is that almost every pay-per-view features what boxing promoters refer to as a "dream match" or a "mega fight" once or twice a year. That's because Dana White doesn't have to jump through a bunch of hoops and red tape to make a fight that fight fans want a reality -- he can do it by simply making a couple phone calls. Just look at the next three months. After Couture fights Lesnar for the UFC Heavyweight Championship at UFC 91 on Saturday, UFC 92 on Dec. 27 will feature Forrest Griffin defending his light heavyweight title against Rashad Evans, and Rampage Jackson facing Wanderlei Silva. Then UFC 94 on Jan. 31 will stage the most anticipated rematch in years as UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre faces UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn. In between, Rich Franklin faces Dan Henderson at UFC 93 in Dublin, Ireland, in case you doubted the global appeal of the sport.
While White doesn't necessarily like comparisons to the WWE -- you know, because the UFC is real and the WWE is not -- I can't think of a better compliment to the way he runs his promotion than by comparing him to Vince McMahon. He makes every one of his pay-per-views a must-see by putting together the most intriguing matches, and he pushes each one of his fighters in each division, never making one champion more valuable than the next. Every champion in the UFC's five weight classes, from Couture to Anderson Silva, could carry his own fight card -- and have. In that respect, he's better than McMahon and light years ahead of anyone in boxing.
So take a bow, UFC, you're all of 15 tonight. I would joke that you'll get your driver's license next year, but you're already in the driver's seat in the fight game with boxing sitting in the back seat.