A Tale of Two Sports: Roller Hockey and The UFC

A tale of two diverging cult favorites

Remember rollerblading? Of course you do.

Just like everyone else you knew, you owned rollerblades, and loved tearing up the asphalt. Along with Beanie Babies, Hypercolor and The Macarena, inline skates were one of the biggest and most successful fads of the 90s.

For kids like me, playing street hockey turned into playing roller hockey, upping the speed of the game, and the likelihood that I was going to show up at home Saturday night with some kind of injury. Me, my brother Pete and the ten or twelve guys we played puck with on weekends weren’t the only people playing roller hockey either.

Right as the inline skating boom began, former NHLer Ralph Backstrom and two partners launched Roller Hockey International, a professional inline hockey league that debuted with 12 teams spread throughout the United States and Canada. The league quickly expanded to 24 teams the following season, and even had a video game (RHI Roller Hockey ’95) on the Super Nintendo, though it was never released.

As the fad died down, so did the league. Six years after their debut, RHI pulled the plug on their seventh season. They came back for one more year in 1999, with the St. Louis Vipers defeating the Anaheim Bullfrogs to become the last team to hoist the Murphy Cup.

Why am I telling you all of this?

RHI launched in 1993, the same year the UFC debuted at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado.

Some will label this as an attempt to convince MMA fans that we should just be happy the sport isn’t defunct, but I assure you it’s not.

For me it’s about perspective, in terms of the slow and steady growth of the organization to where it is today, and how those early years fighting a losing battle and clinging to life were essential steps along the path to success.

Let’s get one thing straight though: I’m beyond happy that this sport has flourished, and that the UFC has grown into a truly global force. I mean, I’m much happier covering mixed martial arts than I would be covering roller hockey, you know?

That being said, the sport is far from perfect, and there are moments where criticism is not only justified, but required. However, the week before the UFC rolls out the red carpet in Toronto and welcomes 55,000 fans into the Rogers Centre – and thousands more to the Fan Expo down the road – is not one of those times.

This is a time to be proud of how far we’ve come and excited about what the future holds.

Back in ’93, roller hockey would have been the sure pick as the sport to live on, not the no-holds-barred street fight taking place in the funky looking cage. Thankfully, we had people involved with the sport who were thinking long term and were willing to take the necessary steps to give the sport an opportunity to grow.

Meyrowitz and his partners got the ball rolling, bringing in the Unified Rules and working to correct the problems that kept the UFC on the naughty list and off pay-per-view. Losing money every step along the way, they persevered and positioned the sport for future success before bowing out.

Zuffa kept the ball rolling when they came on board following their purchase of the company in 2001, and knocked it out of the park with the debut of The Ultimate Fighter. From there, everything has taken off and delivered us to where we are today.

Over the last six years, the UFC has eclipsed the sport itself, becoming the NFL of MMA.

No one could have predicted this back when Gerard Gordeau and Teila Tuli first stepped into the Octagon in Denver.

What started as a spectacle now stands as a global enterprise, lasting far longer than almost anyone could have expected, not to mention outliving roller hockey by eleven years and counting.

And it’s only going to get bigger.