Inside the rise and fall of the cheesy UFC PPV names (2024)

The MMA world is about to hit a historic stretch over the next seven weeks. With six championship fights sprawled across three pay-per-views, never before have so many UFC title bouts been packed into such a small window. And a quick look at the event schedule tells you exactly what to expect.

“UFC 258: Usman vs. Burns,” slated for Saturday, is a clash between UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns. “UFC 259: Blachowicz vs. Adesanya” is Israel Adesanya’s quest for a second belt against Jan Blachowicz, and “UFC 260: Miocic vs. Ngannou 2” is a high-octane rematch between two of heavyweight’s best. In each case the event name is straightforward — it conveys its product without a hint of fluff or wasted space.


These two fighters are meeting on this specific night, and that’s all you need to know. Simple enough.

But indulge me for a moment. Let’s turn back the clock 15 years, uprooting the upcoming seven weeks and plopping them down into the middle of 2006. Instantly, the marketing for all three pay-per-views probably looks a little different. UFC 258, a collision between ex-teammates, may suddenly be renamed “UFC 258: Double Cross.” UFC 259, a card with three title fights, may suddenly be billed as “UFC 259: Triple Threat.” And UFC 260, the long-awaited grudge match between Francis Ngannou and Stipe Miocic, may get smacked with a cliche hook like “UFC 260: Vengeance.”

That’s because the cheesy event title used to be a way of life in MMA. For the first 18 years of the UFC’s existence, pay-per-views were almost exclusively branded with splashy subheads — some laughably bad, some surprisingly decent and some instantly memorable. The Fighter X vs. Fighter Y motif we’ve come to expect is mostly a development of the past decade.

“There was sort of like a coolness factor, like a Quentin Tarantino-esque coolness factor, to what we did,” says UFC co-creator Campbell McLaren, “and that comes through in what you’re asking about, which is the parenthetical titles or the subtitles and the themes that we worked with. And I think that’s gone a little bit.

“But back then it was almost like a movie, and we were casting a movie. That’s, to an extent, what drove all that we were doing and what inspired us.”

So how did the trend start and where did it go? Why did the days of kitschy pay-per-view titles like “UFC 27: Ultimate Bad Boyz” and “UFC 50: The War of ’04” fade from history, and how did we ever reach a point where low-hanging fruit like “UFC 72: Victory” and “UFC 76: Knockout” was actually getting regurgitated onto fight posters across the world?


As is often the case in MMA, it’s a story rooted in controversy, stubbornness and an undying devotion to a certain, inescapable late-’90s aesthetic.

Note: All interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.

It all started in 1994, when McLaren and fellow UFC co-founder Art Davie were tasked with piecing together a sequel to the beautiful chaos of their promotional debut. UFC 1 had been a surprise hit, a paradigm-shifting night that asked eight different martial arts styles to validate their worth and pushed nearly 90,000 buys on traditional pay-per-view. To up the ante, McLaren and Davie dragged UFC 2 even deeper into the chaos, doubling down from their original eight-man tournament into an even more extravagant 16-man field.

Everything was about leaning into the controversy and momentum generated by their first offering, so the event’s tagline became a natural extension of the company’s goals: “UFC 2: No Way Out.” As in, there was no escaping this new form of raw and brutal combat arena. It worked to perfection. The follow-up show blew away all expectations, more than tripling UFC 1’s buy rate to the tune of 300,000 pay-per-views sold. A formula had officially been established, and it was a winning one.

McLaren: It was crazy, it was surreal — but it had to be surreal.

Back then everything had to be over the top because we didn’t have any stars. We had to push the envelope to get attention. The marketing budgets were never that big. And when I was still with the UFC, you had to go to your cable operator, you had to go to your cable office and get a box for a pay-per-view. You understand? You had to physically go get a box. So think about how that changes now when you’ve got a remote control and you just do it through the push of a button, right? That’s a significant difference, so we were dealing with that.


Davie: These guys, nobody knew them from a box of rocks. Like, who the f*ck is Ken Shamrock? Who are these guys? The big problem for us early on was: Who the hell are these guys?

