This Day in MMA History: Feb. 23

By Brian Knapp Feb 23, 2009
It will likely go down as the day on which the fortunes of a still-fledgling sport took a turn for the better.

On Feb. 23, 2001, Zuffa LLC promoted its first mixed martial arts event under the Ultimate Fighting Championship banner -- UFC 30 “Battle at the Boardwalk” -- at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J. The mainstream sports world largely ignored the show, as most people were transfixed by the shocking death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 just five days earlier.

A sparse crowd -- a far cry from those that fill 20,000-seat arenas nowadays -- was on hand to witness an historic show that featured five current or eventual UFC champions: Sean Sherk, Tito Ortiz, Josh Barnett, Jens Pulver and the late Evan Tanner. The collection of talent inside the eight-sided cage provided an early hint at what was to come.

UFC 30 represented the first step up the mountain for the new ownership group, led by Las Vegas casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and an ambitious young executive who turned the use of four-letter words into an art. The world was only beginning to get to know UFC President Dana White. In January 2001, they had purchased the failing company from the Semaphore Entertainment Group -- which had owned the UFC since April 1995 -- for just $2 million. A month later, they rolled the dice on their new baby.

Mike McNeil/

UFC President Dana White
at UFC 30.
Two title bouts headlined their inaugural show, as Pulver notched a majority decision against Caol Uno in a lightweight championship match and the charismatic Ortiz knocked out Tanner with a vicious slam 32 seconds into their battle for the light heavyweight strap. Only two of the eight fights on the UFC 30 menu went to the judges, though few of the finishes were as memorable as Pedro Rizzo’s two-punch knockout of Josh Barnett. It remains the only KO loss of Barnett’s career. In addition, Sherk, Phil Baroni and Elvis Sinosic all made their promotional debuts that fateful evening in Atlantic City.

Today, the UFC has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar machine, spurred to mainstream success by word of mouth and the rise of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series on Spike TV. High-profile sponsors like Bud Light and Harley Davidson have jumped on board. Records for attendance and pay-per-view buys continue to fall. Few could have imagined such feats for a sport once labeled as “human cockfighting” by Sen. John McCain.
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