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The History of Sherdog
by Joe Hall
Sherdog was born at Boeing. Yes, Boeing the aircraft manufacturer. This was in 1997, when Jeff Sherwood was 29, living in Huntington Beach and tearing it up on the Southern California beer and softball circuit. Not a circuit that compensates. Jeff needed a job. A friend got him the gig with Boeing, where he was hired as a “computer guy,” Jeff’s words, which was odd because he had never used a computer.
It took him a week to wipe out his PC after powering it off instead of shutting it down. Once he got it going again, he had a few hours each day to work and four or fi ve to dawdle. The guy who sat behind him in their cubicle suggested they create some websites during their downtime. Why websites? “You could only Google ‘boobs’ so many times before you got bored,” Jeff says.
His buddy built one on Brian Setzer, the musician. Jeff launched two: a movie review site and “Sherdog’s UFC Fan Page.” “Sherdog” was Jeff’s nickname in high school, and he says it took two seconds of thought to attach it to his site. “I mean, seriously,” he explains, “when I started this website, I didn’t think anybody was going to look at it.”
The UFC had begun roughly four years prior. Jeff wasn’t watching the fi rst event in November 1993, but a friend called and said to turn it on. He did and he was hooked, same as the rest of us.
Back in the day, though, he nearly pulled the plug on his mixed martial arts site. Thing was, more people were reading his movie reviews. Maybe it goes without saying that MMA was grass roots then in a way it will never be again. There was no SpikeTV, much less MMA on SpikeTV or on CBS or NBC, no mega pay-perviews, no million-dollar gates. Hardcore fans were the only fans, and there weren’t many of us. We went to sites like George Charlwood’s The New Full Contact for news, argued on list servers like The Combat List, subscribed to print publications like Joel Gold’s Full Contact Fighter. Sherdog wasn’t a major player then, but it was around. And despite its meager following, Jeff kept it around.
His softball buddies gave him hell. One of them was Greg Savage, who now co-hosts The Savage Dog Show with Jeff on the Sherdog Radio Network. Jeff didn’t just ignore his friends’ advice to ditch Sherdog because it was a waste of time—he had shirts made. Shirts that said “Come to Sherdog’s UFC Fan Page” on the back, with an entire URL spelled out—http:// come.to/sherdogsufc—that redirected to the GeoCities address where the site was located for the fi rst few years or so. “You’re the only one who can fi t that address on your back,” Greg liked to remind Jeff.
Years later, Jeff has his own reminder: “Greg works for me now.” Sherdog was mostly event lineups and results in the early days. A few rumors. A whole hell of a lot of exclamation points in the headlines. Jeff published an e-mail exchange with Bas Rutten as Sherdog’s fi rst interview on Jan. 25, 1999. He had solicited questions from the site’s readers, which led to the following disclaimer, given in his usual deadpan, upon publication: “My personal computer took a dump so I lost all the other questions so if you don’t see your question that is why. Send it to me again.”
More interviews followed. He added rankings and a monthly prediction contest, found freelancers to send him exclusive UFC photos, and installed a forum. That original forum was an interesting place. Jeff visited Joe Moreira’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school once to introduce himself and his site, and the feedback was entirely positive until someone clicked on the forum, opened a random thread, and was greeted by a photo of two old men getting it on.
“Oh my god!” one of Moreira’s students yelled. “I thought this was about MMA!” “At that point,” Jeff refl ects, “I realized that I needed to start moderating the forum.” He began covering regional shows in California, too, with reports and what he describes as “beautiful” photos—shot after shot of a perfectly focused fence with two blurry fi ghters frozen in the background.
“You write like a third grader,” wrote one critic in an email, “and your photos suck too.” Jeff could improve the photos on his own. The writing, not so much. He recruited Greg to write recaps of local events, and together they romped around chronicling the nascent MMA scene in California. The state athletic commission didn’t sanction MMA then, a fact that shoved many shows out to Indian Reservations and summoned law enforcement to others. More than once Jeff slipped out a door while police stormed in. When the Mongols motorcycle gang rioted at a March 2002 event and stabbed a man, Jeff grabbed his camera, stepped over some blood and watched from behind a turned-over table. That was the scene then: You might get arrested, you might get knifed, and you might see a 16-year-old Karo Parisyan tossing grown men on their heads in the middle of a cleared-out Mexican restaurant in San Pedro. The sport was wide-open and growing, and so was Sherdog.
Garrett Poe quickened Sherdog’s progression exponentially. A doctoral student studying polymer science and engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi, he crafted highlight videos in his spare time and offered them one day to Sherdog. Jeff ran them, and the site promptly crashed due to the overwhelming response.
The videos were ultimately removed for copyright reasons, but they thrived elsewhere. To this day, a quick search of the Web will return them, and a quick glance to the lower right corner of each video will reveal the Sherdog. com address. It’s hard to know how many people found the site with such a glance, but the number is surely great. Garrett also took over editing duties, however unoffi cially, in the late 90s. “Yeah, kind of let me look at some of this stuff before you actually put it on the website,” he told Jeff. “So I can do a little work on it.”
Somewhere along the way they became business partners, though the arrangement was never formally discussed. The site was doing well. Videos drove the traffi c, along with pictures and previews, event coverage and op-eds. James Hirth broke down upcoming shows while Mike Sloan and Greg wrote columns. Programmer David Boehme instituted a content management system, redesigned the site, and took plenty of 4 a.m. phone calls when something went wrong. You couldn’t sell much advertising then—MMA was too much of a niche sport; everybody knew everybody—so they started a store. At fi rst they only referred visitors to Amazon.com for a percentage of the sale. This was slow business, but it let them build enough capital to purchase products directly from companies and then sell them directly to visitors.