So the names (of the early UFC events) had to be interesting because you pointed out the exact problem that we had in the beginning: Without any stars, the event became the star.

McLaren: Originally, I always thought this was Mortal Kombat the video game, and so I was always visualizing it like that.

We had to have the themes, and that’s why I think “UFC 16: Battle on the Bayou,” it goes back to “Rumble in the Jungle” — those are like classic fight names. “The Ultimate Ultimate” (a tournament of former UFC tourney winners), I loved that. That’s a great name. So then when we talked about it, it was almost to the point of operational ideas and how to bring it to life, if that makes any sense.

Who is going to fight? Where are we going to do it? What’s the TV spot going to look like? Is there a theme song that will work for that? Particularly the first 12 (UFC events), maybe the first 18, were really sort of thoughts we had — comic books, video games, movies. I think that’s where it came from. And then we would get together and say, “How do we fill this in?”

Davie: Each show became a debate about what kind of a thing we were going to emphasize. “UFC 9: Motor City Madness” was easy because we were going to be at Cobalt Arena in Detroit. That wasn’t hard. “UFC 7: The Brawl in Buffalo” was easy. Names like “UFC 10: The Tournament,” that was kind of a name that (UFC co-creator) Bob (Meyrowitz) and I looked at each other and we argued about the fact, “Well, we don’t have anything exciting.”

I joked to Bob, “Well, why don’t you pick a f*cking generic name and we’ll go with that?” And that’s how I think “UFC 10: The Tournament” came, because that’s so f*cking generic.


While the strategy may have led to an occasional dud — “UFC 10: The Tournament” is a true touchstone of eff-it marketing — it also led to a handful of nostalgic gems. Davie and McLaren look back fondly on one event in particular: “UFC 8: David vs. Goliath,” a spectacle constructed around a theme of skilled smaller fighters matched against less capable giants, which went gangbusters at the box office.

McLaren: There’s a guy named John Milius who directed the “Conan the Barbarian” movies, and he also wrote “Dirty Harry.” He wrote a lot of the “Apocalypse Now” script, so he’s a very famous Hollywood guy, right? I mean, those are good credits. He’s the one that suggested the octagon because Conan fights in a stone octagon. So we used that idea, but he gave me a lot of bad ideas. He thought the octagon should have three columns around it. I thought that was stupid. But the other idea, he goes, “You don’t want the giant to lose; the giant has to win.” Conan, right? So I was thinking about that, and I kept going: “The giant has to win? The giant has to win?”

And Royce (Gracie) — Royce is the littlest guy, right? And people loved him. Then I saw (Marco Ruas vs. Paul Varelans at UFC 7), and the crowd went crazy when Ruas chopped him down. I thought, “We’ve got to do ‘David vs. Goliath.'”

Davie: I had come up with the basic concept. I said, “What about if, in terms of booking and matchmaking, what about if I get you guys who are around 200 pounds but are really good, and I get you some big jabeebs?”

My job was to find sharks and goldfish. I’d put three sharks in, and the other five guys were goldfish.

Inside the rise and fall of the cheesy UFC PPV names (1)

Campbell McLaren, pictured, and fellow UFC co-creator Art Davie were tasked with creating the names of PPV cards. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Mun2)

McLaren: At that stage in the MMA fandom, people didn’t understand jiu-jitsu that well, so everyone still thinks the big guy is going to win, right? I mean, that’s what you think. So it was perfect. It was an epic name that described it completely. And again, it wasn’t like we had a star. I mean, Scott Ferrozzo, “The Pitbull,” one of the giants — their own mothers barely remember some of these guys. These were not famous guys. But you know, when you did “David vs. Goliath,” which I think is the best name, everybody got that. You knew what that meant.

Davie: The guy who won it weighed 210 pounds: Don Frye. But Bob was all nervous because we were starting to get tremendous political pressures from the press and politicians. We already had trouble ever going back to Denver. We had trouble going back to Charlotte. And Bob, now he’s the one not only paying for the purse, he’s paying for the lawyers and he’s paying for the production and he’s paying for the marketing. He’s under a lot of stress.


