Over the past decade, mixed martial arts grew more than it had in all of the previous ones combined.
The UFC purchased some of its biggest competitors, expanded internationally, signed multimillion dollar broadcast deals with major outlets, and then, as the decade was winding down, the promotion was purchased by Hollywood superpower Endeavor. Stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey reached heights of popularity never before seen in MMA. New York finally legalized the sport after a long battle.
Jon Jones dominated but struggled with outside-the-cage issues. McGregor famously had a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather and infamously threw a dolly at a bus window. Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar retired … and came back.
While many stories over the past 10 years captured the public’s imagination, ESPN’s Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim take a look at three that stood out above all others to shape the sport into what it is today.
Women in the UFC — Dana White’s “best decision”
The video is infamous. UFC president Dana White is interviewed outside Mr. Chow restaurant in Beverly Hills by TMZ and is asked when women will compete in the promotion. As White gets into a waiting car, he replies with a smile: “Never.”
That video was published on Jan. 19, 2011. A little over two years later — on Feb. 23, 2013 — UFC 157 was headlined by the first women’s fight in promotion history: Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche. Three months before that, the UFC signed Rousey, then the Strikeforce champion, and anointed her the first UFC women’s bantamweight titleholder.
White has long credited Rousey for changing his mind about women’s MMA. Her charisma, marketability and take-no-prisoners style inside the cage set her apart. Rousey beat Carmouche and went on one of the most dominant runs in UFC history. Her popularity skyrocketed, making her the biggest crossover MMA star ever.
Meanwhile, women’s MMA was growing alongside her. Rousey’s long-running feud with Miesha Tate made them both bigger names. In late 2014, with interest rising, the UFC added a women’s strawweight (115 pounds) division. That led to fighters like Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas carving out their share of the spotlight. Paige VanZant popped up on “Dancing With The Stars” in 2016.
At the height of her popularity on Aug. 1, 2015, Rousey knocked out Bethe Correia in a grudge match in 34 seconds. The bout took place in Correia’s home country of Brazil. Three months later, the UFC shuttled Rousey to Melbourne, Australia, to fight former champion kickboxer Holly Holm. UFC 193 on Nov. 15, 2015, with Rousey vs. Holm headlining, drew a then-UFC record 56,214 people. Women were in the co-main event, too. Jedrzejczyk defended her strawweight title against Valerie Letourneau.
Holm knocked out Rousey, and soon Holm was one of the most well-known names in MMA. Rousey returned to the Octagon only one more time, a knockout loss to Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, 2016. Rousey’s six title defenses are still the most all time for a woman in the UFC. She had one stretch where she won three fights in a combined 64 seconds. In 2018, Rousey was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, the first woman to receive the honor.
In the latter part of the decade, women’s MMA has continued to thrive and evolve. Two more divisions have been added: flyweight (125 pounds) and featherweight (145). Nunes has become regarded as the best women’s fighter of all time, courtesy of finishing Rousey, Holm, Tate and Cris Cyborg, the former Strikeforce, Invicta FC and UFC featherweight champion. Nunes holds the UFC titles now at bantamweight and featherweight. Valentina Shevchenko, another wildly talented standout, beat Jedrzejczyk to secure the flyweight belt.
Since 2013, nearly 10% of all UFC cards have been headlined by women. Women’s fights are consistently in the co-main event and featured spots. Female fighters are among the most recognizable on the UFC roster. Women are such fixtures in the UFC that it’s hard to believe they weren’t in the promotion when the decade started.
“Best decision I ever made,” White told ESPN in March. “Now, look what Ronda started. I’ve learned a lot since 2011.”
UFC TV deals, globalization and sale
Brett Okamoto discusses what the future holds for UFC after it was sold for $4 billion. Okamoto also details the latest on UFC president Dana White, who said that his responsibilities with the organization won’t change.
Probably the most significant story of the decade was the growth of the sport in general, and the changing landscape of mixed martial arts around the world. At the start of the decade, professional MMA wasn’t even legal in all 50 states — and one of the states in which it was banned was New York. Over the past 10 years, the sport has been sanctioned in every state in the U.S., and the UFC made inaugural visits to 19 new countries, including emerging markets such as Australia, China, Mexico, Russia and South Korea.
As the UFC expanded with live events, it also worked its way into living rooms across the globe. The promotion signed numerous broadcast deals over the past decade, including key partnerships with BT Sport in the United Kingdom, TSN in Canada and Globo in Brazil. Of course, it also greatly expanded its reach domestically, signing an exclusive deal with Fox in 2011 (the UFC’s debut on network television) and later, ESPN in 2019. The company also launched its own internet streaming service, Fight Pass, in 2013, which is now available in more than 200 countries.
There are so many examples one can point to to illustrate the growth of MMA over the past decade — broadcast deals, blue-chip sponsors, mainstream media coverage — but probably the simplest one is the sale of the UFC from Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to entertainment agency Endeavor for $4 billion. It remains the most expensive transaction for an organization in sports history — made all the more startling by the fact the Fertitta brothers purchased the company for just $2 million in 2001.
Drug testing changed the shape of the UFC
Vitor Belfort was on his way to becoming fighter of the decade. At the end of 2013, he was riding a run of three straight knockouts over top contenders, all by jaw-dropping head kicks. And just prior to that, he had put Jon Jones in more trouble than anyone before or since, locking on an armbar that nearly finished the indomitable champion. Jones did come back to win, but that hardly diminished the Belfort luster.
That luster, however, started to fade as his use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) came under scrutiny.
Belfort wasn’t the only fighter to use TRT. Between 2007 and 2013, state athletic commissions granted therapeutic-use exemptions for testosterone use to at least 15 professional mixed martial artists. Going on 37, when he put out the lights on his third straight foe via head kick, Belfort was merely the fighter whose results most raised eyebrows. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were outlawed, yet TRT was OK? How fair was that?
On Feb. 27, 2014, the Nevada commission, the country’s leader in combat sports regulation, responded to intensifying backlash by banning TRT. Just over a year later, in his first fight after having to quit testosterone treatments, Belfort was knocked out by Chris Weidman in under three minutes.
Later in 2015, the UFC announced a partnership with the United States Anti-Doping Agency to administer a testing program aimed at clamping down on PEDs. “This is the most comprehensive, effective, best program in all of professional sport,” said Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance.
USADA has caught cheaters. Eighty-seven UFC fighters have been sanctioned for drug test failures. Some of these findings have scuttled scheduled main events. In other cases, high-profile fighters with the financial means to fight back have had adverse rulings reversed, which has raised concerns that there’s an uneven playing field.
And whereas other sports leagues have to bargain with player unions to implement drug testing, the UFC simply dropped its policy into the laps of its fighters. The promotion has, however, used fighter feedback in working with USADA to adjust the program, particularly in the policy around revealing test failures before an athlete has had the opportunity to appeal. Respecting privacy while also maintaining consistency, fairness and transparency is a balancing act that is ongoing.
But the mere existence of an independently run drug-testing program has set the UFC apart from its own past as well as present-day conditions of other promotions.