UFC: From 'human cockfights' to $4bn franchise in 20 years

Hollywood takeover of UFC makes the cage-fighting organisation the most expensive sports franchise in history

(Image credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Mixed martial arts franchise the Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as UFC, has been sold for $4bn (£3.1bn) in what the Daily Mail calls the "largest sale in sports franchise history".

The buyout has been led by Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG, whose clients include UFC star Ronda Rousey, and a group of private equity firms. The deal caps a phenomenal rise in popularity for the cage-fighting organisation.

The face of UFC, promoter Dana White, will remain with the company and his nine per cent stake in the business is now worth $360m, however, the sport's main owners, brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta are thought to be offloading most of their 80 per cent holding and transferring control to the new owners.

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"It's quite a story considering brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the organization in 2000 for $2m," says ESPN. The price paid for UFC is roughly seven times earnings, notes the website, which reports that UFC had estimated revenues of around $600m in 2015.

ESPN adds that Lorenzo Fertitta will step down as chairman although the brothers will retain a minority interest. The Abu Dhabi government will retain its ten per cent stake in UFC.

Keeping White on board could be critical says ESPN. "The UFC president should help smooth the transition in a sport that is very volatile. Last year saw the rise of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, while this year saw them fall."

White's presence should help maintain UFC's profile. "UFC makes most of its money from pay-per-view associated with its fights, but the organisation also has a cable deal with Fox that expires at the end of 2018. The new deal is expected to be worth at least $200m a year if UFC continues on an upward trajectory."

The sports has come a long way since it was founded in 1993 as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, staging violent fights that were banned or unregulated in many areas, says Greg Beacham of Associated Press.

"With White as the promotional face and Lorenzo Fertitta as its chairman, the Las Vegas-based UFC was kept afloat by the Fertittas' casino fortune while the sport once labeled by John McCain as 'human cockfighting' gradually gained widespread acceptance and popularity.

"The UFC used cable television and the internet to get its intriguing product in front of young fans, and they also sought legitimacy by welcoming regulation by athletic commissions. New York finally lifted its ban on MMA earlier this year, putting the sport in all 50 states."

What next for Conor McGregor and UFC after loss to Nate Diaz?

07 March

UCF champion Conor McGregor suffered a shock defeat to Nate Diaz in their hastily arranged welterweight clash in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The UFC featherweight champion lost after making a "grave mistake" in agreeing to fight in the 170lb bracket, says Les Carpenter of The Guardian.

Dublin-born McGregor had been due to step up to lightweight and fight Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC 196, but when the Brazilian withdrew, he instead accepted the invitation to face Diaz at welterweight - 25lbs above his usual class.

"He must have realized this miscalculation the moment Diaz's fists began pounding against his skull in the second round, knocking him backward, shock filling his face," says Carpenter. "But vanity had gotten the best of McGregor... He took on a much bigger, well-trained man and paid heavily for his hubris."

His run was halted by an opponent who took the fight with just 12 days' notice, says Gareth A Davies of the Daily Telegraph. But size proved more important than preparation.

"The extra weight clearly took its toll. There were huge risks for McGregor taking this fight as he did and his team may look back and privately feel that it would have been wiser to meet Diaz at 155lb," he says.

Defeat in his first outing at welterweight "leaves the featherweight world champion with a whole lot of pondering to do", says Joe Callaghan of the Irish Independent. "UFC 196 was never supposed to go like this. For a man obsessed with bottom lines, there was no escaping that this was a disaster."

The second shock of the event came as Holly Holm, the conqueror of fighter and actor Ronda Rousey, was defeated by Miesha Tate.

It leaves UFC in a quandary. The sport's two biggest names have both been defeated and with Rousey currently out of the picture as she is scheduled to appear in two films, McGregor had been pencilled in to top the bill in July at UFC 200 with a welterweight clash, possibly against UFC icon Georges St-Pierre.

He is now likely to defend his featherweight title instead.

"The golden girl is still weighing up her next move. The golden boy will now have to do similar," says Callaghan.

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