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Can UFC Gym go mainstream yet keep its mojo?


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Punch. Punch. CRACK! go the fierce fists of Amanda Nunes, in the octagon at T-Mobile Arena for UFC 200. She attacks and attacks, striving to claim Miesha Tate’s championship title. SMACK goes her knee into Tate’s chin, and Tate is staggering, then down. Blood gushes from Tate’s nose in a three-inch-wide stream. Nunes gets a chokehold on Tate and pries her over, flat on their backs. Tate flails for a second, then taps her opponent’s arm in the recognized signal for surrender. Nunes leaps to her feet, roaring in victory, and takes the enormous belt around her bantamweight frame. Time elapsed: 3:16.

This was UFC 200, billed as the most epic fight so far in the history of ultimate fighting, that no-holds-barred mix of wrestling, judo, boxing and jujitsu that started officially in 1993 and once wreaked so much mayhem it was banned in 36 states. It took place July 9 in Las Vegas, drawing a sell-out crowd and a huge pay-per-view haul. And I was there, an unlikely first-time attendee, hosted by UFC Gym. I never expected to be a fan of ultimate fighting—too bloody, too violent, and isn’t it all fake, anyway?—but by the time Nunes beat Tate in the title fight, there I was on my feet, screaming like a maniac for Nunes along with 19,000 fans.

UFC 200

The scene at UFC 200 in July at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where 19,000 fans cheered their favorite ultimate fighters.

And UFC Gym had me right where they wanted me.

UFC Gym is a Santa Ana, California-based chain of gyms backed by a heavyweight management team. It is owned 50 percent by UFC, which is short for Ultimate Fighting Championship, and 50 percent by New Evolution Ventures, a private equity firm founded in 2008 that invests in sports businesses. At the head of NeV, as it is known, is Mark Mastrov, a personal trainer who bought a gym in Northern California in 1983. He went on to build 24 Hour Fitness, which had 550 locations at its peak and sold in 2005 for $1.68 billion. NeV also owns Crunch, Madonna’s Hard Candy Fitness, and Mastrov himself co-owns the Sacramento Kings. “Every modern-day innovation in fitness has a foundation with Mark,” says Brent Leffel, CEO of UFC Gym.

The first UFC Gym opened in 2009 in Northern California, and it was big, at 35,000-square-feet. NeV opened four or five more, but then decided to scale up through franchising beginning in 2012. They came across LA Boxing, which had about 70 locations at about 5,000 square feet each, and acquired that chain in 2012, eventually converting them to UFC Gyms and settling on about 10,000 square feet as the right size. Today UFC Gym has 115 franchise locations, with another dozen corporate-owned and intense interest around the world, mirroring ultimate fighting’s global appeal. Initial investment ranges from $390,000 to $891,000 for a typical club, although “signature clubs” with UFC fighters as owners are more costly.

Leffel and his team’s task is to harness the raging popularity of ultimate fighting and bring it to a mainstream audience via UFC Gyms. To do so, they have begun signing famous ultimate fighters as franchisees of select gyms, like Frankie Edgar, a former featherweight champion who also fought at UFC 200 and now owns a gym in New Jersey. The problem is the ugly reputation of the sport. “It’s a legit sport now, not just a bloodthirsty spectacle,” insists Ben Larson, my colleague at Franchise Times and a UFC superfan who attended the July event to tell me what was going on in the octagon, as the eight-sided ring is called in ultimate fighting matches.

Frankie Edgar

Frankie Edgar trains a group of kids at his New Jersey UFC Gym.

But how does knocking people out translate to mainstream fitness? And if it does translate, how can UFC Gym avoid becoming just another run-of-the-mill concept after the masses flood in?

