UFC: Bringing Together Celebrities Unlike Anything Else
The world of Mixed Martial Arts is one of the most brutal, creative, and raw sports in history. Over 8 fighters have died in both sanctioned and unsanctioned matches. But one of the most popular professional matches in the sport is the UFC. When the UFC first started back in 1993, it was a radical endeavor. No weight classes, no definitive fighting styles, and relatively no rules. The idea spawned from the Gracie family of Brazil and was envisioned as a “War of the Worlds” match where fighters of all different martial arts could compete against one another to determine the best of the best. The no-holds-barred combat style would determine the most well-rounded and physically superior fighting style of the world.
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The first event, an eight-man one-night tournament, took place at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. The location was strategically chosen as Colorado had no athletic commission and could therefore engage in bare-knuckle fighting without having to secure any approval. The venue was half-full, rowdy, and voracious. John Milius, one of Gracie’s students and the director of the Conan the Barbarian film wanted the event to look brutal on television and chose to set the fight in an octagon surrounded by a chain-link fence. Dubbed and promoted to be a real-life version of the violent video game Street Fighter, audiences congregated behind the safety of their TV screens and 90,000 Pay-Per-Viewers tuned in.
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The event was supported and created by Rorion Gracie of the famous Jiu-Jitsu fighting group the Gracie Family, Art Davie who was one of the “Mad Men” in advertising circles throughout Southern California, and John Milius, fighter and film director who helped produce the event. Royce Gracie of the Gracie Family emerged as the victor of the event, spawning the craze that became known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, now the most popular fighting style throughout all MMA. The event has continued each consecutive year, with the latest UFC 264 having taken place in July of 2021. But unlike the half-filled arena of UFC 1, this fight included a laundry list of celebrities, influencers, and political figures. The fight was attended by Donald Trump, Justin Bieber, Jake Paul, Addison Rae, Kevin Durant, the Nelk Boys, and official UFC commentator Joe Rogan. The sport has become the modern day gladiator games and features members of the aristocracy watching some of the most savage fighters in the world.
So how did an underground competition with comparisons to David Fincher’s Fight Club end up becoming a well-trafficked gala featuring former Presidents, top influencers, and some of the most culturally significant celebrities of the century? The answer lies somewhere between the power of Joe Rogan, the vitality of influencers, and the rebellious nature of the sport itself.
Joe Rogan’s Commentary
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The power and influence of Joe Rogan is underestimated by the powers that be. He single-handedly repopularized the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He accidentally influenced the results of a Presidential election. He shaped the psychology of the nation through guests like Jordan Peterson, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, and Graham Hancock. And, he brought the UFC into the spotlight in a way that no fighter alone could.
Certain credit is due, in part, to President of the UFC Dana White. White first joined the UFC back in 2001. He was working as the manager of Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell when news broke that Bob Meyrowitz had planned on selling the franchise. White contacted Lorenzo Fertitta, former Nevada State Athletic Commissioner, and convinced him to buy the company for a reported $2 million. Shortly after, White became President.
During his Presidency, White raised the valuation of the UFC from a mere $2 million into a $4 billion asset, part of Endeavors growing properties which are currently valued at over $10 billion and growing. Part of this valuation is through advertising revenue, a successful IPO, pay-per-view totals, and the ever-increasing popularity of the sport. Part of the popularity revolves around White’s decision to hire Joe Rogan as an official commentator. Rogan started providing commentary for the UFC fights beginning at UFC 12 in 1997. Rogan and White became quick friends in 2001 after White became President and in 2002, White asked Rogan to provide commentary for the sport. Originally working for free, Rogan provided pro-bono commentary in return for access to the event and tickets for his friends. After working 15 gigs for free, White hired Rogan full time as a commentator for the sport. Rogan has been a staple to the sport ever since, winning several Wrestling Observer Newsletter and MMA Personality of the Year awards in the process.
Rogan introduced the sport to a weary public through his popular podcast. The conversations even spawned their own sister-series on his network known as the JRE MMA Show. Rogan has interviewed a variety of professional fighters on his podcast including Israel Adesanya, Ronda Rousey, and Jon Jones. He is also known for having extended the invitation to several UFC events for celebrities and comedians including Tom Segura, Ali Macofsky, and even Freddie Gibbs.
A Scene To Be Seen
Quickly, Rogan’s contributions to the UFC not only increased its popularity among listeners, but also drew an audience of celebrity endorsers of the sport. Supplying them with free tickets, he was able to invite some iconic celebrity guests cultural influencers ranging from Elon Musk to Kanye West.
The celebrity presence didn’t go unnoticed for long and quickly influencers and social stars started flocking to the event as well. This included YouTube sensation Jake Paul who has now developed his own professional career as a fighter.
Their presence has turned the fight nights into gruesome galas for celebrities to make appearances and share their support of the sport. As a result, even more up and coming influencers have migrated to the sport, hoping to be seen rubbing elbows with fellow culture-drivers. This has included Addison Rae of TikTok popularity and the Nelk Boys who recently attended UFC 264. Another guest of note from UFC 264 was former President Donald Trump. He arrived alongside UFC President and campaign supporter Dana White.
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One additional reason for the sports continual celebrity status and its motley crew of attendees is the rebellious nature of the sport. With limited rules and the no-holds-barred attitude of the sport, the UFC has become synonymous with counter-culture influence. Serving as an intense alternative to Woodstock, the UFC welcomes complicated cultural figures. This includes the appearances of certain celebrities who have been deemed “cancelled” by mainstream culture. But at the UFC, they are welcomes, and sometimes embraced, with open arms (or fists) to the events. This has included controversial characters like comedian Dave Chappelle, alternative drummer Travis Barker and his celebrity girlfriend Kourtney Kardashian, and football legend Odell Beckham Jr. These counter-cultural icons embody the spirit of the sport and its anti-establishment roots.
With continuous growth and even more cultural relevance, it has almost become a necessity for celebrities to engage with the sport in order to stay in line with the zeitgeist of the culture.
Through appearances from influencers and political figures, conversations about the sport on the Joe Rogan experience, and a cultural significance that makes you feel left out if you have nothing to say about McGregor’s broken leg, the UFC will continue to grow as the gruesome gala of modern day gladiators.
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Sources:CBSSports, USAToday, Yahoo, MMAFighting, NBCSports, Heavy, WaysToDie, HighSnobiety, YouTube, Sportskeeda, Beast, BlackBelt, MixedMartialArts, BleacherReport, Gracie, Sherdog, IMDb, JiuJitsu, Showtime, BBC, LiveAbout, Forbes, NASDAQ, EssentiallySports, TalkRoute, StarsUnfolded, Spotify, NYPost, HollywoodGossip, Insider, TMZ, TalkSports, People
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