LAS VEGAS -- UFC 200 is Saturday's undisputed biggest betting event, the marquee attraction of a busy sports weekend that also includes the Wimbledon men's and women's finals and the Euro 2016 final.
The card was dealt a blow when Jon Jones dropped out of the headlining match with Daniel Cormier, but the UFC was able to quickly fill the void as former champion Anderson Silva signed on to fight Cormier in an intriguing nontitle bout. The Miesha Tate-Amanda Nunes women's bantamweight title bout now takes over as the headliner, with popular heavyweight Brock Lesnar also taking on Mark Hunt -- and just like that, the buzz around the T-Mobile Arena is as electric as ever.
The fact that this kind of change doesn't derail the whole show (and that one can't imagine a boxing card scrambling so effectively on short notice) shows how far the Ultimate Fighting Championship has come, especially since its humble beginnings as a niche sport in the 1990s. We've come to expect the UFC to have exciting title fights and competitive cards from top-to-bottom for fans and bettors alike.
That hasn't always been the case.
UFC 1 was held on Nov. 12, 1993 at McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado, and was promoted by original owners Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). Early editions of these mixed martial arts events -- commonly referred to as MMA, which includes all the other organizations, although we're focusing here on the history of the UFC -- were promoted as no-holds-barred bouts with no rules. There was no set number of rounds and there were no weight classes; contestants fought until the loser was knocked out or choked out, or tapped out.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously referred to the fledgling sport as "human cockfighting" in 1996 and there were calls to outlaw it. The UFC had many other critics, and it wasn't able to get licensed in Nevada. Instead, it held cards all over the country in a wide variety of cities: Charlotte, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Casper, Wyoming; Buffalo, New York; Detroit, Michigan; Birmingham, Alabama; Augusta, Georgia; Dothan, Alabama; Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Lake Charles, Louisiana; and Atlantic City, New Jersey. The UFC also hosted events in Puerto Rico and Japan as its fan base grew.
The UFC slowly made its way into pop culture and the mainstream, receiving a big boost in that regard when it was featured on the wildly popular TV show "Friends" on May 8, 1997. In an episode titled "The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion," Monica's millionaire boyfriend Pete Becker (played by Jon Favreau) competes in the octagon and repeatedly takes a beating.
John Avello, the director of race and sports at the Wynn Las Vegas, was at his former job at Bally's in the mid-1990s.
"This was 20 years ago, so I don't have specific recollections of conversations of UFC at that time," Avello says now, "but the discussions were probably similar to what we're seeing now with esports. I don't recall any meetings with the Gaming Control Board like we're having already with esports, but we were keeping an eye on it and deciding how we would book it and how it would be handled by Gaming.
"Let's face it, it was a younger person's game -- just like esports is now -- but us old bookmakers know how to adjust, and when they cleaned up the sport, it made it OK for us to book it."
While the "no rules" policy appealed to the desired demographic of 18-to-34 males, the UFC gradually outlawed eye-gouging, fish-hooking, hair-pulling, head-butting and blows below the belt to make the sport less barbaric. To appeal to state athletic commissions, they also added rounds and a scoring system to make it more like a sport -- more like boxing, but still decidedly different.
The Fertitta brothers -- Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, who inherited the Palace Station Hotel-Casino from their father, Frank Jr., in 1993 and built the Station Casino empire here in Las Vegas -- bought the UFC for $2 million in 2001 (current UFC President Dana White, the Fertittas' childhood friend, also owns a minority ownership stake). That was just after UFC 29, and they continued to legitimize the sport, which ultimately led to the UFC getting licensed in Nevada.
Marc Ratner was the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission from 1992 to 2006 and is credited with helping the UFC get licensed in the state. Ratner later left the NSAC in 2006 to become the UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs, and he has helped the UFC get licensed in every other state -- capped off by New York making it legal in March. That's a huge comeback from when 36 states banned no-holds-barred fighting in the 1990s.
The first card held in Nevada was UFC 33, which took place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Sept. 28, 2001. Hugh Citron was a sportsbook supervisor at Mandalay Bay, which was an independent book at that time, and jumped at the chance to set MMA odds.
