1996 was the year that Senator John McCain infamously referred to mixed martial arts as “human cockfighting” when he attempted to ban the sport in all 50 states before it could really take off in the US
UFC 1 had taken place just three years earlier on November 12, 1993 and marked the birth of MMA, and from the start there was curiosity as to what that “ultimate fight” was. There were no weight classes, no gloves or uniforms, and essentially no rules. It has not been sanctioned in every state. It wasn’t even called mixed martial arts.
Meanwhile, also in 1996, “Friends” wrapped up a successful second season on NBC just before the summer. The show — starring Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer — was already a smash hit as the third most watched prime-time television series (at a time when a lot of of people who watch TV regularly) behind only #1 “ER” and #2 “Seinfeld”.
Appearing on a show like “Friends” would certainly bring tremendous exposure to the sport and the UFC in particular. But why should that have happened then? What did a sitcom about six young adults living in New York City have in common with brutal fights that took place in the octagon?
And yet, the creative team behind Friends came up with an idea for an episode where Monica (played by Cox) has a friend named Pete (Jon Favreau) who dreams of becoming the ultimate fighter. They even borrowed directly from the UFC storyline by titling the penultimate episode of Season 3 “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion,” which premiered 25 years ago this month, on May 8, 1997.
Considering McCain’s crusade against MMA and his pronouncement on “human cockfighting” just a year earlier, John McCarthy couldn’t believe the opportunity for a “Friends” UFC crossover, somehow the opportunity to star on the show presented itself.
“Honestly, I was like, ‘You must be kidding,'” McCarthy recently told MMA Junkie. “‘You want to put us on ‘Friends’?”
Alongside McCarthy, celebrity announcer Bruce Buffer, former fighter Tank Abbott, and eventual UFC Champion and Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz all appeared as themselves.
The episode begins with Monica meeting all of her friends at the Central Perk Cafe to share her disappointment that Pete didn’t ask her to marry him like she had hoped. What happened instead?
“He wanted to tell me that he’s going to be in an ultimate fighting competition,” says Monica. The boys can’t believe it. The girls have never heard of it, so they ask Monica, who describes MMA as “a kind of wrestling but without the costumes.” She obviously meant pro wrestling.
Joey (LeBlanc) chimes in that “it’s not fake” and “totally brutal.” Chandler (Perry) states that the ultimate match is “two guys in the ring, and the rules are… [pauses for dramatic effect] … there are no rules.” Ross (swimmer) adds that “everything goes except eye gouges and fish hooks.” Hearing all of this worries Monica, so she visits Pete at practice to express her concerns, but Pete reassures her that he will be careful in his upcoming fight.
Monica and Ross attend Pete’s fight against Abbott while Buffer announces their intros and “Big” John acts as referee. As Pete and Abbott meet in the middle, Abbott picks Pete up, runs him over the cage and slams him into the fence. That’s the whole fight scene. Afterwards, Pete lets Monica know that even though he’s had his ass kicked, he’s not done with becoming the ultimate fighting champion. And so she breaks up with him.
The fight scene lasted a full 2 minutes but filming took two days. McCarthy and Buffer recalled a fun filming process.
“They were trying to come up with different ideas about how they would make Jon Favreau look viable in it,” McCarthy said. “They wanted Tank to do certain things, and Tank is like, ‘I’ll pick him up and run him through the frigging cage. I’m going to slam him against the wall.’ Right? Jon Favreau says: “I weigh 200 and something (lbs). I don’t think you can just pick me up.” Tank picks it up, carries it around – so it was kind of funny the whole time. We had a good time.”
Buffer added, “It was just really cool, and we were all just tickled pink and so honored to be on the show.”
Read on to hear more from Buffer and McCarthy about other aspects of shooting Friends, what it meant for them and for the UFC.
McCarthy did it his way
One thing McCarthy didn’t agree with was the original idea for his costume.
In the scene, “Big” John is wearing his original old-school, all-black referee outfit, but it wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t spoken up.
“They wanted to put me in a closet and have me wear a black and white WWE referee shirt,” McCarthy recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not wearing that. We don’t do that.” I had a shirt with me, brought it the next day, wore what I usually wore.”