Kent Lehnhoff is VP of franchise development for UFC Gym, brought on about a year ago to ramp up franchise sales. At age 48, he has the ripped physique of a fighter, the result of a strict diet and training regimen. “I burn 22,000 or 23,000 calories a week and I eat less than that,” he says. Lehnhoff has a career-long background in the fitness business, including at Gold’s Gym, another fitness concept famous for a fierce reputation that ultimately fizzled with the public at large. “What’s interesting is Gold’s at one time was the most popular brand in fitness,” he says. He was part of the group that acquired Gold’s from its founders, building it to 700 units, then watched as it changed hands a few times. “Since then the brand has lost its mystique. They watered down the brand and they went away from their ethos,” he says.

But he vows that won’t happen at UFC Gym, despite the sport’s reputation for amped-up maniacs beating each other bloody. “I’ve had to thread the needle before. With Gold’s Gym, while it wasn’t fighting, it was guys that looked like freaks in their underwear on stage,” he concedes. He had to spend a lot of time in the early days convincing landlords to accept Gold’s Gym as a tenant. The key will be getting the message out—that anyone can shape up and get fit at UFC Gym. When I say, half jokingly, I wish I were younger so I could become a fighter, he shoots back: anyone at any age can train like a fighter. “Just like our mission statement says: We empower the fighting spirit in you,” he insists. UFC Gym is the place to go “when you really want to get in shape. These fighters are some of the best-trained people in the world. It’s great for women; it’s great for kids. It’s getting the message out, it’s not watering down what we do.”

mixed martial arts

UFC Gym owners want to attract women to train in mixed martial arts, as shown here.

And maybe convincing formerly skeptical middle-aged women like me to become fans is part of that game.

“LET’S GO FRANKIE. LET’S GO FRANKIE. LET’S GO FRANKIE,” roars the crowd at UFC 200 in Las Vegas, as Frankie Edgar takes on Jose Aldo. Edgar is also a new franchisee of a UFC Gym in New Jersey, and the crowd in the UFC suite in T-Mobile Arena is pumped. Edgar and Aldo are fast, light on their feet, and Edgar tries to get at Aldo over and over with high kicks, then a back roundhouse. Taller than Edgar, Aldo dances away, dances away again, avoiding contact. Aldo lures Edgar in, then lands punch after punch on Edgar, and blood pours down his face. The crowd is on Frankie’s side, but this one goes to Aldo. The UFC Gym crowd is deflated—but only until the next fight begins.

That night wasn’t Frankie Edgar’s shining moment in the octagon, but there have been many others. He is the former featherweight champion for UFC. Now his challenge is his UFC Gym in North Brunswick, New Jersey, which he opened in June. In a conference call right before the grand opening, he explained the attractions of becoming an owner, including just how far the sport has come and how much he loves it. “My first fight ever was an unsanctioned fight in New York City. There was no medical, there were actually no rules,” Edgar recalls. “The UFC has really pushed this sport into the mainstream, covered by Fox and ESPN. We’re called one of the big five sports. I’m not surprised. It’s my passion, but I can see how everyone else is following suit.”

The reason? “Everyone gets fighting. It’s in our nature,” he says. “It’s a very safe sport and people can get behind it, and it goes across all ethnicities, genres.” I ask him how he can call the sport safe, and he replies with nonchalance. “From the untrained eye you see some blood and whatnot, but what we have to go through in order to get sanctioned to fight” is extensive. “The biggest injury you’re going to have is a broken bone or a laceration, but you don’t see as many injuries as American football,” Edgar says. “I’ve had a couple of cuts and maybe a couple of broken noses, but that’s about it,”

Frankie Edgar

"The UFC has really pushed this sport into the mainstream,” says fighter Frankie Edgar.

David Paris, of Paris Ackerman & Schmierer in New Jersey, is a huge UFC fan and the attorney who worked with Edgar to sign his deal with UFC Gym. He quickly chimes in on the conference call—UFC Gym is not about the fighting, he insists, mindful that bankers and investors are among the people who may be squeamish. “A lot of these institutions think this is a fight club and it’s important to note that it’s not. It’s a very conventional gym,” with an emphasis on mixed martial arts training, Paris says.

