This week marks an enormous milestone for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The promotion celebrated its 20th anniversary just two days ago on Nov. 12, and hosts its 20th anniversary show, UFC 167, this coming weekend in Las Vegas. No one would have thought on that fateful Saturday night in Colorado, 20 years ago, that this company and the sport of mixed martial arts would be where it is today. Now, however, there’s a generation of people, myself included, that have grown up with this sport.

The date on which the first event took place was Nov. 12, 1993. I had just turned three years old just over a month prior to that date, so needless to say that when the event aired, I had no clue about it, much less would I have watched it live. That didn’t last very long though.

Growing up I was a huge pro wrestling fan, and in the mid-’90s, some MMA stars started transitioning over to the WWF (known now as the WWE). I knew what “ultimate fighting” was at that point, but seeing guys like Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn in a wrestling ring marked my first real taste of the sport. I loved the style that those two guys used to wrestle, and I even remember the WWF using an Octagon-type cage and calling it a “Lion’s Den” match between Ken Shamrock and Owen Hart back at Summerslam 1998.

I decided I needed to see more of this stuff and what kind of shows the UFC actually put on. It was in the early 2000s when my brother and I decided to rent our first show from Blockbuster Video. That DVD we rented was of UFC 47, highlighted by Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.

Neither of us had seen the fight card and the results weren’t really broadcasted back then, so we went into it having no idea who had won that fight. I was rooting for Ortiz and my brother was rooting for Liddell. Ortiz lost the fight, but I was hooked on the sport from the moment that “Face the Pain” hit my television speakers. We started renting all of the cards in order from our local Blockbuster so we could catch up to the fight card that was coming up. Then The Ultimate Fighter started.

Remember, I was a huge pro wrestling fan, and that first season of The Ultimate Fighter came on Spike TV every Monday night after WWE Monday Night Raw. I was a tired guy going to high school every Tuesday morning, because I had to stay up until midnight to see what Chris Leben was going to do or who was going to win the next fight.

The first live fights I ever watched were those from the very first The Ultimate Fighter finale. I personally tuned in to see Shamrock and Rich Franklin, but like everyone else, I went to sleep having been blown away by Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar.

After that night, I kept up with all the seasons of TUF, and I was always checking the event websites anxiously awaiting the day when that 10-minute video preview would finally come out. All of that led up to one of my favorite moments in UFC history, and in my opinion, one of the most overlooked of all time.

The moment came at UFC 70: Nations Collide. It was the first-ever numbered card to air on free television. The card was co-headlined by a controversial decision between Matt Hamill and Michael Bisping, but the main event changed my life forever. That main event was a heavyweight title eliminator between Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Gabriel Gonzaga.

All everyone talked about prior to that fight was Cro Cop and his amazing kicking skills. Then, in the final seconds of the round, Gonzaga knocked out the Croatian with what I consider to be the greatest knockout in the history of the sport. The result was about as shocking and gruesome as you could get. It was the perfect ending for the first numbered card to air free to the masses.

I had known that I wanted to be a sports journalist from a very young age, but that night made me want to cover mixed martial arts for a living. The impact that fight had on the sport cannot be denied.

The next fight card after that featured Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Chuck Liddell, and it was the first time I ever remember the UFC being featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter. From then on, the sport just took off. From the signing of Brock Lesnar to the monumental UFC 100 event, I grew up just as this sport was exploding.

I live in Central Florida near the country’s largest retirement community, and starting with UFC 109, a local sports bar in that community started showing the pay-per-view events live. I was there for every event, and the clientele for those cards is still growing to this day. Witnessing the turnout there and seeing every sports bar within a 20-mile radius of the University of Central Florida being absolutely packed on every fight night made me realize that there really were other people who loved this “niche” sport as much as I did.

Now, I can’t say that I watched UFC 1 live, but I can say that this sport has really grown up right beside me. From that first season of The Ultimate Fighter, when I was a freshman in high school, to now, with the huge 20th anniversary show as I am about to graduate from college, this sport has become a huge part of my life, as I’m sure it has many other fans.

My eyes will be glued to the television Saturday night when Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks step inside the Octagon, and I can’t wait to see how much this sport evolves when I sit down to watch the 50th anniversary show as a gray-haired 53-year-old. Here’s wishing a happy birthday to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and here’s to many more.

Photo: Ken Shamrock (Sherdog)

About The Author

Trey Downey
Staff Writer

A Central Florida native, Trey Downey's interest in MMA came after a trip to Blockbuster and the rental of UFC 47 on VHS. He has been blogging about the sport since 2011 and hosted a podcast called The TD Experience focusing on football and MMA (touchdowns and takedowns). Trey studied radio and television at the University of Central Florida and will soon be attending the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. Trey enjoys watching sports, pro wrestling and is an avid runner.