Buffer’s big break
Prior to the Friends episode, Buffer was still trying to convince then-UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz to make him the permanent Octagon announcer after he made UFC 8 and UFC 10. So when Meyrowitz called Buffer and asked if he wanted to be on The Episode, the answer was a no-brainer.
On set, Buffer pushed his chips all in and used his UFC representation at one of America’s biggest shows to his advantage.
“I said, ‘Robert, here I am playing myself in the biggest comedy on TV. That’s the most attention you’ll get and I’ve been after you for a year and a half now to become the permanent Octagon announcer to grow with the sport but also to help you build your brand. Because I’m a brand builder and I have direct connections that don’t pay attention to you. Everyone is afraid of UFC. You need me in the octagon. Now I’m on this show, let’s make a deal.’”
Buffer called it “the best poker hand I’ve ever played in my life.”
“It gave me the fodder, it gave me the power and the punch to go in and ask that one last time,” Buffer said. “And it would have been the last time I ever asked.”
Instead, the rest was history. And since UFC 13, Buffer has never looked back.
On the portrayal of MMA in “Friends”
Buffer: “It was well portrayed in a comedy. It wasn’t a documentary about the UFC. It was comedy. So in comedy, they will go for the comedy sizzle and all the funny points. It’s not like you can expect “friends” to provide enlightenment on what the UFC is about or what mixed martial arts is about. Back then we didn’t even call it mixed martial arts. It was just ultimate fighting and it had its image.”
McCarthy: “I thought it was funny, and that’s the way it should be. … It should be fun, it should be funny, and he should get (beat up). I think that was portrayed. Overall it was good for the UFC. It just opened the eyes of more people: ‘Oh, what is that?’”
On the meaning of “friends” who prefer UFC to boxing
Buffer: “This is a very monumental moment in UFC history, no question. You could have chosen any other sport. You chose the UFC. They could have brought (Evander) Holyfield, (Mike) Tyson, anyone else from boxing. (The UFC) was such a spectacle back then so why not catch the spectacle where he tries to be the toughest man in the toughest martial arts there is. Not that boxing isn’t tough. i love boxing But that was the Gladiator, and (Pete’s) whole take was – again, the name. He wanted to be the ultimate fighting champion, not the boxing champion. “I want to be the ultimate battle champion.” It added drama to the show and gave it that little extra edge they were looking for.”
McCarthy: “I was like, ‘Well, hell, at least people are looking at this. That’s good publicity.’”
To this day, Buffer and McCarthy still collect royalties
McCarthy: “I was getting $750 a day. I have SAG rate. I got $1,500 for that. Because of “Friends” and how big “Friends” was and how it got released all over the place, I made more money off this stupid episode. I still get checks to this day. Sometimes it’s 32 cents; sometimes they are $320. But I’m still getting checks for this episode to this day.”
Buffer: “They’re either $54 or $104 and the occasional $200, but it’s amazing when you think of the fact that (25 years) there are over $50 checks every month. It’s amazing how this thing works. … Every time I open one of those SAG rest checks, the experience comes back, so it’s all cool.”
- Billy Crystal and Robin Williams have a cameo appearance in The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion that was not in the original script and was purely coincidental. It comes during the opening scene and has nothing to do with the UFC storyline, but it’s a lot of fun.
- “Courtney Cox hates my guts,” McCarthy told MMA Junkie, laughing. Why? He didn’t really want to give details, although he did, so you should ask him about it. 😉
- At the time of filming in late 1996, Ortiz had yet to make his pro MMA debut. It was Buffer’s first time meeting him. “I remember he was just this big guy, nice guy and all, jumping up and down full of energy and telling me, ‘I’m going to be a champion one day, look.’ There you go,” Buffer said.
- To open the fight scene, a long shot of the location of the UFC event featuring Pete’s fight with Abbott is used. The location shown is not in New York City, where the series is set. It’s the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis that was then home to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and MLB’s Minnesota Twins.
- At the time of the premiere, the UFC had held just 14 events, most recently UFC 12: Judgment Day, the first UFC event with weight classes.
- “The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion” was the last episode in which Favreau appeared as Pete.
Watch the fight scene