That noise you hear? The one that sounds like a mixture of primal scream and hysterical, uncontrollable laughter? That's the sound of Dana White as he slowly loses control of his beloved UFC—and, perhaps, his mind.
For 11 years, White and his partners have run the UFC with an iron fist. Examples of his power are legion, but suffice to say, when White spoke, fighters jumped. And when they didn't? There was a price to pay.
Tito Ortiz, the promotion's top draw at the turn of the century, was publicly flogged when he and White butted heads in 2003. When they couldn't come to contract terms, the promotion all but stripped him of his title and had Randy Couture fight Chuck Liddell for an interim strap instead.
White has spent almost the entire nine years since undercutting and marginalizing Ortiz, even going so far as to challenge his biggest star to a boxing contest, eventually devoting a cable special to making it appear Ortiz chickened out. It was petty and self-defeating, but when all was said and done, there was no doubt about who the boss was. Tito said as much on one of his famous T-shirts.
Couture fared little better in 2007, despite his seemingly untouchable status as an American hero and MMA icon. When he attempted to leave the UFC for a fight with Fedor Emelianenko, it got ugly enough that owner Lorenzo Fertitta called a press conference to release previously undisclosed details of Couture's contract.
Even whole fight teams, most memorably the American Kickboxing Academy, who were nearly released en masse over a dispute about video-game rights, were not beyond Dana's reach.
Those days, it seems, are long gone. If Biggie and Mase taught us anything, it is this: more money, more problems. It's a simple maxim, but one that has proven all too true for Dana and the UFC. As the UFC has grown, so too have their disputes with fighters. Once Tito and Couture were aberrations, the bumpy patches on an otherwise smooth road.
Every event seems to bring with it a standoff between White and one of his fighters. And often, the fighter is winning.
First there was Dan Henderson's injury and Jon Jones's subsequent refusal to fight late replacement Chael Sonnen. That led to the unprecedented cancellation of UFC 151. Then Anderson Silva and Jones balked at the idea of a superfight and Matt Mitrione decided fighting Olympian Daniel Cormier in Strikeforce wasn't in his best interest.
Most recently, heavyweight Cheick Kongo didn't step up to the plate at the last minute to replace an injured Shane Carwin at next month's The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale. White, exasperated by it all, couldn't hold it all in during a recent interview with Fuel TV (Hat Tip Bloody Elbow):
It's like...we're just at this time and place where I've been dealing with these guys for the last 10 years. I've been doing this for 13 years...there was a 10-year run where guys didn't turn down fights. I mean, the biggest fight that was ever turned down in my first ten years was Tito not wanting to fight Chuck. Now, like every week, Kongo has turned down two fights in a row. We offered Kongo the fight with Roy Nelson and he refused to do it. And we offered him a fight before that and he refused to do it.
It's like, we're getting into this era now with these guys and yeah, it bothers me. And yeah, I don't like it. I kind of...you know...it turns me off to guys when they don't want to step up and take big fights.
I've been doing these interviews all week and I'm tired...I'm sick and tired of the accusations that Chael Sonnen gets big fights because he steps up and he takes fights on short notice. He's the kind of guy I've been dealing with since we bought the UFC. And you've got all these bitter babies out there crying like . Dan Henderson, who's supposed to be friends with him, what are you crying about? You turned down the Jones fight twice. You had to pull out because of your knee. He said all you need is a couple of weeks, then I offered him the fight in Toronto. He turned down the Toronto fight too because of his knee. Are we supposed to sit around and wait for Dan Henderson?is getting into things because he talks.
White's attack continued that night as he chatted up the media after the Georges St-Pierre-Carlos Condit fight, using a variation of his famous speech from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter to question whether Kongo was a true "Octagon warrior."
“(Kongo) turned down the fight whether it was on short notice or whatever. It’s the second fight he’s turned down in a row,” White declared. “It’s a lot more normal with guys who are worried about losing. Guys who are in a position where if they lose, you know what I mean? You’re either fighters or you’re not. If you win, you win, if you lose, back to the drawing board.
“That’s the business you’re in. When you turn down a fight, you turn down a fight, and that’s two in a row (fights Kongo has turned down). I don’t know who he’s waiting for.”
Kongo immediately fired back, something that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, challenging White on Twitter.
Instead of taking White's meager offering, Kongo was busy trying to make his own fight—one that makes sense for him. He and prospect Stefan Struve agreed to a fight at UFC 156 in February, doing their own matchmaking on Twitter. Although the fight is far from official, it's a clear sign that, more and more, UFC fighters are taking their careers into their own hands.
For White, this should be an eye opener. Kongo isn't considered a top heavyweight prospect these days, but he's quietly put together one of the best stretches of his career, going 4-1-1 in the last two years. Is it any wonder he doesn't want to toss that momentum aside for the dubious honor of a television main event? At 37, this is his last shot at a title run. A loss, even one on short notice, shatters those dreams for all time.
Should fighters take last-minute fights?
The days of fighters and everyone else in the sport bending over backwards to please White and the UFC are coming quickly to a close. While White may step up on his media soap boxes and sell the idea of "real fighters," the competitors all know that it's called prize fighting for a reason.
Fighters are making more money than ever, which means there is more than pride on the line every time an athlete steps into the cage. Every moment of preparation counts. No matter how many times White gets on his bully pulpit, the "Tank" Abbotts of this sport, men who would fight on the drop of the dime without spending a second in the gym, are long gone.
Today, it takes at least eight weeks to run a world-class training camp and prepare yourself, body and mind, for a major fight. Kongo and his peers are big time professional athletes, not bar fighters battling for ego and scraps. It's time White and the UFC paid that more than lip service.