Dana White: Love Him or Hate Him

Some in the world of mixed martial arts love Dana White, some people absolutely despise the guy. One thing that can’t be disputed is his love for the sport–or at the very least, the house that he and the Fertitta Bros. have built. For as long as this piece ended up being, there were a lot of questions I neglected to ask… there’s always next time. I’ll be here for a while.

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ufc84-cozzone Dana White: Love him or hate him

Interview by Anthony Springer Jr
Photo by Chris Cozzone

Seven years ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was nearly dead in the water.

There was no Ultimate Fighter reality show, no sell out shows or millions of pay-per-view buys. For many aggressive, yet disciplined youth, the idea of fighting professionally was limited to professional boxing, the sports entertainment industry that is professional wrestling, or traveling overseas for combat in Japan’s Pride FC.

In 2008, domestic and foreign fighters alike who can cut it inside the Octagon have a home with the UFC, thanks to one man: Dana White.

Love him, hate him, or simply don’t give a damn one way or the other, Dana White commands your respect. The brazen talking (this writer swears Mr. White’s favorite word is “fucking”), 38-year-old UFC president—with the help of Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta—transformed mixed martial arts in America from “human cock fighting” ( © John McCain) to a multi-million dollar a year business.

Speaking with White, who can talk about the business of MMA for hours, it comes as a total shock that the man credited for the sport’s turnaround in the States didn’t initially like the sport at first.

“I watched the first event they had, but I really didn’t like the UFC,” he says. “I was a huge boxing guy.”

To a hardcore MMA fan, not being entertained by the athletic prowess of Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock is sacrilege. A chance meeting with jiu-jitsu instructor John Lewis allowed White to see Octagon combat in a new light.

“Once I learned jiu-jitsu, it was like taking the fucking blue pill in The Matrix,” he explains enthusiastically. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world. It wasn’t until I took jiu-jitsu that I fell in love with MMA.”

Falling in love is an understatement, but then again, love makes men do outrageous things, but it doesn’t make them go out and buy million dollar promotions. For all the love for mixed martial arts, it was love mixed with a stroke of destiny that got White involved with the organization.

“Lorenzo and I were talking about starting a boxing promotion because we thought the way boxing was run was horrible. Then the UFC opportunity literally fell on my fucking head and we owned the company two months later.”

As history tells it, the UFC didn’t fall on Dana White’s head. It was dumped in his lap, half dead, paralyzed and destined for obscurity. A fly by night phase, a mere chapter in what many moral purists would call America’s obsession with all things depraved. In the beginning, there were no weight classes and aside from prohibiting biting and eye gouging, no rules. The ultra violent sport found itself in the cross hairs of the federal government, namely current GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. While McCain’s charge that the sport was like “human cockfighting” (note: cockfighting is also banned in the United States) drew the ire of fans, White credits McCain for driving the sport to reform—not trying to drive it out of business.

“What people don’t realize is that Sen. McCain wasn’t trying to ban the sport, he was saying ‘you can’t put on unsanctioned events.’ That’s what he was saying. The old owner was like ‘fuck you’ and he started going to Puerto Rico and other places. This is the government; they kicked him off cable and shut him down.”

After White and the Fertitta’s took over the company, a massive PR makeover was necessary: weight classes were established, fighter safety became a top priority, and new rules took effect. Even with the makeover, there was still one problem: state sanctioning. Due to the carelessness of the previous owner, mixed martial arts were banned in the majority of the country—and that’s bad for business. What followed was a massive lobbying effort on the part of the UFC to get MMA sanctioned, a process that White refers to as an “education” for legislators, but also an uphill battle.

“We’re out there running towards these states and there are a couple of states that aren’t trying to sanction us. What do you mean you won’t sanction that? It’s your fucking job. That’s what you exist for. You exist to sanction combat events that happen in your state. It’s crazy and it blows my mind.”

It’s safe to say that White doesn’t speak to state legislators that way, but his frustration is understandable. While some states were—and remain—uncooperative, White and the UFC got a big boost from the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the city of Las Vegas—which played host to many of the UFC’s biggest battles.

“It’s a lot easier because of our safety record, the number of events we’ve put on,” he says of the UFC’s sanctioning efforts.  It’s a lot easier than it was eight years ago.”

Still, for all of White’s hard work, there are still hurdles to jump and pitfalls to climb. Competition is healthy for sports and will help MMA realize its full potential in the United States, but not all competition is good competition.

Case in point: Elite XC’s May 31 network debut. For all of the popularity the UFC has garnered, it has never played on anything other than cable TV and pay-per-view and is thus, out of the eyes of a majority of the country. CBS took a major gamble when it aired the first outing of mixed martial arts on free TV and the event ended with Elite star Kimbo Slice busting James Thompson’s ear wide open.

