The cash was all the time in Pay-Per-View for the Final Combating Championship — that’s, till its Struggle Evening franchise got here alongside. Like boxing’s high-dollar “Thrilla in Manila,” “The Rumble within the Jungle,” and numerous different cleverly named matchups, the UFC made its bones in PPV-only occasions. Pink-carpet status, superstar attendance, militant titles, and wholesome VHS gross sales post-fight have been all a part of the enterprise mannequin. However because the group modified possession and grew, elevating the attention of blended martial arts even because it refined and standardized its format, the followers needed extra. And so like many different areas within the mid-Aughts, it began with actuality TV.
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UFC President Dana White, who assumed his function in 2001 after convincing childhood buddies the Fertitta brothers to buy the failing group for a paltry $2 million, deserves as a lot credit score as anybody for increasing the scope of the UFC. Initially, the most important change was the tempo of PPV occasions, with practically the identical variety of specifically billed fights held within the first 4 years of White’s tenure as had taken place within the firm’s earlier eight-year historical past. However names like “The Conflict of ’04,” “Vendetta,” “Onslaught,” and the like show the spectacle-like philosophy designed to lure a small however rising fanbase to tug out bank cards and name their cable suppliers.
That each one modified in 2005 when The Final Fighter, a actuality tv present that includes aspiring fighters, debuted on the late Spike TV. It was an on the spot hit, offering a front-row seat on the internal workings of the battle life as two groups of athletes skilled and fought beneath the watchful eyes of UFC legends and champs Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. (In one of many more unusual additions, one-hit-wonder Willa Ford introduced the varied segments.) Whereas the present garnered appreciable viewers, the head was within the Final Fighter: Staff Couture vs. Staff Liddell Finale, which was additionally proven on Spike. Whereas the headliner of the night time was UFC hall-of-famer Ken Shamrock towards future champ Wealthy Franklin — a big draw for primarily a freebee battle — the spotlight of the occasion was the penultimate match. That includes the ultimate two everymen from the present that viewers had come to respect over the season, what was imagined to be a calculated battle of types become a three-round slugfest akin to a Rocky film. It’s since turn into legend and the topic of many, many documentaries.
TUF and its last battle have been a cultural phenomenon, and it’s largely credited for introducing the fashionable sport to its present fanbase by way of the medium of primary cable. However from a enterprise perspective, it proved a profitable segue from PPV to tv, which fed again into PPV in a Human Centipede-like loop. The UFC was forming its personal stars whereas documenting (and making the most of) their rise. Its Struggle Evening sequence owes the prototype TUF not a small debt.
The primary UFC Struggle Evening, titled UFC Final Struggle Evening, happened in August 2005, lower than 4 months after the TUF finale. Versus the traditional PPV mannequin, it was broadcast on Spike free to anybody with entry. It was primarily one massive essential card with out a headliner battle, and all eight matches of up-and-comers have been three rounds, a size usually delineating a non-headlining and -championship bout. Whereas any battle is critical for the 2 males within the cage, Struggle Nights grew to become foundational quite than flashy, helpful in constructing a fighter’s title with followers and rapport with White concurrently. Consider these occasions, at the least initially, as a sort of second interview, permitting inexperienced fighters to construct confidence whereas the UFC might ferret out bum picks in a low-stakes, small-budget occasion as an alternative of an enormous PPV shindig. They’ve additionally advanced into spotlight factories from which the UFC’s advertising and marketing staff can pull when a fighter makes it to the PPV Huge Present.
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Over time, because the UFC has continued to increase as a worldwide model to the purpose that it’s synonymous with its personal sport. It holds a hegemony on high expertise and stays the final word aim for aspiring athletes and a shining mark on a resume for punch-drunk vets plying their wares abroad. And with this energy, all roads lead by way of Struggle Nights.
From Spike, Struggle Nights have been moved to FX after which Fox Sports activities earlier than ESPN locked up a five-year, $1.5 billion deal in 2018, which has migrated the game and its again catalog to the ESPN+ streaming service. As a part of its contractual obligations, the UFC should placed on 30 occasions a 12 months, and lots of of those are fulfilled with Struggle Nights. Whereas the headliner match has been expanded to a full 5 rounds consistent with the overarching format and there are actually as much as 12 matches cut up between preliminary and essential playing cards, little has modified past the ever-increasing viewership. The Struggle Evening model continues its very important place within the UFC ecosystem as a stepping stone for younger fighters to in the future, hopefully, e book a big-paycheck PPV occasion. But it surely’s for the followers as a lot as for the fighters, a sort of actuality present during which subsequent nice UFC stars will emerge. In that approach, over the previous 15 years, little has modified.