Backstage, far from the turnstiles, tucked away off the main concourse inside Chicago's United Center, the UFC has corralled a small group of journalists for an impromptu gathering. With the official media-day hoopla over and done with, the man everyone is eager to mix it up with will soon enter this makeshift space and make it his own.
The medley of media types shuffle in their shoes as they run through the questions they are hoping to ask. And just like that, two sets of shoulders push through these double doors. The man leading the way pulls every eye in the room on him as he moves closer. His bodyguard hangs back.
Five minutes prior, every high-profile fighter on this weekend's fight card had their say, but the words that will leave Dana White’s mouth are the ones everyone will hang on to. He greets his court with a swift nod, and, no sooner than his feet take hold in front of the cameras, the questions begin to fly like the fists he's been up selling over the past decade.
While this forum may seem curious in the greater sense of the fight game, it is comfortable digs for White. The charismatic front man has been the voice of the UFC ever since current parent company Zuffa saved it from sinking over 13 years ago. He’s known as much for his live-wire love of the sport as he is for his tenacity when put in a position to speak on or defend this, his vision.
These ingredients make the 44-year-old New England native a captivating subject as he handles each session in front of others on an individual basis. Where most fight promoters prefer to lead the dance, dropping a hard sell at every turn, White is a rare bird in that he will allow those in front of him to choose the tempo and style. On this wintry Thursday afternoon, he is in his natural element, bouncing from one media obligation to the next, each time lighting up all that is around him in a real way, savoring every last second.
It is not long before the tucked-away, makeshift space, at first filled with a select group of mostly familiar faces, gives way to one last interview for White to thunder through. Where others were seeking sound bites and video plugs for the upcoming show, this one-on-one will go in a much different direction. And from the looks of things, the man in black is ready to go. He's labored at a rapid-fire pace all day long, but appears no worse for wear—perhaps all the better for it. The mortal coil of combat sports fuels his fighting soul.
Two chairs appear, and no time is wasted in getting down to business. White locks in and everything else becomes—everything else. Forget what preconceived notions you have about him because the fire in his belly, tempered by his winsome pitch, tells you all you need to know—and what better place to start than at the beginning.
“The first thing I loved and got me fired up about this sport were the fighters,” White told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. “I came from boxing and it was totally different. When we bought this company, there were guys fighting in the UFC, and MMA in general, that fighting cost them money. What the f---? This is crazy. They were all good guys who were smart and educated, and everybody had a different story. Then there is this guy with a mohawk named Chuck Liddell who graduated from Cal Poly with honors with an accounting degree and he looked like a f------ axe murderer. You have this big cast of characters who all have these different personalities and who come from all these different places. I saw that and knew there was something special here.”
By “here” he means the realm of mixed martial arts—more specifically the Ultimate Fighting Championship. White—who had been born and bred in the sport of boxing while growing up in Massachusetts—decided to leave what he saw to be a situation in rapid decline. Not only were there only a handful of marketable stars in boxing, but the promotions they were signed to continuously failed to bring fight fans the bouts they wanted to see.
Adding insult to injury, the prominent organizations in the sport (WBO, WBC, WBA, IBF) each had their respective champions and made it next to impossible for a once passionate fanbase to keep track of which titles actually mattered in the grand scheme of things.
White saw tremendous potential in mixed martial arts and knew that if they could create the right product, it could fill the widening gyre boxing was creating with fans of combat sports. From live events that barely carried a pulse to a scattered cast of characters, if the UFC could hit the marks he envisioned were possible, the sky would be the limit.
“In boxing and the early days of the UFC, the place used to be like a morgue,” White explained. “They would have no music and it would be dead quiet inside the arena during their shows. Ours is different. When we go live that place is rocking. The music is blasting and it’s so f------ loud the guys have to scream at each other.