Not exactly a good first impression.

Elite XC was scorned by fans and critics alike, but like an atomic bomb, the fallout over the event effected more than just CBS and Elite. “It was huge,” White says of the damage done by the program. “We didn’t know which way it was going to go. A lot of companies that we were dealing with that were really fucking hot to trot for MMA were totally turned off.”

Dozens of promotions have come and gone in the eight years that White has been at the helm of the UFC, and even though many fans take his verbal assaults on rival promoters as a fear of competition, White insists that his anger is not anger at the idea that there is competition, but anger at events not being done right. When that happens, White is left in the role of elder sibling, mopping up little brother’s messes under the disapproving eyes of the government, advertisers and would be business partners.

“There isn’t anybody that works harder for this sport than we do. And when these Johnny-come- lately fuck heads come in and think they’re going to make a bunch of money from these shows; all the carnage that’s left and the things that get destroyed, who do you think fixes that? Fuckin me. I gotta go out and fix all the shit that they fuck up. It makes my life harder, it makes my job harder and everything takes longer when we’re steam rolling and hit a fucking wall because of things like that.”

Dana White believes strongly in the UFC. It shows in the quality of the cards put together, in the Ultimate Fighter and ultimately, in White’s praise for the fighters themselves. One of the UFC’s major acquisitions came in the form of former WWE champion Brock Lesnar. At 6’3 and 265 pounds, Lesnar is literally one of the organizations biggest stars. But the college wrestling standout—who had one other professional fight before entering the Octagon—drew some criticism from fans initially as a fad. The timing of Lesnar’s debut drew comparisons to another familiar, but untested face: Kimbo Slice. Like a proud father defending a talented, but misunderstood son, White offers dismisses the comparisons in a compelling argument.

“The difference is [Brock] has a wrestling background,” he says. “If you look at the history of MMA, most of the guys who’ve dominated and have done really well have wrestling backgrounds. This guy competed in college and Olympic style wrestling and then converted over to MMA. I’m not saying a guy like Kimbo couldn’t do this but, they were comparing him to fucking Muhammad Ali. It’s fucking ridiculous.”

White’s voice is now beginning to rise a bit, but he gives credit where its due, noting that Kimbo has been pushed to stardom too quickly, and notes that Lesnar’s road will be much rockier.

“I’ll give Kimbo the respect because he’s training in MMA, but he’s headlining these shows and they’re comparing him to Ali. The guy wouldn’t win the fucking Ultimate Fighter. You start at a certain level and you work your way up. Plus they’re feeding him fucking bums. We didn’t give [Lesnar] a bum and he’s not getting a bum in his next fight either. I told Brock Lesnar that you only fight the best in the UFC. He told me he only wanted to fight the best and I respect him for that, but he’s not gonna have a tough road. We’re not gonna bring in Brock Lesnar and feed him the guy they found at the morgue that they gave to Kimbo. Or Tank Abbott whose 50-years-old, or Bo Cantrell or Ray Mercer. We won’t do that.”

Integrity is something White has a lot of, both in himself and the UFC. It’d have been good business sense to let Lesnar destroy some hapless opponent in the same manner he destroyed his WWE adversaries, but White has never been about the quick buck. Through integrity, hard work and dedication, the UFC has become a powerhouse, a staple of mixed martial arts in this country and abroad—and White and company have made it look easy.

The truth is, the journey was anything but, and White often credits the Fertitta brothers, who invested millions of their own money into the once fledgling operation for helping to make it what it is today. Appearances are often deceiving, and the rise has birthed a number of seemingly legitimate contenders that, for all intents and purposes, should’ve threatened to snatch some—or most—of the UFC’s strangle hold on the MMA market. White says he succeeds where others fail due to one simple word: patience.

“There are fights going on all over the world every weekend. You start at the bottom and build your way up. These guys come out and say ‘we want to go head to head.’ It’s fucking retarded. It’s like me saying, ‘I’m gonna go head to head with NASCAR, I’m gonna start a fucking race league.’ NASCAR’s been around 50 years; the UFC’s been around 20 years. It takes time. The first UFC that we did was UFC 30. We did it at the Trump Taj Mahal. We sold 3500 tickets and did a gate of 118,000. From there we grew the business. You could take a fucking idiot, a moron that knows nothing about business and he’ll know that you have to start at the bottom.”

White welcomes all comers into the industry he helped make profitable, but does so with a word of caution: “Everybody thinks I don’t want these guys around. We need these other companies to exist. If you have 800 million fucking dollars like the IFL did and you run your business right, you’ll be around for a long time. Run it right and you’ll be around for a long time.

“But if you think you’re gonna come out and go head to head, you’ll be gone in fucking four months.”

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