Edgar is 34, but when I ask how long he thinks he can keep fighting, he won’t say. “I haven’t put a number on it. As long as my body holds up, ” Edgar says, noting that he has three kids.  “You have to be realistic and know that fighting only lasts so long and you have to transition to something after.” His “something” is UFC Gym, where he makes frequent appearances and helps train clients from time to time. “I have to look to the future and this is the perfect thing. I’m passionate about it.”

Brock Lesnar is enormous, the former NCAA wrestling champion and a former Minnesota Vikings defensive player. So is Mark Hunt, the New Zealand heavyweight contender, but in a different way: Hunt is 5-foot-10 to Lesnar’s 6-foot-3, so Hunt’s massiveness seems completely horizontal. Hunt’s punch is known as the heaviest in fighting, and Lesnar does not like to get punched. Lesnar does like to get his opponent to the floor, as a wrestling champion would, so he keeps going for Hunt’s legs and at one point gets him against the octagon, leans down, picks him up like a 260-pound sack of flour and flops him on the ground. Then he piles on top and starts punching Hunt in the head, but most punches land on Hunt’s wrists or forearms. Lesnar endures through three rounds, and is declared the champion.

Frankie Edgar

Frankie Edgar gets glycerin on his face before his fight.

The UFC brand cemented its legendary status in July, when it was sold to the WME-IMG Hollywood talent agency and a group of other investors for an astonishing $4 billion. Keep in mind its previous owners, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White, bought UFC in 2001 and paid a mere $2 million, according to the Wall Street Journal It’s a remarkable rise, as the Journal noted after the sale: “The bloody fights staged by the UFC have gradually expanded beyond backyard brawls into mainstream entertainment with more than 500 athletes and lucrative sponsorship deals.”

Brent Leffel, UFG Gym’s CEO, said he was told about the sale a day or two before it closed, and executives at UFC remain heavily committed to the expansion of UFC Gym despite the change in ownership. “I’ve been working with these guys a long time, I know the value of what they have. I’m not surprised at all at the price tag,” he says. When he asked what the sale would mean for UFC Gym, his contact at UFC “affirmed that it’s all systems go. What I told the team is, it’s business as usual. This increases the scope of our opportunity.”

For Leffel, a former investment banker, all the hype surrounding UFC can’t get in the way of building a solid business. “There’s a lot of fame and celebrity and money following this brand around,” he says. “But you have to keep in mind the laws of economics and business gravity.”

His first law for building a business: “In any environment you have to have the wind in your back. I did distressed private equity for years, and when the wind is in your face it’s a hard environment,” he says. Fitness is booming. UFC is booming. For him the job is “making sure we have the right people in the right spots.”

He believes in the potential of UFC Gym, and he’s thrilled to be in at the beginning. “It’s pretty cool—money and all that is great, but the thing people can’t take away from you is if you can shape something that can be really big, in the early innings…this is pretty special. We are in the first or second inning, but we have a great proposition.”

I interrupt him—why is he using a baseball metaphor? Shouldn’t he say they’re in the first or second round in the octagon?

“Yes, yes,” he agrees with a laugh. “You’ll look back at that in 30 years, and hopefully this will be the biggest fitness brand in the world. The wind is so at our back.”


Octagon

In the octagon, each fighter displays a unique style.

Scenes from the octagon

Fans pour into the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas July 9 for UFC 200, the 200th major fight for Ultimate Fighting Championship. People pose in front of the giant red UFC letters outside. Young women wear very skimpy dresses and very large shoes, or ripped jeans and tight black tops. Men wear muscle shirts and jeans, or, in the suites, sleek dark jackets.

Tattoos are everywhere, down the arms and across the backs, and beards are big too.

A fan runs down the concourse with a Canadian flag wrapped around his shoulders and flowing like a cape, a follower of Brock Lesnar, no doubt. Inside it’s dark and very loud, with the announcer bellowing each name: Anderson the SPIDERRRRRRRRRR Silvaaaaaaaa. The spotlight ricochets around the sold-out crowd. The camera pans onto Patriots QB Tom Brady next to pop star Justin Timberlake; fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone; and basketball player Dwight Howard, whom the crowd boos.