“The guy who comes to the live event could be looking at tickets anywhere from $400 to $1,000 depending where the seats are,” he added. “Then you had to fly there or drive there. You had to get a hotel room and pay for the food you are eating there and everywhere else. It’s expensive to go to a live event. So when someone comes to one of our live shows, I want them to walk out of that arena and go, ‘Holy s---! That just happened.’ I want it to be an experience they can’t get anywhere else and one they are going to remember.“
While Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC in 2001 injected new energy into a company that was on life support, the majority of the initial battles to be fought were uphill. MMA had taken a brutal hit with Senator John McCain’s “human cockfighting” label that resulted in a blackout ban from the pay-per-view model, the company’s primary method of delivery and revenue. Once the UFC was able to obtain regulation through a handful of state athletic commissions around the country, and it was able to return to pay-per-view, the balance began to tip ever so slightly.
Fans were now able to tune in and follow the events the UFC was putting on, and the pressure then shifted to creating marketable stars the fanbase could invest in.
Where the Japanese-based promotion Pride FC held many of the world’s best fighters under contract, the UFC still had a handful of potential superstars of its own. Names like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes and rising young talent Georges St-Pierre certainly had the skills necessary to become icons in the sport, but White knew it was going to take more than a series of stellar performances from his athletes to push this thing to the next level.
Regardless of how many devastating one-punch knockouts “The Iceman” delivered, or how many consecutive title defenses Hughes strung together, unless a larger chunk of the viewing public could watch his fighters work their magic, it just wasn’t going to matter. White knew the key to unlocking the door that stood between the UFC and success was getting its product on free television. If the UFC was able to accomplish this task and take a huge step toward the mainstream, it would provide the answer to all things plaguing the struggling organization.
“We always knew if we could get this thing on free TV and people could experience what this thing was really about, it was going to take off,” White said emphatically. “But here’s the thing. The Fertittas and I kept asking each other the same question over and over: Are we that different than everyone else? We think this is awesome and so f------ great and we thought everyone would think this if they knew it. If they knew about it and could sample it and get into it they would love it. That’s why it was so important to getting it on TV, which was absolutely f------ impossible, because nobody had the balls to put it on television.”
White and the Fertittas pitched a slew of major networks and doors were closing on them at a rapid pace. With the situation teetering on the brink of failure, Zuffa pushed its chips to the middle of the table on a fighting-based reality show appropriately titled The Ultimate Fighter. It had been White’s hope that the American viewing public could see what he had been seeing all this time. But rather than just let the show ride out on goodwill and best intentions, the literal future of the company hung in the balance of the show’s ability to become a success.
Ratings would fluctuate throughout the airing of the inaugural season, and the situation was still touch-and-go heading into the finals, where contestants Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar were set to do battle. The penultimate finale bout between Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian was a lopsided affair that didn’t move the needle, putting the final spin of the wheel squarely on the shoulders of the former police officer from Georgia and the Munster, Ind., native.
What transpired was not only the tipping point for the UFC as a company, but something that emblazoned itself in the fabric of MMA culture for all time.
“Everything happened at the right place and the right time, and the Fertittas were willing to spend the money again and put the money up. Now that we sit back and talk about it, people look at the Fertittas and say these guys have tons of money, but people don’t realize what went on. They invested $44 million into this thing. They also own a bunch of other businesses and have a lot of other people around them. We were the red-headed stepchild of the Fertitta portfolio. They invested a ton of money into a sport that could not have amounted to anything. It’s a big, big deal what they did. A big deal.”
The two men inside the cage engaged in a scrap for the ages, and as legend has it, White and Co. signed the contract for the second season on site. The UFC machine would place its foot on the gas pedal and never look back, and according to White, the juggernaut is rolling at a pace so fast and furious it can become difficult to handle at times.
“This thing is constantly at 100 mph and this company grows so fast,” White said. “If you go back to 2007, I knew every employee at the UFC. I knew everybody’s name and knew every fighter personally. When we started this thing, guys were at my house for holidays and s--- like that. I walk around the UFC offices now and I don’t know half the people who work there. I couldn’t tell you half their names and I don’t have a personal relationship with the majority of the fighters like I used to.
“There aren’t roads where we are going,” he said as he settled back into the interview at hand. “We built this industry and we are continuing to build this industry every day. We get up in the morning and new s--- happens every day. As hard and as frustrating as it is, it’s amazing and exciting at the same time.”
