The North American public is only a few days away from the first major network television broadcast of a Mixed Martial Arts event in the modern era format, when CBS will air live coverage of Elite XC’s May 31st card from the Prudential Center in New Jersey. This is a significant step for MMA in its quest to become a mainstream sport with the likes of baseball, football and basketball. With this historic milestone fast approaching, wanted to take a shot at chronologically ranking the top ten moments in MMA’s brief 15 year history that paved the way for the May 31st live cable television event.

Royce Gracie winning UFC 1 “The Beginning”

Date: November 12, 1993

McNichols arena in Denver, Colorado was home to the birth of MMA that we know today. UFC 1 debuted in 1993 and some suggested the concept was nothing more than an infomercial for the Gracie family, and their form of Jiu Jitsu, called Gracie Jiu Jitsu. They had adopted it from the Japanese to allow a smaller competitor to control a much larger one. When 26 year old Royce Gracie entered the Octagon on November 12, 1993, wearing his traditional Gi and weighing a soaking wet 170 lbs, viewers wondered if he would even leave the cage alive. Three impressive submission wins later, Gracie was the UFC’s first tournament winner. Countless modern day fighters point to that moment in time as the most significant in MMA history. Royce showed the world that a man any size, with proper technique would be able to enter a fight and come out victorious. The UFC was here to stay.

Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba

Date: May 5, 2000

On May 5, 2000, the fans at the Tokyo Dome in Japan witnessed one of the most important fights in the history of the sport. Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba was a fight that would have pushed any mere mortal over the edge. The reason? The fight lasted over an hour and a half and ended only when Royce was unable answer the bell for the seventh round (his corner threw in the towel). This 90 minute epic battle was an important part of shaping Pride’s 10+ year existence, and what MMA in Japan was all about.

Dana White & Fertitta brothers buying the UFC and Sticking with it

Date: 2001 – 2005

At a friend’s wedding in 1995 Lorenzo Feritta ran into Dana White, who at the time was managing boxers and some UFC fighters. Along with his brother Frank Fertitta, Lorenzo immediately became a fan of MMA. By 2001 the Fertitta’s and White had bought the UFC for $2 million and White was in charge. Lorenzo was able to get the UFC sanctioned in New Jersey and Nevada and back on Pay Per View. But by 2004 they had dumped $44 million into the business and had little to show for it. Efforts to sell the company brought a measly offer of $4 million. They turned it down and kept on going. Good thing they did. The success of The Ultimate Fighter TV show in 2005, along with the Fertitta’s willingness to invest back into the company began to pay dividends. Today, the UFC is estimated to be worth close to $1 billion and has been reported to control 90% of the MMA market. The three also appeared on the cover of Forbes May 2008 edition. One has to wonder where the MMA landscape would be today if it weren’t for this trio.

The Ultimate Fighter: Season 1

Date: January – April 2005

When the UFC went shopping for a TV station to finance production of their reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter, they found no takers. None. So season 1 of “TUF” ended up costing the UFC over US$10 million to produce and advertise. Spike TV paid nothing for the show, providing only the airtime. It was reported that UFC star Chuck Liddell made just US$800 a week during the show to coach. Needless to say, this was a big gamble by the UFC.

The concept was simple. Put 16 guys in a house and they would do nothing but eat, sleep, train and fight. But what happened along the way was fans were able to watch these fighters outside of the cage, who dealt with the same fears and anxieties as we all do, and realized they were more normal than we all thought. They were guys you could root for or in some cases, guys you could despise. Fans were able to ‘grow up’ with their favorites from the show and follow some of their careers into the UFC and other organizations. Although they didn’t know it at the time, that first season; the one that started off with so much skepticism by so many, produced some of the most memorable moments in the sports brief history. The show has come under criticism in the recent years due to its repetitiveness and a perceived watered down talent pool. But we shouldn’t forget about Season 1, which launched the careers of some of MMA’s biggest stars including Forest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian.

Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar (The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale)

Date: April 9, 2005

When Forrest Griffin stepped into the Octagon versus Stephan Bonnar to put an ending on the first installment of Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter, no one could have anticipated how important this night would be for MMA. When Griffin and Bonnar began to take turns teeing off on each other like pinatas, people took notice. As the fight went on, the rating continued to grow, suggesting that people were actually calling their friends to tell them to tune in. The warrior spirit and respect these two showed for each other resonated not just with ‘hardcore’ fans, but everyone who was witness. The fight ended being scored a decision win for Griffin, and deservedly so the UFC awarded contracts to both men. But the true winner on this night was the fans, and the sport of MMA. This fight will undoubtedly go down as one of the toughest, exciting and more importantly, significant moments in MMA history.

