The Ultimate Fighting Championship has had a lot to do with the growth of MMA in the last two decades, and the promotion has been greatly rewarded over the years.
The best MMA fighters in the world all aspire to fight under the UFC's banner, and they're clearly the face of the fastest growing sport. Some casual fans even refer to MMA as "UFC," oblivious to the fact that the two terms aren't interchangeable.
The UFC is clearly poised to be a big part of MMA for quite some time, that is, if their dominance doesn't end up destroying the sport.
Journey to the top
After enjoying a bit of success in its earlier years, MMA in the U.S. ran into problems when politicians like former presidential hopeful, John McCain, decided it was too brutal to be legal. The campaign against the UFC forced pay-per-view carriers to drop its events in 1997. And for a moment, it seemed like the era of cage fights was just another fad about to come to an end.
Fortunately, Zuffa LLC saw the potential in the UFC, buying the promotion from Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) in 2001. They immediately decided to rebrand the sport, moving towards rules and regulations. Gloves were issued, weight classes were formed, a bunch on new rules were installed, and soon enough the UFC returned to pay-per-view.
While the UFC was battling legal issues in the U.S., their number-one competitor, Pride Fighting Championships, was enjoying a lot of success in Japan. Given the UFC's struggles at the time, many of their fighters decided to join Pride's ranks, and for a few years, the Japanese promotion was the top MMA organization.
Fortunately for the UFC, they eventually regained their momentum back in the U.S., and reestablished themselves as the top MMA organization around. The UFC outdid its competitors by going after the best fighters in the world and marketing the sport like never before. They even jumped aboard the reality TV trend, creating "The Ultimate Fighter" series, which turned out to be a huge success.
In 2007, Zuffa bought out Pride FC, removing their top competitor from the picture. When Strikeforce started gaining some momentum in 2011, Zuffa struck again, absorbing the promotion.
Smart business moves by the UFC, but unfortunately for fans it might not be good for MMA as a whole. Competition brings out the best in everyone, and the lack of it usually has an inverse effect.
Impact on MMA in the long-run
Prior to the UFC's buyout of Pride, the top MMA fighters in the world had a lot more mobility than they do today. If a fighter didn't like the terms of a contract he was offered by the UFC, he simply moved over to Pride.
Now, top MMA fighters are at the UFC's mercy, and any decision to go against the promotion's brass could have dire consequences.
Besides putting current fighters in a tough spot, the UFC's dominance in MMA is also a turn off for young athletes who could very well be the next Jon Jones. Even with the UFC's increasing popularity, the average genetically blessed kid would rather try their luck with basketball, soccer, football, or other established sports, where they'll have a lot more control over their destiny.
If an athlete in the NBA isn't getting along with the owner of his team, no big deal. He can simply take his services to another team, and he'll still get to earn the same amount of money he's used too. For MMA fighters, a dispute with the UFC's brass usually leads to fighting on smaller shows for meager purses.
Why would a kid who is the best wrestler and basketball player in his high school choose to pursue an MMA career over playing college ball and then the NBA? It definitely wouldn't be a logical choice.
Then, there's the issue of fighter pay.
While the UFC pays its fighters significantly better than any other MMA promotion around, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Even top UFC fighters don't make anything to close to what their counterparts in other sports make.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was the highest paid MMA fighter in 2010, netting an estimated $5.3 million in purses and pay-per-view shares. Second-tier players in the NBA and MLB make more than that.
What would happen if the UFC had a serious competitor?
For the sake of argument, imagine that some billionaire investor with unlimited funding decided to give MMA a try. In a bid to recruit the best talent in the world, the person makes offers to Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, Junior dos Santos, and all the other top names in the UFC, promising to triple their earnings.
Would the UFC just stand back and watch the stars they've spent years building up take their services elsewhere?
Of course not, the UFC would try to match the competitor's offer, as long as they still had room to make a profit. It's basic economics really.
The result, the fighters get better compensation, a larger number of young athletes are interested in MMA, and the sport becomes even better.