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UFC Turns 20, Crushing Expectations and Ratings

The hugely successful organization celebrates its 20th birthday with more popular programming and more fans

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In 2000, boxing promoter Dana White and two friends spent $2 million to buy the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a fledgling, seven-year-old organization trying to settle the definitive schoolyard argument: Who would win in a fight — a karate champion or a kickboxer? A jujitsu master or a sumo? ”People thought we were nuts,” White says. But very few people are questioning White’s sanity today. UFC now has an estimated value of more than $1 billion and a slate of reality shows and live fight nights that regularly attract well over 2 million viewers per match — with most of the audience falling in the key male 18-49 demo; its reality staple, The Ultimate Fighter, kicks off its 18th season Sept. 4 on the newly launched Fox Sports 1.

The true testament to UFC’s drawing power occurred Aug. 17, when UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen helped launch Fox Sports 1 by delivering 1.8 million viewers and beating everything on broadcast networks among men 18-49. Says White: ”[Fox Sports president] Eric Shanks called me the next day and said, ‘You’ve accomplished great things, but everything you’ve accomplished to date pales in comparison to what you did last night.”’

As UFC has grown, so has its mainstream acceptance — stars like Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, and Charlize Theron all profess their love. But UFC isn’t just pulling in celebrities — it’s making them: Former heavyweight champ Randy Couture appeared in both Expendables films, and Chuck Liddell has starred in music videos for Nickelback and Mandy Moore. For a sports and TV organization, UFC is also remarkably progressive. It recently aired the first-ever fight between two out lesbians and it cast two women — bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey (who will soon be seen in The Expendables 3) and top contender Miesha Tate — to coach the competing teams on The Ultimate Fighter. White hopes these women will attract viewers who previously wrote off UFC as a savage exhibition. ”If you see UFC you might think, ‘That’s not for me, I’m not into combat sports,”’ he says. ”This is about so much more than combat sports — this is about the human spirit and the desire to win. The bottom line is we are fascinated by [finding] the toughest [person] in the world.” So far, UFC is having no trouble proving its own mettle.