Zuffa returns to its beginning with a summer visit to Atlantic City.
Before UFC 133 in Philadelphia, Dana White put together one of his more riveting fight week vlogs. In this particular one, he referred to himself as a degenerate while on board a helicopter headed southeast. “Atlantic City, here we come,” he shouted over an Apocalypse Now roar of blades. What was the UFC boss’s mission there? It was very specific. “We’re going to kick the shit out of Caesar’s Palace onight,” he said. The video picks up moments later at precisely 1:30 a.m. with White standing over seven tall stacks of Benjamin Franklins in a hotel suite, boasting, “Well, we kicked the shit out of Caesar’s Palace last night.”
This is the kind of day-in-the-life stuff that makes YouTube hits. Luckily for casinos like Caesars, White’s trip may have rekindled old fires. He’s headed back to town, this time with a circus and a revenue stream to help fill the divots he left in August. On June 22, the UFC will go back to the city that hosted its reimagining: Atlantic City, New Jersey. The other fi ght capital of the world—the one that helped him start stuffi ng his mattresses with enough money to return and kick the shit out of it later on. These things are always cyclical. Zuffa’s origins are forever linked to that old Boardwalk, which, at the time, acted more like a springboard.
The UFC’s first event under Zuffa was UFC 30 in 2001, which took place at the Trump Taj Mahal, at a time when nobody else was stupid enough to touch such a barbaric “bloodsport.” But Atlantic City and the new UFC made history, and the reshaping of fi rst impressions was visible on the promotional posters: The All New Ultimate Fighting Championship. That was the night the sport changed—a light heavyweight title fi ght between Tito Ortiz and Evan Tanner, with a co-main that featured 155-pound champion Jens Pulver against Caol Uno. By today’s standards, it was a megacard.
And you know what’s sick? That was nothing.
A couple of months later at UFC 31: Locked and Loaded—held in the same venue—Randy Couture defended the heavyweight strap against Pedro Rizzo, and Pat Miletich ceded the welterweight crown to Carlos Newton. That was also the night Shonie Carter downed Matt Serra with that ridiculous spinning backfi st, and a little known Hawaiian fi ghter named B.J. Penn made his debut. It was perhaps the single most stacked card in the history of the sport, only most people didn’t know it yet. Nor did anybody realize they were watching the sport’s first forays above ground.
Since then, the UFC has returned three times—UFC 41, UFC 50, and UFC 53. The last time was seven years ago. Much has happened between 2005 and 2012. For one thing, the cusp-criminal sport that was thought to defi ne the decay of western civilization is now a cusp-mainstream sport with an immense multi-year network television deal. When Gray Maynard fi ghts Clay Guida at Revel Casino, it’s no longer “no holds barred,” but rather a clash of gameplans that happen to contain violence. It’s been a wild ride.
And the relationship between Vegas’s White and AC’s Donald Trump has endured many seasons. They’ve snuck glances at each other through the media. They’ve competed with each other (Trump helped fund the Affl iction promotion), but they’ve remained respectful throughout. Why? Because they’ve always managed to rally around the idea of mixed martial arts.
“It’s actually kind of fun for me (to return to Atlantic City),” White said recently to the media. “I’m happy about that because that’s where we started. When we fi rst bought this company, no venues would even take us. Donald Trump was the first guy to say, ‘We’ll do the fights here.’ Donald Trump gave us our first shot over at [his arena], and then when we left and went to a bigger arena at the Meadowlands, he was one of the fi rst guys there in his seat. He watched the whole card.”
Zuffa returns triumphantly, and the stories it could tell about the journey. It took a decade to go from too small and “fringe” to big enough to spare a show at a 5,000-seat arena just for nostalgia’s sake. Only this time through, instead of watching White kick the shit out of Caesar’s Palace, we can all get back to the old idea of watching guys kick the shit out of each other.
Better yet, this is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
Chuck Mindenhall is a special contributor to FIGHT! Magazine and covers MMA for ESPN.com. You can catch him on MMA Live on ESPN 2 and follow him on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.