So when we came up with the big versus little, his first reaction was: “Damn, the press is going to eat that up. If the little guys all get their ass kicked, it’s going to make us look more brutal than ever.” But Campbell came up with the name “David vs. Goliath,” and that being a great biblical reference, I called Bob; I said, “I love the f*cking name.”

As the years went on, for every “UFC 8: David vs. Goliath” that hit the mark just right, there was another “UFC 10: The Tournament” that swung and missed. By 2001, with outside pressure mounting from media and politicians, and the brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their business partner Dana White making preparations to buy a UFC brand crumbling under the weight of the controversy it so gleefully courted in its earlier years, Davie and Campbell had essentially exhausted their list of ideas.

Davie: We were struggling. Because you can see some of the generic names — and that was the problem. We still weren’t at the point where you’ve got a Georges St-Pierre, a Matt Hughes.

I remember something to the effect of: If so many movies are about monsters, could we create a monster name? And Bob said, “That’s the f*cking stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Like, what?” And maybe I was the one who came up with it — there was a movie called “The Manster.” I think if you looked at weird movie titles that — you know, Ghoulardi or Svengoolie on a Saturday night in some cities will run those monster TV marathons where they’ll run the old Frankenstein stuff. I think (I suggested) “The Man-ster” at one point. And Bob said, “Now we’re really stretching.”

As fate would have it, the sale of the UFC in 2001 did little to slow the promotion’s reliance on the naming conventions established by its first regime. The debut pay-per-view of the Zuffa era, “UFC 30: Battle on the Boardwalk,” led to a string of up-and-down titles: “UFC 33: Victory in Vegas,” “UFC 34: High Voltage” and “UFC 35: Throwdown.” Yet it wasn’t until the eighth event of Zuffa’s ownership that the UFC stumbled upon a tagline that would grow to be its calling card: The cable-televised “UFC 37.5: As Real as It Gets.”

Ant Evans (former UFC executive): I can’t remember the details of the company, but we paid a marketing firm a ton of money. I think this was all a Lorenzo Fertitta idea. It’s definitely not a Dana thing just to basically pay a bunch of geeks to say: “What’s the problem with the brand? How do we course-correct this now that we’ve bought it?”

What they came back with is people are confusing it with pro wrestling — which sounds laughable, but literally, that’s why you’ve stopped seeing the ramps and the fireworks and the cool entrances, because this marketing firm said people are confusing pro wrestling with the presentation. So that’s where they came up with this tagline “As Real as It Gets.” That’s why they went heavy on that for like five, six years.


Jim Byrne (former UFC and WWE marketer): (The UFC) was frowned upon at that point. We had no TV deal. We were still struggling. We weren’t doing very many buys per pay-per-view. It was like that until “The Ultimate Fighter.” We just kind of struggled and hobbled along, trying to find what the right mix (for the pay-per-view marketing) was.

I came in at “UFC 38: The Brawl at the Albert Hall.” They’d turned that into a fiasco.

Inside the rise and fall of the cheesy UFC PPV names (2)

UFC creator Art Davie, who was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2018, said early on “without any stars, the event became the star.” (Jeff Bottari/ Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Evans: The Royal Albert Hall is a magnificent historical building named after Prince Albert, prince and consort to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, that is essentially run by a trust on behalf of the British people. They booked the UFC by mistake. They thought UFC was like WWE, which they’d had a few times.

About five or six weeks out, someone clued them in: “Oh, no — this is cage fighting. Have you seen this stuff? This is human co*ckfighting! It’s banned in 11 galaxies!” All this kind of sh*t. And people are calling it “The Brawl at the Albert Hall.” That got them to call the UFC and say, “Yeah, you can’t do this.” And UFC had to countersue. Dana basically stuck to his guns and said it’s too late to change. Eventually, the Royal Albert Hall said, “OK, do your event.”

