Today is the 17th anniversary of the Friends episode, “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion.” It was the 24th episode of the 3rd season of Friends and is a hell of a time capsule for the UFC. The episode originally aired on May 8, 1997 which is years before Dana White and the Fertitta brothers took over. Yet, in a sport where careers are relatively short, the episode featured people still closely connected with the sport today.
In case you have forgotten, the episode featured Jon Favreau as “Pete,” Monica’s millionaire boyfriend who wanted to become “the Ultimate Fighting Champion.” The episode aired a few weeks before UFC 13 (May 30, 1997) and multiple months after UFC 12 (February 7, 1997).
To put that break in perspective, the UFC will host two cards on the same day later this month. Anyone who follows the sport knows that the idea of a 3 month layoff between UFC events is insane. Of course, as we’ll learn shortly, there was also a time when 20 million people would watch an NBC sitcom on a weekly basis. The times, they have a-changed.
On Friends, Pete makes his UFC debut against Tank Abbott, presumably somewhere in the New York metro area that holds 20,000 people. Let’s just call it “UFC: Friends.” As you’ll see in the video above, Ross and Monica both sat ringside. Ross even enjoys “the Ultimate Fighting combo.” Sanctioned mixed martial arts and a gallon of cola. (New York politicians must have had a horrible time in the 90’s.)
Three familiar faces are involved in Pete’s fight – Bruce Buffer, John McCarthy and Tank Abbott.
17 years later and Buffer is still the voice of the UFC and McCarthy is still one of the sport’s premiere referees.
(It should also be noted that Pete makes his entrance by paying tribute to Royce Gracie with the New York version of the “Gracie Train.”)
“Big” John McCarthy was the man in charge of the fight and as you can see, he was wearing a “Judgment Day” patch on his shirt. It wasn’t a nod to Terminator 2, which came out 6 years earlier, it was the name of UFC 12, which means this fight could have taken place in Dothan, Alabama. The logistics of that are ridiculous when you look at the rest of the episode. (More on that briefly.)
Tank Abbott is Pete’s opponent. At the time the episode aired, Abbott was 6-4 in his career and coming off a loss to Don Frye. Tank’s career went downhill after his win over Pete Becker at UFC: Friends. A few weeks later at UFC 13, Abbott would get wrecked by Vitor Belfort in a super fight. (VIDEO: Again, that was 17 years ago. Belfort was briefly scheduled to fight for the UFC middleweight title at UFC 173 which takes place in TWO WEEKS.)
Tank Abbott is retired now. His last fight was about 13 months ago at the age of 47. He finished his career with a 10-15 record, but he’ll always have proof that he could kick John Favreau’s ass.
Despite the loss to Tank Abbott at UFC: Friends, Becker somehow got another fight in the UFC. Since Pete chose to pursue becoming “The Ultimate Fighter,” Monica dumped him. Wait a second. This episode of Friends aired nearly 8 years before The Ultimate Fighter debuted on SpikeTV. Did someone in the Friends’ writers’ room name “The Ultimate Fighter”?
Later in the episode the gang gathered at Rachel and Monica’s apartment to watch Pete’s next fight. As you can see, they watch like you and your friends watch sports. With arms around each other and everyone seated as uncomfortably as possible right in front of the television in the same 4-square foot area.
Surprisingly, there was one person associated with the UFC who did not appear in this episode – Joe Rogan. Rogan started working with the UFC at UFC 12 and was on NBC’s NewsRadio from 1995-1999.
Despite this episode taking place not too far removed from the “human cockfighting” era, Friends handled the depiction of MMA fans very favorably. No meathead bros wearing smedium sparkly skull t-shirts are shown. In fact, the one fan who does get any screen time is this guy.
Are those… beaded bangs? He looks like a character from a Key & Peele sketch about the 90’s. The honest truth is that I stumbled on this episode of Friends on TBS yesterday afternoon, caught a glimpse of this guy’s hair and needed an excuse to post these pictures. The fact that the episode originally aired today and has a sports connection is pure coincidence.
When the UFC signed a deal with FOX 14 years later, many people thought that the UFC had broken through to the mainstream. Turns out the UFC went big time on NBC back in 1997. The first UFC card on FOX drew 5.7 million viewers. This episode of Friends was watched by 23.1 million people. While that seems insane, you should know it was the second-lowest rated episode of the entire season. (Know that the MMA media would have studied that number very closely if it existed back then.)
This was well before the UFC as we currently know it. This was before Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, Dana White, SpikeTV, FOX, The Ultimate Fighter, and any concern about steroids, either in the UFC or sports in general. I remember watching this episode, but didn’t watch an actual UFC fight for another 8 years or so. This little MMA time capsule proves that the UFC has been “mainstream” forever, Friends was a trendsetter and we are all getting old. Seriously. This was 17 years ago.