That is largely due to the fact that UFC has built its fighters into personalities. UFC uses The Ultimate Fighter (as well as other programming) to create names and build brands. They may need to work on their nicknames (they have fighters called the Hungarian Nightmare and the People's Warrior), but despite that, UFC has big-time talent whom people pay to see. Rich Franklin. Matt Hughes. Forrest Griffin. Chuck Liddell. Tito Ortiz. These are fighters whom fans not only know but also adore, and there are more of them. (Come up with five big-name boxers right now, and then ask yourself if you'd pay to see them. Didn't think so.)
Those who cover the sport and those who attend are proof of UFC's pop-culture relevance, that the fighters and the fights are significant now. Outlets that wouldn't have even mentioned UFC five years ago now regularly write about it, including the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, the Miami Herald, et al. The big Mike Tyson fight used to be the draw of the year in Vegas. Now Tyson himself attends UFC events. So do Shaq, Tim Duncan, Paris Hilton, and Leonardo DiCaprio. At one fight, I went to the bathroom and stood next to Lee Majors. The Fall Guy!
"Look," White says, "you can go to a Lakers game, but you're never going to meet Kobe. You can go to a football game, but you're never going to meet your favorite player. This sport is accessible. That's what we're selling. I guarantee you that if you come to one of our fights or to a weigh-in, you're gonna get an autograph or a picture with your favorite fighter. And we're gonna keep it that way."
I tried. I really did. But despite my best efforts to get White to tell me about the downside of success, about the rival leagues that want to steal some of UFC’s cachet, about the fighters who want more money, about the online detractors who say disparaging things about him and the company from the shadowy recesses of the Internet, he wouldn’t budge. What can I say? As previously noted, he’s a hard case. This is the closest I came:
“We’re not mainstream yet,” White says. “We’re not there — yet. We have so much time and opportunity to grow. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Really? I’m not so sure.
As I walked back to my hotel after UFC 62, after Liddell had demolished Sobral in a first-round knockout, people at the craps table stopped to ask passersby if they had been at the fight and, if so, who’d won. Even the pit bosses stopped. Pit bosses and craps tables wouldn’t stop for a SWAT raid. The next morning, bleary-eyed, I left for the airport at about five — long before the sun had come up and before my brain had switched on. My cab driver, on the other hand, was impossibly perky for such an unsavory hour and began peppering me with questions about my time in Vegas. He told me everything about him, including that he had just moved to the States from Sri Lanka. All I told him was that I was in town to cover UFC.
Suddenly, it was like he was possessed. He turned almost completely around and ignored the road altogether. “Who won the fight last night?” he asked breathlessly.