Royce Gracie vs Matt Hughes

Date: May 27, 2006

When UFC champ Matt Hughes faced an aging Royce Gracie in May 2006 it was billed as “Old school” vs. “New school”. The wily old vet whose strength was in his legendary Jiu Jitsu vs. the younger, well rounded martial artist. The UFC was trying to answer the question that we ask ourselves all the time in sports – who was better Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain, Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth – only the UFC took the risk and gave the fans what they wanted to see in putting the aging legend up against the young chiseled champ. In their primes this would have been a more competitive match up, but sadly for fans looking for another improbable win from Gracie, Hughes dominated him and stopped him with strikes in the opening frame. The fact that Hughes beat up on an aging Gracie was not significant to MMA history. What was important rather, was an unspoken ‘passing of the torch’ from the old to the new generation of fighters. Fighters who had evolved to become tremendous athletes, who were well versed in all martial arts and could no longer rely on one aspect of MMA to be a champion.

UFC buying Pride

Date: March 2007

After negotiating with the Japanese MMA promotion Pride Fighting Championship for over a year, the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, finally purchased the rights to Pride in March 2007. Although final numbers were never released, the deal was reported to be in the $65 mill range. Despite many of the fighters not coming over to the UFC, and critics later suggested the UFC got hosed on the deal, the significance of this transaction cannot be overlooked. In making this acquisition, the UFC was able to eliminate an organization that they truly felt was a competitor. Pride was huge in Japan and was beginning to make waves into the US. If the purchase had not occurred, the UFC’s dominance, and the MMA landscape we know today, may have been drastically different. It was a statement by Zuffa that they would do what it takes to be the leading organization in MMA.

Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia

Date: March 3, 2007

When the UFC needed someone to take on their heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia, Randy Couture stepped up on March 3, 2007 at UFC 68. Coming out of retirement to face the 6’8 giant was no easy task for Couture. But at 43 years of age, Randy did the unthinkable. He pounded on Sylvia for 5 straight rounds, becoming the oldest UFC Heavyweight champ in history and a real life Rocky Balboa. Randy showed us all, that even into your 40’s you can still accomplish great things in Mixed Martial Arts.

Roger Huerta Featured On Sports Illustrated Cover

Date: May 2007

MMA had always been looking for more mainstream coverage since its inception in 1993. In May 2007 they found some, when the UFC’s Roger Huerta appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated with the heading “Too Brutal or the Future?”. Jon Wertheim wrote a fair and balanced story of where the UFC and MMA were at in terms of popularity, and where it could end up. This was a huge step for MMA, as this picture reached every newsstand and home subscription in North America. Mainstream adoption was looking more and more like a reality.

Globalization of MMA

Date: Ongoing

MMA had built a strong following in the US and Japan throughout the first 5 years of the century. Brazil continued to produce some of the top level martial artists in the world and the sport was taking off. MMA had not fully tapped into many other markets. Canada had TKO, which was (and still is) well established as the top brand in Canada, and some smaller shows scattered throughout the Great White North. Europe’s largest promotion at the time, was Cage Rage which drew modest crowds and ratings amongst fans. In April 2007 the UFC ventured overseas for the first time since 2002 and staged one of their largest shows at Manchester’s MEN arena that drew large crowds and high ratings on Spike TV for North American audiences. The UFC followed up with shows two more shows in England and one in Ireland within the year. It was reported that the UFC lost money on these shows, but the idea was to sell the sport to a larger fan base for long term success.

After years of promising a Canadian show the UFC finally delivered in April 2008 at UFC 83 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This show was a rounding success, which sold over 21,000 tickets in the first week they were on sale with Canadians coming out in strong support of their hometown hero Georges St. Pierre. Time will tell if this mainstream globalization of the sport will pay dividends down the road but if Zuffa’s history is any indication of their future – don’t bet against them.

Down the road we may be adding CBS’s broadcast of EliteXC to this list of significant moments, but in the meantime, let’s sit back and watch it unfold.

We’re sure that our list of the most significant moments in MMA history will spark some debate with hardcore fans. Visit our contact form and leave us your comments about this specific article and we’ll post some of your responses here over the next few days.

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