Image: Ultimate Fighting Championship
AP file
Mirko Cro Cop, left, punches Eddie Sanchez in the head during a UFC last year.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/5/2008 6:48:24 PM ET 2008-11-05T23:48:24

When Johnny Drama is called into the eight-sided cage by Chuck Liddell during an episode of HBO’s hit series “Entourage,” the mixed martial arts fighter demands that the terrified Drama – who had mouthed off at Liddell in a parking lot – get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness.

In a nutshell, that is how Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – of which Liddell is a top star – has treated all competitors. Last month, mixed martial arts organization EliteXC failed. In the last few years, UFC has purchased a huge rival, Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships, along with
World Extreme Cagefighting and World Fighting.

Today, UFC is the undisputed champ of the mixed martial arts world. According to Forbes, UFC is likely to generate $250 million this year, about 90 percent of all mixed martial arts revenue. The matches often sell out venues, such as the 13,300-capacity MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, at an average ticket price topping $250. Three of its cable shows – The Ultimate
Fighter, UFC Fight Night and UFC Unleashed – are staples on Spike TV.

”They offer the highest level of product in the marketplace,” said Shawn McBride, vice president of Ketchum Sports Network. “UFC is laser-focused on mixed martial arts. It’s a great case study.”

Anyone examining the burgeoning UFC would be surprised to find out brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, owners of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, bought the league for about $2 million seven years ago. They were ready to sell not long after as UFC fought to snag a foothold in the mixed martial arts world.

They held on – and are glad they did. The enterprise, if sold today, would be worth about $1 billion, Forbes estimates.

The key is UFC’s popularity among young males, a desirable demographic for advertisers. According to Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch vice president of global media and sports marketing, its research shows 76 percent of male beer drinkers between the ages of 21-27 are fans of the UFC. Within that group, UFC is second in popularity among pro sports only to the NFL. Result? A-B struck a three-year sponsorship agreement with the mixed martial arts association earlier this year.

It isn’t the only well-known name to embrace UFC. Harley-Davidson inked a pact with the group earlier this year, and Visa introduced a UFC card in June. The Octagon, the UFC’s version of a boxing ring, boasts advertisements on the mat from Toyota, Burger King and others. Fighter’s trunks are bedecked with sponsors such as Fry’s.

And what, exactly, is luring young males and others to follow the UFC, to the extent where the league sold more than 5 million pay-per-view events in 2007? The barefoot behemoths (UFC fighters, not the audience) punch, kick, and tackle to try to best their opponent. In other words, they must be well-versed in a number of disciplines, from boxing to karate to wrestling.

Despite what can seem like chaos, there are a few strict rules, such as: No head-butting or kicking the downed opponent, and no strikes to the spine or the back of the head. Eye-gouging, a primitive practice once allowed, has been eliminated.

The U.S. audience is only one group that has been enraptured by the quick-paced battles. UFC broadcasts into more than 150 countries.

”It’s huge overseas,” McBride said. “I’ve seen billboards in London for it. There are more localized associations internationally, but UFC is the main player.”

After looking to gain acceptance for years, UFC has finally entered the mainstream. Last May, its fighters graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; Liddell landed on the cover of ESPN The Magazine this summer. The 38-year-old has appeared on The Late Show and other entertainment programs.Released this year was the book “Iceman: My Fighting Life,” where Liddell offered a glimpse into the real him:

”I’m 6'2", 220 pounds, and a trained lethal weapon, but I’m also fiercely loyal, maybe even a bit sensitive, and unexpectedly romantic.” What else would you expect from a college graduate who also broke up fights as a bartender?

Speaking of fights, the potential tussle with Drama never occurred ­ Liddell was just having a little fun with the B actor, who was a victim of a stunt. But with a passionate fan base and competitors supine around the world, no one’s having more fun than the UFC. 

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