In the early 1990s, the popularity of professional boxing was on the decline. Much of the blame for this decline was tied to the absence of any real boxing superstars. The absence of boxing superstars left an entire population of boxing enthusiasts looking for the next best thing. That next best thing was formally introduced on November 12, 1993, with UFC #1 at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado.
As that date makes clear, the 30th anniversary of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has come to pass. It’s an important anniversary because of the way the UFC changed the way fight fans view combat sports.
The UFC’s Early History
In the very beginning, the UFC was nothing more than a blip on the sports screen. It was founded and introduced by John Milius, businessman Art Davie, and renowned Brazilian martial artist Rorion Gracie. They founded the organization intending to settle the age-old question, “Which form of martial arts was more effective?”
It’s noteworthy that the earliest matches were typically viewed as renegade fights. They had to be held in small venues where such activities were either legal or not illegal. There was very little suggested in the way of rules, including no weight classes. Yes, fighters of all shapes and sizes would enter the same cage to battle one another for survival.
The sheer brutality of these matches was astonishing. In fact, it was the brutality that initially stood in the way of UFC getting mainstream validation. Sensing they had something the combat-viewing public might be willing to embrace, UFC leadership began to realize structure was going to be the key to the organization’s success in the future.
The drive for more structure led to the incorporation of stricter rules and weight classes where the protection of fighters became an important issue. The last thing anyone wanted to see was UFC superstars move to the top only to end up out of the sport due to catastrophic injury or worse. It worked!!!
Progress was Slow But Bored Fruit
Slowly but surely, bored boxing fans took note of this new cage-fighting product. The leap into the mainstream started with the aforementioned UFC #1 with 7,800 fans in attendance and 86K Pay-Per-View (PPV) subscribers watching at home. By the time UFC #100 rolled around, the UFC was able to pull in a gate of over $51 million and 1.6 million PPV viewers. Furthermore, major online casinos with bonuses have capitalized on this success generating millions in revenue.
Despite ownership changes, lawsuits, fighter issues, and financial challenges, the UFC has continued to flourish, especially under the leadership of now President and CEO Dana White. As recently as 2019, the UFC was able to sign a 5-year partnership with Disney Corp and its ESPN+ affiliate, a deal worth an astounding $1.5 billion.
It’s noteworthy that in September of 2023, UFC parent Endeavor and World Wrestling Enterprises merged to form a publicly traded company under the name and symbol TKO. On the day of the merger, the UFC organization was valued at just north of $12.1 billion.
While the lack of superstar power led to the decline in boxing’s popularity, it was the rise of UFC superstars that drove the organization to the top of the mountain. Yes, the organization has failed to determine which form of martial art is most effective. However, that’s attributable to the fact that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting has shined the light of superstardom on fighters from every discipline.
The UFC is currently promoting UFC #296, which is scheduled for December 16, 2023, at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada. The featured fight will be a Welterweight title bout between champion Leon Edwards and challenger Colby Covington. With both fighters in their early to mid-thirties, it’s safe to say neither has risen to the level of superstar status in the UFC.
Here’s a list of the consensus top 15 UFC fighters who have graced The Octogan and survived enough battles to be considered among the best of the best. Selection to this list is based on career accomplishments and popularity.
1. Georges St-Pierre
2. Jon Jones
3. Anderson Silva
4. Demetrious Johnson
5. Khabib Nurmagomedov
6. Jose Aldo
7. Daniel Cormier
8. Amanda Nunes (Female)
9. Alexander Volkanovski
10. B.J. Penn
11. Randy Couture
12. Stipe Miocic
13. Kamaru Usman
14. Royce Gracie (brother of founder Rorion)
15. Conor McGregor
Other memorable MMA fighters include Brock Lesnar, Chuck Liddell, Rhonda Rousey (Female), Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Cain Velasquez, and Tito Ortiz.
For anyone who might be wondering, these great fighters collectively represent the full gambit of all weight classes and fighting disciplines. What they all have in common is they have all played a role in making the UFC what it is today, the preeminent MMA combat organization in the world.