They modified it to “Brawl at the Hall” to take the word “Albert” out.

But seeing “UFC 38: The Brawl at the Albert Hall” on the poster plastered around London on Sky Sports and stuff like that, that triggered them to go: “Holy f*ck! What have we got going on?! What’s going on in six Saturdays’ time at our learned, important, historical venue, which is known for musicals and The Proms and productions of Shakespeare?”

Byrne: It was a completely different world from my WWE days. When my creative team (in the WWE) came up with “Highway to Hell,” we then went out and licensed the song from AC/DC for a quarter of a million dollars, right? This wasn’t that. (Laughs.)


With WWE’s money, we were able to have a license for the names and use the music in the adverts, but not at all was that the case with UFC. We had to kind of think a little bit more generically.

Evans: (UFC marketing executive) Beth Turnbull, she’s got a big boxing background. She’s fantastic. She was pushing for the (pay-per-view) names to go because I think poor Beth has got more of a sense of shame than I’ll ever have.

I actually tried to go as cheesy as possible, just to see if I could get away with it. Like, weird, obscure references to things, and I had a lot of fun. So when I was at UFC, occasionally (matchmaker) Joe Silva would send an email around to me and (editorial director Thomas) Gerbasi and a few others, saying, “Can anyone think of a name for this?” So no matter what I was doing, I would reply, and half the things I would send them was just trying to make Joe laugh or see if he will take it seriously and flip out, because you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Joe Silva flip-out.

Loren Mack (former UFC employee): It was like an email circulation with a list of names that I think the marketing team came up with; they would circulate it. And the reason I know that is there was one called “Reality Check.” It was (Forrest) Griffin vs. Tito (Ortiz), “UFC 59: Reality Check.” I know that Dana wasn’t really fond of the titles — he was always big on switching to the athletes — but Dana was quite fond of that name.

That seemed to be the one we all loved, because we were living that, man. Every day was a reality check.

Evans: That was a Tom Gerbasi special, which I think was great because that was when Forrest was a reality TV star. It’s a reality check. It’s a check to see if Ortiz still has it, and obviously Forrest is coming from a reality TV show. So that was the best one thing to ever come from that process.

Then (you had) “UFC 75: Champion vs. Champion.” If you look at Google, you can see some of the original (posters). So, pretty f*cking obvious, “Champion vs. Champion,” Pride champion versus UFC champion — first time ever that happened. Well, Dana and a few others didn’t like it. They were like: “UFC champions are the world champions. Even though we now own Pride, we don’t want to confuse people.” And here we are promoting “Champion vs. Champion,” and there’s a weird belt that no one’s ever seen before on there.


So if you see “UFC 75: Champion vs. Champion,” we stuck with the name — once it’s out there, you can’t change it — but each iteration of the poster, the key art, the belts, became shaded in darkness. Basically almost like that Homer Simpson meme when he’s stepping backwards into the hedge, the Pride belt is going further and further back in the darkness, to the point where the last one could be just like the shine from the poster as you look at it; that could just be the light catching it funny. You can’t see the Pride belt. So that was one of the last ones that made any sense, but then it didn’t make sense.

Although several of the early returns of the Zuffa era were promising, it wasn’t long before employees ran into precisely the same problem that befell Campbell and Davie: Their well of ideas had fast run dry.

Byrne: In the early days — and any one of a number of guys will validate this, whether it’s Gerbasi or Ant Evans or Joe Silva — the guys didn’t really trash-talk one another very often, right? So because of the whole martial arts respect tradition, we just didn’t have a lot of trash-talking guys that would promote their event by saying stuff about their opponent.

So when we didn’t have it, we’d have to kind of manufacture it. Like, “UFC 65: Bad Intentions” is Rich Franklin fighting Anderson Silva — Rich being an incredibly classy guy, Anderson not being somebody who spoke English in any facility. We at times felt like if we can’t get the guys to do it, we’ll kind of find a way to create the friction. So calling an event “Bad Intentions,” when neither guy has ever said anything about the other that would indicate there was any bad blood whatsoever, feels to me pretty forced. (Laughs.) It’s like two of the nicest guys in the sport — “Bad Intentions.” Like, where did that come from?

