When Zuffa took over the reins of the UFC, way back in 2001, we were first introduced to Dana White. He would become the most aggressive advocate for the company and the sport; that came later.
Back then, he seemed like a man with ideas and dreams for the sport—a man with hope.
But with every event and crisis that passed (and there were many), we saw him stripped down to core. He was a stranger in a strange land, fighting for something he believed in, pure and simple.
Now, approximately 12 years later, while White doesn’t look like a stranger anymore, he still very much looks like a man in a fight.
The amount of things White has accomplished in a short time is staggering, honestly. True, he didn’t accomplish them alone; he had a great deal of help from his bosses (Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta), fans and the fighters, but most of his accomplishments happened in back rooms and board rooms, far beyond the eyes and ears of the fans.
When Zuffa purchased the UFC, the sport was essentially in the closet, in the dark. It was held in very low opinion by the political machine in America, and the amount of negative association that clung to MMA like dirt was shocking. It wasn’t a matter of the sport being unknown, it was a matter of the sport being infamous with almost all who did know it.
The sport should not have survived because to everyone who mattered (those with influence and power) it wasn’t a sport at all. No one wanted to be within shouting distance of White and his “product,” let alone in business with him. He was "persona non grata" in the full extent of the term, and in the world of fight promotion, no one does it alone.
And somehow, some way, he managed to get it done, one hour at a time.
Much of this is based on his true understanding of how MMA should look as a sport. He knew it would never be considered a true sport without regulation, without rules and divisions, so he set about to make it all happen, come hell or high water.
I have a hard time imagining how hard it must be to knock on a door once, only to have it opened and then slammed in my face. I can’t imagine knocking on that door and having the experience repeated again and again. But that is what White went through in order to get the UFC to where it is today, and that takes two things above all else: faith and passion.
Now, years later, White has taken on the dimensions of a kind of star himself; he is the most popular promoter in combative sport history. While promoters like Don King and Bob Arum are no doubt known on a wider scale, they are not beloved like White is.
And all the while, he spreads the religion, albeit with a fury that is at times misguided or misdirected. It is then that we find White taking the most criticism, and rightly so.
After he decided to cancel UFC 151, he quickly attacked one of his brightest stars in Jon Jones, blaming the fighter for the cancellation of a poorly constructed card, according to Shaun Al-Shatti of MMAFighting.com.
And many of the fans ate it up.
White is probably one of the most powerful figures in all of MMA; when he says something, many take it as gospel. Jones suddenly had to shoulder the blame for a card that could not withstand even a single cancellation in the roster; a true testimony to the power White wields.
Thus the question becomes: What is White, really?
Most promoters in combative sport don’t attack the fighters that work for them, especially in public. They take care of their dirty laundry in private, presenting the appearance of a strong relationship with their fighters. They do this so rival promoters don’t try to poach from their stable of talent.
White doesn’t have to do that since the UFC is the biggest show in the sport; he can lash out freely and often does.
But he is also about the business of promoting the UFC, there can be no doubt. He defends the company with a passion that boarders on prejudice, and he takes any slight personally. His “Scorched earth” policy toward anyone who defies him (or what he believes to be in the company’s best interests) is well documented. Fighters like Tito Ortiz, Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Randy Couture and BJ Penn have all been in conflict with White at one time or another.
In his autobiography, Why I Fight, Penn gives a detailed accounting of the events that led to his split with the company after Penn defeated Matt Hughes to become the new welterweight champion at UFC 46.
K-1 was offering me $187,500 per fight—five times what the UFC was offering—and I was willing to stay with them for one-third of that amount. This was when the relationship took a turn for the worse, and my view of White changed drastically.
Penn then went on to describe how White reacted to his decision to fight in Japan.
When it was finally official I was going to fight in Japan, White called me up and told me his true feelings. "You motherf*#ker! You’re f*#king done! You’ll never fight in the UFC again! You’re finished. You’re scorched earth, motherf*#ker."