"I followed UFC since its inception and was fascinated by it," Citron said, "but we didn't book it until we hosted that first event in Las Vegas. The main reason was to give the fans going to the fights a chance to bet, but we found out right away that the UFC had very dedicated fans -- and they weren't afraid to bet.
"In the following years, other books started booking UFC but would usually just do the main event. But we knew that any fights we put on the board would get tons of action."
As Citron alluded to, the UFC became more popular with the sportsbooks in Vegas as MMA's popularity grew in the mainstream, and stars such as Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz emerged. Bettors also loved that most fights didn't go to the judge's scorecards, so there were more clear-cut results rather than the kind of controversial decisions that have plagued boxing.
The Vegas sportsbooks handle UFC mostly the same way as boxing, with odds on the two fighters and an over/under on the number of rounds. There hasn't been much in the way of prop betting, though there have been a few notable exceptions. When UFC 183 was held on Super Bowl eve in 2015, the Westgate SuperBook posted a prop on the number of completed rounds in the Anderson Silva-Nick Diaz fight vs. the number of made field goals by the Patriots and Seahawks; the FGs were -0.5 and a -150 favorite, but the Silva-Diaz bout went five rounds and only one FG was made in the Super Bowl.
Another milestone event was UFC 51 on April 9, 2005, which featured the finale of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show that aired on Spike TV. Avello -- who has become well-known outside Nevada for his odds on reality shows such as "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Bachelor" and just about any other reality show you can name -- said he remembers getting caught up in "The Ultimate Fighter" craze, which White, to this day, credits as the turning point when the UFC really went big-time. Avello points out there were other factors that helped the UFC become the force that it is today.
"There were big names, for sure, but UFC also benefited with the decline of boxing," Avello said. "Boxing, which really made this town back in the day with so many big fights, started to fall apart with so few big names except for Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in recent years, and the heavyweight division has pretty much been nonexistent. UFC has pretty much just filled that void. If the sport of boxing had stayed strong, UFC wouldn't have had as easy of a time growing like it has."
Citron marvels at how the sport has continued to increase in popularity, but says handicapping UFC hasn't changed too much.
"Back when we started booking UFC, it was easier to follow because there were maybe 10 fighters in each weight class, so it wasn't hard to know them all pretty good," he said from his Stratosphere office, where he has worked since 2012, and still enjoys putting up his UFC odds. "Now, the UFC has hundreds of fighters, so that makes it more challenging. It's still not like boxing, where you can make a heavy favorite. In UFC, you never want to lay a really big price, because as we've seen with some of the big upsets, anything can happen. The fighters have to engage, unlike boxing, where a fighter might be able to dance around. When you have to engage, there's a lot more ways to lose."
Avello agrees with certain public sentiments that the UFC has almost grown too much, and does question whether the product is getting to the point of overexposure. It took 16 years to get to UFC 100 in 2009, or an average of just over 6 cards a year, and now we're at UFC 200 just seven years later -- an average of about 14 pay-per-view cards per year, to say nothing of the cards broadcast on TV.
Even though Avello mentioned the decline of boxing several times, he stops short of saying UFC has surpassed boxing in the betting arena.
"It's still comparing apples and oranges," Avello says. "There's still nothing like a big title fight like we had last year with Mayweather-Pacquiao, but the problem with boxing nowadays is that you rarely get a card with good fights on the undercard. But if you take away those mega-boxing events, the UFC cards out-handle the lesser boxing events because they're usually deeper with more good fights."
However, Jay Kornegay of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook disagrees, saying that the UFC out-handles boxing, at least at his book, and it comes down to that increase in volume.
"UFC out-handles boxing at a 2-to-1 clip, with boxing being skewed by a few marquee fights," said Kornegay, adding that an average UFC card takes in bets comparable to a solid NFL playoff game. "This disparity is widening every year. UFC cards can offer up to 10 matches to wager on, while boxing only offers one to three at most. A lot of boxing undercard matches aren't worthy for posting on betting boards."
Despite losing the Jones-Cormier matchup, Saturday night's UFC 200 will still produce big lines at the betting windows at the sportsbooks in Vegas. As of 10 a.m. PT Friday, the consensus Vegas lines for the top fights were: