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Cage Kings: How an Unlikely Group of Moguls, Champions & Hustlers Transformed the UFC into a $10 Billion Industry BY MICHAEL THOMSEN. NEW YORK: SIMON & SCHUSTER. 448 PAGES. $30.

The cover of Cage Kings: How an Unlikely Group of Moguls, Champions & Hustlers Transformed the UFC into a $10 Billion Industry

IF YOU WERE TO HAVE TWO MEN FIGHT EACH OTHER with a minimum of rules, should they do it in a boxing ring, or a plexiglass cube, or a cage (and maybe an electrified one)? These were the novel logistical questions faced by the founders of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, including a used-car salesman turned ad mogul and a Brazilian described by Playboy as “the toughest man in the United States,” as they attempted to identify what form of martial art was most effective at incapacitating an opponent. Inspired by a Chuck Norris flick, they chose the cage—no electricity—to determine whether, say, a sumo wrestler could beat a “pit fighter” and held their inaugural grand prix on November 12, 1993, in Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena. The slender Royce Gracie, brother of said toughest man, wore a gi and used his family’s brand of jiujitsu to best an American boxer (one glove, shoes on), an American professional wrestler (red speedo), and a Dutch kickboxer (karate pants, a previous opponent’s teeth still embedded in the flesh of his right foot). The UFC paid Royce $50,000 for winning the event that had been advertised around the city as “The End of Civilization as We Know It” and which birthed the athletic chimera that is mixed martial arts.

UFC 1 garnered dismissive critical reaction—“disgusting, dumb, and depraved,” according to TV Guide—in addition to nearly ninety thousand pay-per-view buys and $1.3 million, enough to impress the execs. Three decades later, you can watch men (and, since 2012, women) in the UFC’s official skivvies headkick each other live weekly on PPV and broadcast television, as well as in hundreds of streamable past fights. Jetting from Anaheim to Shenzhen to Abu Dhabi to Melbourne, the UFC has gone global and gangbusters, and in 2016 was acquired for $4.2 billion by talent agency Endeavor in the largest transaction ever in sports history. Michael Thomsen’s Cage Kings examines the remarkable trajectory of the UFC, from its lowly beginnings in the ’90s to its peaks of profit in the late 2010s. Along the way, Thomsen considers the growing popularity of this multibillion-dollar behemoth against the backdrop of American life growing ever more immiserated, and attempts to contextualize the normalization of a competition in which a fighter can “guillotine” an opponent and a fan won’t blink.

Royce Gracie at "UFC 1: The Beginning," McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, CO, November 12th, 1993.
Royce Gracie at “UFC 1: The Beginning,” McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, CO, November 12th, 1993.

Politicians and officials did blink, however, at least in the early years, perhaps freaked by the apocalyptic tagline pasted around Denver and PPV executive Campbell McLaren’s exclaiming on Good Morning America: “You can win by tapout, knockout, or even death.” State athletic commissions refused to sanction the sport; UFC executives were even threatened with arrest in Charlotte by police sure that MMA had to be against some law, even if they couldn’t say which one. Though he later proclaimed he’d have tried MMA had it been around in his youth, Arizona senator John McCain called it “human cockfighting” in 1996 and sent an open letter to every governor in the country asking them to support a legislative ban of the UFC. As chair of the Senate committee overseeing cable in 1997, he called all the major companies to dissuade them from broadcasting UFC fights. Many complied, sinking the promotion’s earnings per event from as much as $2 million to as little as $100,000. Increasingly illegal and unprofitable, the UFC was let go for a song, scooped up in 2001 by Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, the brother-heirs to a Las Vegas gaming conglomerate fortune. The brothers created an LLC called Zuffa, Italiano for “fight,” and installed an impulsive childhood friend of Lorenzo’s named Dana White as president of the UFC. While Thomsen attends to the rise and fall of significant athletes over the decades, his book’s titular monarchs are pretty obviously this trio, who maintained an iron grip over the UFC as they honed Zuffa into a machine for growth, leaning on their political ties from the casino business to sanction MMA throughout the country (and then the rest of the world). The company partnered with new broadcasters and voraciously acquired competitors, all the while bullying the fighters they kept under contracts described by one labor-law professor as the worst he’d ever seen in sports or entertainment. Business picked up year after year such that today, hardly a week ever goes by without cage activity.

Fighters come and go at an accordingly fast pace, and White’s comparative longevity has made him arguably the public face of the UFC. A former boxercise instructor and adherent of self-help guru Tony Robbins, White is prone to calling employees “fags” and insulting reporters, and cultivated a cultural identity for the newborn sport that fetishized its dumbass, ex nihilo will to power; to quote Robbins, the UFC is for “the few who do versus the many who wish.” In the 2000s, Zuffa partnered with the then-newfangled television channel Spike to successfully woo those elusive, internet-addled eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old men who were early cable cutters. MMA became a pressure valve for the NEET nation who would live through multiple recessions, the real hourly wage’s stagnation, the ballooning of consumer debt, and the credentialization of the job market. (Without implying MAGA causality, Thomsen rhymes the UFC’s popularity with the rise of a twenty-first-century Caucasian chauvinism charged with resentment over nonwhite athletic success; “UFC was so successful,” McLaren tells the author, “because it was a sport white guys could win.”) These conditions not only precipitated the infantilization of culture in the new millennium—a savaged American public retreating into the homey comforts of expanded universes and over-cathecting with pick-your-entertainer—they also gave rise to the consumption of fighting at a scale and clip previously unheard of.

The athletes themselves rarely benefited from the sport’s ressentiment-fueled rise. The UFC maintained a massive roster of fighters it saw as replaceable and bulldozed these independent contractors (never employees) by essentially calling them pussies if they complained. When the first season of reality show The Ultimate Fighter swapped Survivor-style goofball challenges for weekly matches, White cowed dissenters in an on-camera speech, asking a group of men willing to face death in a cage, “Do you want to be a fuckin’ fighter?” On TUF and off, fighters say yes almost categorically, making up an athletic lumpenproletariat that’s bought into a violent multilevel marketing scheme in which many will make less in a year than federal minimum wage. It is, as Lorenzo happily puts it, an “eat what you kill” system, in which many fighters inured to such economic cruelty are already as dispossessed as their fans. TUF wildcard Chris Leben, Thomsen notes, collected cans to pay for bus fare to get to school and was illiterate until his teens; underdog’s underdogs the Diaz brothers proudly repped Stockton, California, which was “the most profitable 250-square-mile stretch of farmland in the world, and one of the poorest regions in the US” when they were growing up.

The Diazes have been exceptionally vocal about their mistreatment, but most fighters are happy to turn themselves into slurry on the UFC death march with a smile. (“I was so driven,” says one fighter, “if they said to me, Don’t eat for a month, I would have done it.”) Like White, as Thomsen details, they are fond of self-help platitudes. The Robbinsisms sound like cope when you only make twelve thousand to show up in the cage, with another twelve thousand if you win, but a select few brash rainmakers have willed themselves (and the UFC) to greater heights. Conor McGregor, a plumber’s apprentice turned MMA phenom, dominates Cage King’s final chapters. The Irishman was first convinced of The Secret’s law of attraction—if you think it’ll happen, it’ll happen—by mentally manifesting parking spots while driving around Dublin. Luckily for him, he’s also an athletic anomaly with the gift of (mediocre) gab. “It’s always you versus you,” McGregor has said. It’s not hard to see why this might be particularly appealing to the UFC’s desired demographic: If the world tells you you ain’t shit constantly, shouldn’t you be able to beat your ain’t-shit self?

“We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” McGregor said in 2014 after only his third UFC fight. The phrase is oft repeated by his legion of fans and fighters unsure of how to earn besides aping the sport’s most successful fighter. McGregor was the first UFC fighter to hold two belts simultaneously and headlined half of the UFC’s ten top-grossing fights of all time, but did he achieve anything like equity with the Fertittas, who couldn’t have made quite such a killing selling to Endeavor without his bombast? As the world’s highest paid athlete of 2021(due mainly to his whiskey brand), McGregor will likely avoid the worst harms faced by his peers, who struggle without the support of the UFC or a union to treat the flesh-eating staph infections and collapsed lungs Thomsen inventories at Cage Kings’s end. Still, he might have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a cerebral malady officially undiagnosable without an autopsy but easily suspected given his behavior. In a single night during the NBA playoffs this June, he sent a Miami Heat mascot to the hospital with an overzealous play punch and allegedly sexually assaulted a woman in a bathroom. But it’s a fool’s errand to determine what is ascribable to CTE versus possible (some say probable) substance abuse versus a career of being rewarded for sociopathic and violent solipsism.

As Thomsen points out, most professional sports split revenues 50-50 between athletes and their leagues; the UFC keeps its books under lock and key, but it seems to pay out less than 20 percent. Without feeling sorry for him, then, you could argue that even McGregor has been treated unfairly for his violent efforts by a company that may as well have always been led by Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, who is fond of a self-serving koan that will be familiar in its shithead self-help smarminess to anyone who has ever tried to negotiate for more than crumbs with their boss: “Fair is defined as where we end up.”

Matthew Shen Goodman is editor-in-chief of The Baffler