Fighter Johny Hendricks didn’t make his weight class the day before during weigh-ins (he missed it by a half-pound), so he has to forfeit 20 percent of his pay to his opponent, Kelvin Gastelum. Each fight is three rounds for five minutes each, or championship rounds are five rounds of five minutes. If there is no knockout, three judges will score the fight to declare the winner, and it’s subjective. Skinny women in black bikinis, big hair and white tennis shoes strut around the octagon between each round, showing the number of the round.

Amanda Nunes

Amanda Nunes, in yellow, delivers a blow to Miesha Tate.

Fighters get half their fee for showing up for a fight and half if they win and in the earlier rounds the prizes might be $30,000 to $50,000. The championship fighters have six-figure paydays. The best scene is when the fighter approaches the octagon with an entourage: fierce face, camera pointed backward, spotlight glaring. The cutman puts Vaseline on faces so the punches slide off and don’t break the skin as easily. The athletic commission official frisks the fighter to make sure they haven’t put glycerin or anything else slippery on the body. They check the mouth for a guard, their gloves. The fight begins.

The bombshell for UFC 200 comes just days before the fight: Jon Jones is out, allegedly because he failed a drug test, and the UFC world is rocked. “That’s like Aaron Rodgers being told three days before the Super Bowl he can’t compete. Madness,” says Ben Larson, FT’s on-site UFC expert. Anderson Silva agreed to take the fight, likely because of a very large purse attached, said Larson, who added Silva is considered by many to be the best fighter in the UFC.

Anderson Silva had gall bladder surgery just five weeks before UFC 200, and he looks very outgunned by Daniel Cormier, the former Olympic wrestler who spends most of the fight lying on top of Silva with his much beefier torso. The crowd doesn’t approve, booing and chanting “stand them up, stand them up, stand them up” when they spent too much time on the ground. Refs are human, too, even this ref, who literally wrote the rule book on UFC, and this one feels the pressure and yes, stands them up. Cormier wins and gets the first impassioned interview after the match, but Silva gets to speak too and is obviously the crowd favorite. Silva, from Brazil, displays one of the main attractions of UFC fighting: its international flavor, with fighters and fans from all over the world.

Jeff Amann and Beth Ewen

FT’s Jeff Amann and Beth Ewen pose at the UFC sign in Las Vegas.

Two women are up, Julianna Pena and Cat Zingano, bantamweights at 135 pounds, and they look small after the big men before them but they are fierce. Women have been fighting in the UFC only in the last few years, since Ronda Rousey entered the fray, convinced the UFC brass to let women fight and then sealed the deal by bringing in thousands of new, avid fans. The talent pool is smaller than the men’s so far, but fighters are quickly developing and they are fan favorites. Interestingly, the main event at UFC 200 is the women’s bantamweight championship fight, nearing midnight.

By now I’ve watched several fights and am quickly picking up on UFC’s main draw: every single fight is different, and each fighter has a distinctive style and strengths. Compare it to a basketball game—back and forth, back and forth, scoring and defending and not much else, and you see the richness in fighting. Pena wins her fight against Zingano, and later I hear the men behind me comparing “those five-foot girls” unfavorably to a later fight of heavyweight men. I laugh, thinking how fast those “five-foot-girls” could drop most men and women in the arena.

Two heavyweights are up, the 6-foot-7 Travis Brown and the 6-foot-2 Cain Velasquez. This seems like it will be a cinch for the big man because of his enormous reach. But Valesquez  takes it to him aggressively, and pretty soon Brown is on the ground. He gets up, but then is whacked down again, and the shorter man jumps on him, pummeling his head. Ben Larson, our on-site UFC expert, explains ultimate fighting is not the free-for-all it used to be; there are rules, such as when a fighter’s knee or hand is on the ground, the other fighter cannot knee or kick an opponent  in the head. Groin shots are forbidden; so are shots to the back of the head. In this fight, the big man on the ground finally quits defending himself intelligently, or so the ref decides, and the fight is called for Velasquez in the first round.

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