The store saved Sherdog. Boeing cut Jeff’s position after six years there, and he called Garrett to tell him he was going all in on Sherdog. It was time to see if the site was strong enough to support his wife and two children.
“We ate a lot of noodles,” Jeff says of those less than glorious years when he sold and shipped VHS tapes, DVDs, and other products out of his garage. “Luckily that was just about the time that MMA was getting even more popular, and we were able to squeak by.” Meanwhile Garrett was optimizing the site with search engines, ensuring that fans old and new alike would fi nd Sherdog when they queried anything MMA-related. Garrett had another idea, too.
“You know what would be really cool?” he asked Jeff. “If we had this database where you punch a fi ghter’s name into it and all of his fi ghts come up, how he won and the round and the time.”
“Are you kidding me?” was Jeff’s response. “Hell no, I’m not doing that. You know how much work that would take?” It took a lot. One source was a database on GeoCities ran by MMA fan Ryan Graham, who also worked on what would become Sherdog’s Fight Finder. “There were like six of us doing it,” Jeff says, “entering results every day for … it had to be three or four months before we could even make it live, to where it would be a benefi t to anyone.”
The Fight Finder launched in spring 2001. Currently it contains information on nearly 10,000 events and more than 42,000 fi ghters. Multiple hands have always maintained it, though Rob King is credited as the full-time staffer who lost the most years of his life in pursuit of MMA results. For a good cause, though. The massive database is undoubtedly Sherdog’s greatest resource. Josh Gross didn’t bring journalism to Sherdog, but he did build it into the engine that drives the site.
Based in Los Angeles, he cut his teeth on the same early MMA scene that Jeff and Greg covered. He found refuge during the Mongols’ riot by climbing into the ring, He was detained and then banned by a Las Vegas casino for refusing to hand over his tape recorder, edited a magazine and another website, and covered the sport all over the world before he was hired as Sherdog’s executive editor in 2004. He encountered a site strong on videos and photos, and by greatly expanding the scope and depth of reporting, he put Sherdog in a position to chronicle MMA’s explosion through written journalism as well.
The sport did explode, of course. The Ultimate Fighter reality show on SpikeTV changed MMA and the coverage of it. Updating the site when convenient wasn’t good enough anymore. News was happening all the time; someone had to pursue it and someone had to post it. Managing Editor Mike Fridley made this stage in the site’s evolution possible. The Cal Ripken Jr. of Sherdog, he was drafted for Webmaster duties in December 2002 and worked every day for the next fi ve and a half years. It’s a legendary stretch among staffers. Even Josh took a vacation once, but Mike was on call every step of the way, editing photos and videos, handling posting and podcasts, archiving essentially everything, writing when needed, copy editing, and so on.
Accordingly, the site’s infrastructure was sound when the UFC began denying Sherdog and other MMA media outlets access to events in October 2005. From the Sherdog side of things, the ban is seen as an attempt to control what is said and written about the UFC. In fact, less than two weeks after banning Sherdog, UFC President Dana White fl ew Josh to Las Vegas and offered him a $28,000 raise to run the UFC’s Web site.
“I knew if I worked for him, I couldn’t do journalism,” says Gross, who left Sherdog in May 2008 and now covers MMA for Sports Illustrated. “So I turned it down. I think that also has something to do with him not liking me so much.”
Battles between the UFC and Sherdog have been fought publicly and privately, and God knows not always maturely, through open letters and PR people and text messages. White never gave a real reason for the ban, nor does he need to (it’s a myth that Sherdog was booted because Josh reported the fi nalists for The Ultimate Fighter 4 prior to the season airing in August 2006; Sherdog’s credentials were pulled nearly a year before that happened). The UFC president has pushed his company to unprecedented success and power in MMA, and you have to fi gure he’s doing what he believes is best for the UFC by trying to control perhaps the last check on that power: the media. Surely Sherdog’s interests and the UFC’s align much more than they confl ict, but whatever. Having nothing to lose can give you guts. That’s the best thing about being banned: You don’t have to worry about getting banned. You can write what you want.
The site has gone right on growing regardless. Internet radio was added in November 2005 and now includes shows with T.J. De Santis, Greg and Jeff, Scott Holmes and Rodney Dean, and MMA wunderkind Jordan Breen. In May 2007, Sherdog also began providing content for ESPN, and for the month of January 2009, between the .net forum and the .com news site, Sherdog generated more than 75 million page views—a long way from the 100-view day Jeff once bragged about to his buddy at Boeing.
That friend used to rib Jeff, too. His Brian Setzer site really took off, you see, and Setzer himself bought it for $5,000. But when Jeff sold Sherdog to lifestyle network CraveOnline in March 2007, the teasing stopped. Jeff and Garrett split the profi t down the middle. Garrett moved on to become the principal scientist at ManTech SRS Technologies in Alabama, and Jeff stayed at Sherdog, which he runs now with News Editor Loretta Hunt, Associate Editor Brian Knapp, Mike and me. Last September Mike tried to take off for the fi rst time in years. He made it a few hours down the road, opened his laptop, and went back to work.
Like anything that has reached considerable size, Sherdog has its fans and its critics. We’re aware of both and we don’t take the death threats seriously, though maybe we should. It’s taken a lot of luck to get here, a lot of work too, and it can all be traced back to that day at Boeing in 1997, when Jeff looked up at his glowing monitor, pecked away at the keys, and began building the biggest MMA website in the world.