Evans: I mean, who has good intentions in a fight? Ambivalent intentions.

“UFC 80: Rapid Fire” did work, though, because I think at the time it did hold the record for the most knockouts and fastest finishes for a pay-per-view. It’s long since been pushed down to about No. 7, but that at least worked. Whereas “UFC 76: Knockout,” there wasn’t a single knockout. And I was like, because we were selling DVDs at the time, “Oh, don’t we need to retroactively call it, like, something else other than ‘Knockout’?” If somebody buys that expecting knockouts, they’re probably back at the store the following day and saying, “There’s no f*cking knockouts!”

Mack: The titles were becoming silly, very WWE-like, as opposed to a sport. There’s only so many names you can come up with that actually sell a fight before you really get into clown territory.


Evans: The problem for the UFC is these things just took on a life of their own, like a distraction.

Byrne: I remember going through the exercise of trying to come up with banks of names. And a lot of times the inspiration would be the movies, right? You’d look to movie names to see if there was anything that was usable there. So, not surprisingly, you started getting things that were kind of movie-sounding names, like “UFC 109: Relentless,” “UFC 97: Redemption,” “UFC 99: The Comeback.” So I remember that became a source of potential names for events — what’s worked well in the movie world?

Mack: I mean, (UFC matchmaker Sean) Shelby would go through a bunch of magazines to come up with the next creative idea because we were running out.

Evans: I just threw names out there because a lot of them were so bad. Just like: “Seriously, we’re going with ‘UFC 78: Validation’? ‘Validation’ is what we’re doing? Are we offering free parking as part of your ringside ticket? ‘Validation,’ seriously? What the f*ck does that mean?”

Joe (Silva) didn’t have a computer. (MMA pioneer) Jeff Blatnick bought him his first computer, and I don’t know who paid for his first America Online subscription. So, Joe is the kind of person who would go to the library to research stuff way, way, way, way more recently than there’s any excuse for. And apparently he did go and stand in a Blockbuster just to look around the titles for some inspiration. I imagine he opened his arms and closed his eyes for a few seconds, with that mix between a carpet store and a popcorn stand kind of smell that Blockbusters used to have, and just absorbed the inspiration.

So I don’t know how close we were to, like, “Ultimate Debbie Does Dallas 5” or something.

Inside the rise and fall of the cheesy UFC PPV names (3)

UFC president Dana White decided the promotion needed to only do names and numbers for PPVs. (Mike Roach / Zuffa LLC)

By the late 2000s, the success of the UFC reached unprecedented heights. Yet the internet was changing the way fight promotion worked on a fundamental level, and the UFC’s format had long begun to jump the shark.

Evans: By then we’d already committed to “UFC 72: Victory.” I was like: “Yeah, I imagine someone’s going to win. Let’s hope we don’t have a f*cking card full of draws because that would suck.” And they’re out there like: “Yeah, we’re running out of names. We tried to get rid of these before. And we tried to get rid of the numbering, but we just couldn’t.”


Byrne: (Laughs.) I don’t really know what we were doing there.

Mack: That does seem like the ultimate “f*ck it.” Like, yo, we’re running out of ideas.

Evans: Eventually there was definitely a sense that this is getting absurd. If we passed a janitor in the hallway and he had an idea, they would’ve taken it at that point. It isn’t like, you’re imagining this crack creative team sitting in an office with the coffee going to get the creative juices flowing. Anybody at all who had a decent name that wasn’t absolutely cringe was going to get a full hearing on that. And their full hearing was like: “It’s not absolutely awful! Let’s do that! All right, OK, onto UFC 74.” That’s how it was.

Byrne: Pay-per-view basically is an event business, and so you want to drive people towards an event. So whatever kind of luster some of those early names had fulfilled a purpose.

I know for a fact that it was Dana that basically said one day, “It’s headliners and numbers.” And that actually just made our lives easier because we could derive from that.

