The Ultimate Fighting Championship wasn’t always a multi-billion dollar business. Before it began making solid profits in 2005, the Las Vegas-based fight promotion was heavily in debt and on the verge of going under. A canceled event, or wrong business decision could have been the organization’s demise in the first four years under Zuffa, LLC ownership.
On September 27, 2002 the UFC held an event, UFC 39, at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. A heavyweight title fight between Randy Couture and Ricco Rodriguez headlined the fight card. Rodriguez defeated Couture, but nearly caused the event to be canceled by the Mohegan Sun and put the future of the UFC in peril.
In 2002, mixed martial arts was not a mainstream sport. Fighters were not paid like they are today and the fight promotion didn’t generate the revenue it currently enjoys from television deals, pay-per-view and ticket sales, gyms, and merchandise.
Fighters were looking for ways to earn more than just a fight purse. It was a time when Condom Depot could be seen plastered on the trunks of fighters and TapOut logos were a fixture. Sponsors paid the athletes to wear their t-shirts, hats, to put their logo on a banner that hang behind them during introductions and on their fight shorts. Rodriguez took it a step further. He got a temporary tattoo on his back advertising Golden Palace online casino.
“Everybody knew that because we were at a casino, you couldn’t have a casino sponsor, and that’s the time that Golden Palace and all that stuff was doing that. And what does this (expletive) idiot do? Forget a t-shirt, he goes out and tattoos it on his back. Right? He gets a tattoo,” explained UFC president Dana White during an appearance on Real Quick with Mike Swick podcast.
“So what happened was, the tribe there, the tribe said ‘we’re shutting down the show. We’re not having it.’ It was the main event. So Lorenzo (Fertitta) and I got in a room with these guys and worked it out with them but he almost shut down the show. Back in those days, a show getting shut down like that could’ve put us outta business,” said White.
“You gotta understand, when we do those things, we’re fronting all the money. We’re putting up a couple million bucks and fronting all this money to put on a show. And if these guys would’ve shut that show down that might have been the end of us,” added the UFC president.