Ultimate Fighting Championship: How UFC Battled Its Way to ESPN’s Mainstream

Ricky Turcios and Brady Hiestand face off before the season finale of Ultimate fighter 29. Photo Courtesy: [Chris Unger/Getty Images]

Two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ultimate Fighting Championship raised eyebrows when it announced that it would be the first professional sport to return to television. Some were excited about the slight return to pre-pandemic normalcy. Others were worried about the spread of COVID-19. Yet UFC 261 streamed on ESPN. Soon, the UFC saw a massive spike in ratings via streaming and on cable TV.

UFC fight nights continued throughout the pandemic. Tickets to fight nights weren’t sold, but this show did go on. The UFC, headed by its president, Dana White, also saw the pandemic as an opportunity to bring back its flagship reality show, Ultimate Fighter, for a 29th season.  

The UFC is no stranger to this type of controversy. The idea for the mixed martial arts (MMA) league emerged in a post-Mortal Kombat era, and early fights can be very hard to watch — not due to the poor audio/visual quality of early ‘90s video technology, but because the league was so unregulated that fights often ended with participants covered in blood and nursing severe injuries.

UFC fights today are a bit more regulated, especially after Republican Senator John McCain almost succeeded in having the league canceled entirely. But to get to where the UFC is today, the league had to jump through a lot of hoops, think outside the box and capitalize on the controversiality that sparked its initial appeal. And its risks have resulted in some big payouts and payoffs.