Evans: It was harming the Google searches, that was basically it. Like, this was really f*cking it up. People aren’t going to search for “UFC Victory.” They may search for “UFC Rich Franklin fight,” and you better serve them up the tickets or the pay-per-view. No one’s searching for “UFC Rapid Fire.” They might be searching “UFC BJ Penn fight” or “UFC BJ Penn next fight,” so you better arm the algorithm with every possible chance of returning them to the website you want to sell them a pay-per-view on, or sell them a ticket.

The company was just ready for any excuse to please, God, end this. Like, thank God you came up with that. And I think it was Beth Turnbull (who was) like: “Thank God. All right, now we’ve finally got the excuse. Now we must do it. We tried before — now we’ve got to. There you go, there’s an absolute business reason why we must do this and must do it right now.” And everyone’s like, “Oh, no, we’ve got to stop doing this thing that we all hate?” Everyone was just so ready to stop it.

The final slice of the UFC’s pay-per-view cheese arrived in 2011 when the trilogy bout between then-lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard was promoted as “UFC 125: Resolution.” (“The ‘Resolution’ was to never do this again,” Evans jokes.) From that point on, the UFC switched to the more SEO-friendly Fighter X vs. Fighter Y naming convention still used for pay-per-views today.


Still, for however silly some of those events names may have been, the era of corny UFC pay-per-view titles holds a special, nostalgic place for many whose fandom bloomed over those 18 years.

McLaren: All our guys were test pilots. All of them. We had no idea what we were doing. We all went out there, all trying to figure this out as we were doing it. And they were all characters, right? Many of them were professional athletes, but none of them in the beginning were professional mixed martial artists. There was no such thing. That didn’t exist. So all the marketing, all the themes, all the headlines, all the subtitled parenthetical titles — all of them came from these guys in this crazy mix of what was going on. And it just was the most interesting time.

Evans: It’s definitely a more innocent time, and more seat-of-the-pants, has-anyone-got-a-good-idea-email-me kind of time, rather than a more methodical, professional (approach). And look, what you’re talking about here is a snapshot of what’s happened with the UFC in its first 25 years, yeah? Because it did go from an underground kind of anti-sport to being a renegade sport (to a professional sport). “More professional” usually means “more boring,” you know? That’s what the UFC has experienced. So much has been gained, but still something has been lost.

And I think this is a microcosm of it. The coming up with a cheesy name that’s a little bit funny, a little bit catchy — that was good enough then. It was more than good enough then. In fact, it was exactly what the sport needed. “UFC 2: No Way Out” underlined the fact that you can’t escape from the cage — you know, unless you’re fighting Tank Abbott and you’re about to get thrown out. But a few things have been lost, and this is one of them. And it is regrettable, in some ways.

Byrne: It’s interesting because there’s a lot of interest in collectible markets for a lot of the stuff that we created back in those days. The marketing collateral, the programs. And I think a lot of it speaks to a lot of that charm that existed in those materials. I think there’s something to it — that it is probably considered one of the golden eras of the sport. I think as a result of looking at it purely from a marketing perspective and using what you’ve got rather than what you don’t have, it’s the catalyst for everything that we did back in those days, but that it actually kind of holds together and creates an era of great-sounding events that delivered for the fans. When we didn’t really have the star power necessarily to support the interest, we went to the next best thing.

Davie: I miss that. I think that, in that sense, what’s missing today is that it’s become a little more like boxing today, quite frankly. A little more mannered.

You look back on that era, it was wild and wooly. It was Dodge City and any f*cking thing went. And we were looking to find “The Man-ster.” We were bringing in guys like Tank Abbott and Krav Maga guys; we didn’t care. Whoever they were, we were going to find them to put them in this thing. Because part of it was to show the audience, some of these guys are full of sh*t — and when you actually throw them in the octagon, that’s the crucible which separates the goldfish from the sharks.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos courtesy of the UFC)

Inside the rise and fall of the cheesy UFC PPV names (2024)


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