Despite an athletic background in baseball and swimming, Bob Meyrowitz had no interest in creating the sport of mixed martial arts when he co-founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993.
He just wanted to get some questions answered, the first being when he asked a friend who studied Taekwondo if that combat discipline could defeat karate in a fight.
“That’s a Brooklyn question,” the Marine Park native replied with a laugh.
2016 UFC Hall of Fame inductees
- Pioneer: Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira
- Pioneer: Don Frye
- Contributor: Bob Meyrowitz
- Fight Wing: Pete Williams vs. Mark Coleman
And when he was told that, “They can’t fight. It’s different rules,” Meyrowitz, who founded the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), wasn’t about to let that query go. So he brought up the topic at a creative meeting.
“Everybody liked the idea,” he recalled. “Of course, I was the head of the company, so you could expect that. At the next meeting, they said ‘What about jiu-jitsu, what about wrestling?’ I said fine.
“We can do it so they can all fight. I’d like to see it.”
So did Art Davie and Rorion Gracie, who pitched their idea for the same kind of event to SEG Executive Producer Campbell McLaren. That’s all it took. SEG was in, and on Nov. 12, 1993, Meyrowitz was going to get a chance to see his questions answered. Nearly 23 years later, he is a member of the UFC Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016.
“We are happy to recognize Bob’s contribution to the sport of mixed martial arts and the early days of UFC,” UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said. “As an astute businessman with a vision, Bob, along with the other co-founders, brought an idea to life and laid the foundation for what has now become a premium global sports brand and the largest pay-per-view event provider in the world. We look forward to honoring him at the induction ceremony this July at the UFC Fan Expo.”
For the pay-per-piew pioneer, who worked in the music business for years, producing events for such acts as The Who, New Kids on the Block and Ozzy Osbourne, he would likely appreciate the description of his time as owner of the UFC from 1993 to 2001 as coming from a Grateful Dead lyric.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
How strange? Just go back to what has been described as the UFC’s “Dark Ages,” when the promotion fought tooth and nail just to stay alive.
“We were losing money on every show,” said Meyrowitz, 73. “We were banned on cable and I was in court wherever we went.”
One of those court dates was in Rhode Island, a state where SEG hoped to put on a UFC event. The judge allowed it. With one condition.
“We could do it as long as we followed the rules of the WWE,” Meyrowitz recalled. “My lawyer said ‘Your honor, WWE isn’t real.’ The judge responded, ‘I’ve been watching it for 20 years, it certainly is.’ Those were the things we were dealing with.”
But Meyrowitz dealt with it, fighting the good fight from 1993 until he sold the struggling UFC to Zuffa (Frank Fertitta III, Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White) in January of 2001.
“Do I regret selling it?” Meyrowitz asks. “No, I don’t. The Fertittas were willing to invest 40 million dollars into this. I don’t know if I had that money that I would have. And the Fertittas had an incredible passion for the sport. It is quite astounding what a brilliant job the Fertittas and Dana White have done. But we didn’t even know what we were creating, and it slowly kept taking form as you were watching it.”
To this day, the athletes who arrived in the Octagon under Meyrowitz’ watch are still revered by fight fans. Whether it was Hall of Famers Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Royce Gracie, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Pat Miletich, Tito Ortiz, Bas Rutten, Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock, or fan favorites like Tank Abbott, Vitor Belfort, Don Frye, Kevin Randleman, Frank Shamrock and Oleg Taktarov, Meyrowitz found a way to put them in the spotlight and make them stars.
“The entertainment business is the most honest business,” he said. “Only the fans choose who’s a star. You can do whatever you think you can do, but you have to see what the fans like and then you have to give them their visibility and you have to give them their visibility so that they can work their stardom.
“The other thing that I say is that people don’t watch sports; people watch people. So when I created the UFC, I knew that we had people that no one knew. So we did a tournament. And looking back, it was not really fair to ask people to fight three times in one night, but the idea was that we started with eight guys nobody knew. By the end of the night, in one night, you knew the two final fighters and you had a rooting interest.”
By the end of that first night in Denver in 1993, fans around the world weren’t the only ones convinced that they wanted to see more of the UFC. Meyrowitz was sold as well.
“I was very involved in music,” he recalled. “I produced music for radio, for television and then I became enamored with the idea of Pay-Per-View, and was doing all these music events for Pay-Per-View. So I had been producing shows. The first UFC is the only show that I ever produced that I didn’t go to. I didn’t know martial arts, I didn’t know what I could contribute, and I would rather stay at home and see it on television and get an idea of exactly what the viewer is seeing. And from there, I can fix it.”
Meyrowitz watched UFC 1 with his college roommate, Richard, and Richard’s 11-year-old son. The trio then proceeded to watch Gerard Gordeau knock out the tooth of Teila Tuli with a kick.
“Richard and I are in shock,” Meyrowitz said, laughing.
Richard’s first words? “You’re doing this?”
But then 11-year-old Nicholas chimed in.
“That was the greatest thing I ever saw. The Gracies will rule for the next seven years.”
Meyrowitz had seen and heard enough.
“This kid totally got it. And from his perspective, I totally got it.”
From there, it was a whirlwind of fights, both in and out of the Octagon, as the UFC battled for recognition. But when the dust settled, Meyrowitz had made stars, brought the promotion to Japan and Brazil and, finally, delivered the sport we are seeing today when UFC 28 in November of 2000 was the first event contested under the unified rules of mixed martial arts.
It was a fight well fought.
“I was more involved in caring about the athletes than really looking like we were building this great sport,” he said. “And unfortunately, by the time I could appreciate the sport, I was engaged in fighting desperately for the sport.”
But it’s still here. And a thank you is due to the UFC’s newest Hall of Famer.
“There were astounding fights and astounding things going on, and it was really incredible,” he said. “It was quite an extraordinary thing.”