For years now, UFC President Dana White has been talking loudly and carrying a big hammer.
The former is just a perk of being the man with the biggest microphone; the latter is the tool by which he adjusts the attitudes of anyone who questions certain policies or procedures by which the UFC furthers their cause.
One hot-button topic that is guaranteed to see White come out swinging with his favorite piece of iron is fighter pay. He’s been saying for a very long time that the UFC has made more millionaires than boxing, that the UFC fighters are by and large happy, and so on and so forth.
Yet that doesn’t stop some fighters from coming out and voicing their displeasure at their pay—that is until White starts waving the hammer around. Then everything quiets down and everyone goes back to being “happy” with their wage.
And for the longest time, I thought this was fine, albeit a bit harsh. Fighting is a chosen vocation and the system the UFC employs, while flawed (as are all things made by man), is still the best at serving the progress of the sport.
This, of course, is an opinion based on the idea that if the sport is served first, the fighters are served by proxy.
I felt that it’s White’s party and he’s got the right to call the shots, and if fighters don’t like it, well, they don’t have to be fighters.
But all those points become moot when you begin talking about gambling and more over, losing $1 million dollars at a time. This was the case at a recent media lunch where White talked about winning as much as $6 million while dropping $1 million while playing Blackjack (h/t Marc Raimondi of msn.foxsports.com).
Of course, this isn't the first time White has talked about the subject of losing money; he discussed the subject with the same win-lose figures on the Joe Rogan podcast as well (95 minute mark).
Granted, it’s not really anyone’s right to question how a man spends his money. If White wants to run the risk of losing $2 million in a night, that is his business, just as it is his money. He earned that money by being one of the most dogged and daring promoters in combative sport history, and his role in the growth of MMA will probably never be fully or justly appreciated.
But when you’re the man with the loudest microphone, what you say can and will be held against you in the court of public opinion.
To think that White can talk freely about losing $1 million on a game of chance during a time when more than a few of his fighters feel they are underpaid isn’t just unrealistic, it’s proceeding from false assumption.
And to make matters worse, he’s going to take his fighters to the woodshed if they speak openly to the public about their feelings of being underpaid? It’s a classic example of “Do as I say, not as I do,” although in this case, there isn’t a fighter on White’s payroll that could do what he’s doing because not a one of them would feel they could afford to lose one million dollars gambling.
From this point forward, when the subject of fighter pay (and the unhappy fighters talking about it) comes up, White really has no true legitimate grounds to address the topic with any kind of critical tone.
Because he could pay the fighters more, clearly—but now people will say he would rather spend it elsewhere, say at the Blackjack table. Thus, public perception may say that high stakes gambling is a greater priority for White than working to address the recurring issue of fighter pay.
In all honesty, I don’t believe White feels this way in the slightest. The UFC has a budget for fighter pay based on the fighters scheduled for an event and without strict adherence to a budget, even a company like the UFC can fall. Still, his caviler attitude about the matter looks very bad, especially to fans and fighters, for whom a $50,000 bonus could be the difference between feast or famine in an entire year.
This is nearly as insulting to hardworking people as it was when Floyd Mayweather Jr. was burning 100 dollar bills while demanding that he get the majority of what would have been the biggest purse in boxing history for a fight with Manny Pacquiao.
The idea of White losing $1 million in such a way while expecting his fighters to revel in the chance to fight for so much less just seems silly. It’s like a feudal lord expecting his subjects to be happy for a base wage while making sure they see that his horse eats better than their families.
The picture this paints could sarcastically been seen thus: White is such a big proponent of the sport that instead of reinvesting money in the fighters, he’s going to give it to the casinos.
This of course is where men in White’s position are often expected to be utterly perfect. When a man as openly aggressive and honest as White doesn’t keep track of everything he has said in the past, sometimes it comes back to haunt him.
Case in point: White’s rant to Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports about Bob Arum in 2011.
“Now, all he [Arum] does is run around [expletive] and complaining about it. You had the ability, Bob Arum, to make boxing great. But the problem was, you were greedy. You’re a greedy pig, just like all the other guys who were involved in boxing. All you ever did was try to rip money out of it. You never invested a dime into the sport of boxing to make it great, to make it last, to create a future for boxing. He’s nothing but a greedy pig and his jealousy shows non-stop.”
Of course, while White’s assessment might be technically flawed (especially since Arum has no doubt invested much money into boxing since the 1970s), the tone is understandable. However, there is one word that has significance: “invested.”
Obviously, White and Zuffa have invested millions into the UFC, which in turn pays the fighters, some of which (the elite) have indeed become millionaires. But when the issue of fighter pay is still being broached by the fighters themselves, clearly the successes of the few do not provide for—nor alleviate—the needs of the many.
When that is the case, speaking loudly and openly about losing such a vast amount of money while gambling makes it hard to believe that money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere, especially as a sound investment in the men and women he believes so strongly in, instead of something as uncertain as gambling.
This point of view comes from an unfair assumption that says any money White earns is not really his own, but belongs to the company. Sadly, men in White’s position don’t often get to enjoy a public distinction between private and professional life; a fact White should know all too well by now.
It might be different if White expected his fighters to follow his example, speaking to the public and media openly. But when that happens, it only seems to make him angry, and that in turn sees him call for a discretion on their part that he himself does not employ.
For example, he has had a longtime policy to call fighters out in public if they make a decision or voice an opinion contrary to his own. When UFC 151 was having problems, White cancelled an entire card and passed the blame on to Jon Jones, who had nothing to do with the construction or failure of the event in total.
He was merciless in his public attack on Jones and it was utterly unjust; this is the example White has been setting. Now, Georges St-Pierre is following suit—talking to the media about issues near and dear to his heart—and White is challenging his manhood, telling him to pick up the phone and call him, all because White doesn’t like what St-Pierre is saying.
Why should St-Pierre limit himself to that when he can talk to the press? After all, the people of Canada are putting up a statue of him next to a certain hockey legend, so it’s not like there aren’t a lot of people interested in his opinion.
After all, if it works for White, why can’t it work for everyone?
St-Pierre is more than entitled to his opinion, and given how much he has done for the cause of the sport in Canada, people are interested in what he has to say.
But instead of acknowledging this as fact, White is quick to say St-Pierre is out of line for voicing his opinion in a public forum.
But for all of the contradictions inherent in White’s current system of interaction with his fighters, he still honestly hasn’t done anything truly wrong. The money he lost was his money, not the company's. The time spent losing said money was done on personal time. No one should doubt that White worked very hard for the right to spend his money in any way he sees fit—that is every man’s right, no matter who they are.
The problem is not one of personal conduct but of professional discretion. If a man is going to be so open about the subject of money, he should realize that his opinions are not justified by his position alone.
White has been so busy for so long promoting the sport that one might think his aggressive personality is one of necessity. It’s hard to set the hammer aside when you’re constantly building the next bridge or the next house, thus you keep it in your hand at all times because you never know when there could be a chance to do some work.
And work he has. It’s hard to look at the history of the Zuffa-era UFC and find a year where the company did not grow in a significant direction.
When a man works that hard, he wants to play hard as well; it’s perfectly understandable. Yet it should be remembered that he wasn’t working alone. He had a great deal of help from the fighters who have empowered him with a product that—if given an audience—can quite capably sell itself.
If he doesn’t want to hear fighters complaining about how little they make in a year, he should not be so bold as to declare how much he can comfortably afford to lose on a single night.
Like it or not, White is still in a position where he must lead by example. Being magnanimous (especially in public), while constricting and demanding, is still the quality that promotes respect far more honestly and consistently than any hammer.