This is not meant to illustrate how fair or unfair White is, for that is relative to each and every unique situation. But it does show how quickly White is willing to attack anyone he believes is threatening the UFC.
Of course, it is easy for a writer like me or any number of fans or critics to sit back and make note of the times White stumbled or swung a lead pipe when he should have been offering the peace pipe. He’s a man in constant motion; those who never slow down often aren’t in the practice of exercising restraint.
Perhaps the last time he was standing still he ended up watching one of his biggest stars, Tito Ortiz, take what little momentum the company had gathered after UFC 40 and walk away with it.
So, White sat and played the waiting game while trying to get Ortiz to fight Chuck Liddell, which was the natural next-fight for Ortiz. It had meaning and was the honest-to-God result of due process.
Ortiz declared that the money wasn’t enough to fight Liddell; and given that Penn left shortly thereafter, it could be right. Questions of money are always relative (no doubt White thinks Ortiz was being given more than enough where Ortiz did not), but on that occasion, the results were significant: the light heavyweight belt was held hostage.
That had to be a difficult situation for White to deal with. Not only was it an open show of defiance at the wrong time, but it also could have been very detrimental to the sport.
Let’s be honest, White makes an appealing target for many who need to point the finger at someone, especially when you consider how often he acts as if might really does make right. But if anything, his offense-as-the-best-defense policy is far better than being indecisive.
As often as I have taken exception to some of White’s actions and policies (blaming the cancellation of UFC 151 on Jones, fighter pay, the UFC Hall of Fame and the Sponsor tax), the simple fact is White is a human being who lets his passions rule his mind, more often for the better and not the worse.
Yes, the man makes mistakes, but he’s not in a business that is kind to the kind or the passive.
The most angelic and magnanimous version of Dana White could not solve all the problems that come with being a fight promoter, because no one can please everyone all the time. As long as there is any advantage to be had, there will be someone who takes advantage.
And to be blunt, a kinder, gentler version of White could not have saved the UFC from extinction. That was the end that justified the means by which White learned to conduct business.
Of course, when a man is in the business of promoting fights, this means conflict with the fighters from time to time. Sometimes we forget that. Especially when we see him laughing and flying from one country to another, damn near always smiling. For anyone to even look like they are having that much fun, we tend to assume that they’re really only about the business of serving themselves.
For those who think he cares only about himself and his bank account, watch his reaction to the fight between Matt Brown and Pete Sell. Brown was landing brutal punches, seemingly at will, and Sell was taking a savage beating. White wasn’t sitting there, laughing and stuffing his mouth with Doritos; he was pounding on the ring apron, screaming for the bout to be stopped.
That wasn’t Dana White the promoter we saw; that was Dana White the fight fan. This example is one of many that shows he is not just the sum total of his war-like persona, he is also a fan.
And that is why MMA needed him so badly.
It took a fan with faith in the sport to get it out of the shadows and into the light. Nothing else would have succeeded because MMA was not wanted by the powers that be in the sporting/pay-per-view world. In a piece by CNBC TV, White summed up the situation perfectly.
"You can watch porn on pay-per-view. The UFC wasn't allowed on pay-per-view. That's how bad it was."
People like to pretend that if it weren’t for White, someone else would have come along and gotten the job done. While this appeals to the principal of averages, it is also unrealistic. Many other promoters in MMA have tried and failed, and that was after the sport had become legitimate thanks to the UFC.
White kept the UFC afloat, storm after storm, while the rest saw their promotions sink in calm water.
Yes, there is still a great many things for White to accomplish. One way or another, all the fighters need to make more money, and he’s probably going to have to find a way to bend if he wants to get New York to open it’s doors—the list goes on and on.
But we should be thankful that is the case. One of the reasons White never stands still is because he’s always looking to the future where others would be more than willing to find an easy seat and let it ride as is. That White is never satisfied means that the sport will continue to grow.
So, what is White, really? He’s a fan who became a promoter and a promoter who is still a fan, down to his bones. And for all his faults, if it weren’t for him, MMA would still be a sport clothed as a spectacle.
And it would still be in the dark.