The post-TUF explosion in popularity the UFC experienced is the stuff of combat-sports folklore. Seemingly overnight, this niche sport filled with tattooed brawlers and outlaws found traction with a fanbase that couldn’t get enough of it. The visibility and demand could have taken the organization by surprise, but it was precisely the swing White had been waiting for. And he made sure his company was ready to feed the frenzy.
The UFC went from doing a handful of pay-per-view events from 2001-2004 to doubling its output in the year the first season of The Ultimate Fighter hit the airwaves. The more shows the company put on, the more opportunity for fandom the scenario created. The full-throttle president had finally gotten people to care about the fighters on his roster, and with full buy-in from the fans, he could set about giving them what boxing couldn’t.
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In the realm of combat sports, putting together the fights a passionate fanbase is begging to see is the hook of all hooks. And White was able to deliver in spades.
“First of all, you have to be in a place where you can make all the fights people want to see,” White said. “There can’t be any of this bulls--- where people can’t fight each other. People have to be able to see the fights they want to see. The day I woke up and realized I wanted to go after this thing in the UFC was due to Arturo Gatti. He kept signing these massive deals with HBO even when he wasn’t a champ. Do you know why? Because people didn’t give a s--- about that. People wanted to see a guy who went in and f------ went to war. They wanted to see a guy who was going to put it all on the line on Saturday night.
“It’s that simple,” he continued. “This ain't rocket science. There is no mystery. People want to see fights and Arturo Gatti was one of those guys people knew what they were going to get when he fought. He was going to go to war and was going to finish or be finished by his opponent. That’s it, man. That’s the mentality you build in combat sports and that’s what people want to tune in and see.”
The passion in his voice hits an uptick as he talks about this thing he’s nurtured and pushed from the “dark ages” to a place where it can be seen on a weekly basis on a major television network in FOX. The UFC machine moves at such a furious pace that it becomes easy to forget the things that happened a month ago, let alone when the UFC and its front man were constantly locked in battles at every turn.
While those who challenged White would eventually fall by the wayside and have their promotions' names added to the notorious tombstone that decorated his office, this doesn’t mean he’s any less battle-ready than he was nearly a decade ago. Where envious promoters and their media pot-shots have for the most part fallen silent these days, White’s attention is focused on an entirely different battlefield—one with a global perspective.
Heading into 2014, the promotion announced its most ambitious year to date, as it planned for nearly 50 events that would cover every corner on the map. That said, White also attempted to prepare his company’s faithful following for the reality that a portion of these shows would be targeted for regional audiences rather than the grand scope that a UFC event has typically brought.
The “business as usual” saying White made famous was going to be anything but in 2014. Yet there was no reason, and still is no reason, for the UFC leader to say otherwise. Change doesn’t come easy, and keeping the ever-changing giant inside the lines is perhaps the most difficult task of all.
Nevertheless, new endeavors bring new challenges, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an individual better suited to take on the world than White.
“The battles back in the day against other guys who were trying to get into the sport, I only battled and wanted to crush the guys who talked s---,” White stated. “He starts talking about how we don’t treat our guys right or how we aren’t paying our fighters enough and all this other s---. Then I was like, ‘Alright, you want to fight? We’ll fight.’ Do you know what it means to me to fight? I fight until there is a winner and a loser. So now, every day when I get out of bed and my big toe hits the floor, I’m thinking about kicking your ass. That’s how I was built back then, when those guys where coming out and taking shots at us.
“Now we battle a different fight every day. The growth of this company is the main concern and going into these different countries, trying to stay on the ball and not mess it up. Back in the day, you used to hear me chirping how this was going to be the biggest fight in the country and it didn’t matter what color of skin you had because fighting is in our DNA. I said those things because I believe them. Well, now I know that is a fact and it’s all about executing it and getting it done. Executing it and getting it done is an entirely different job.”
As our time together wound down, there was still one more question that lingered in the air. For a man who not only had the vision but the ability to forge the UFC into what it is today, what was it that mattered the most to him? In the chaos of neon lights and high-profile fights that comes with having the premier organization in combat sports, what was the thing at the center of it all?
“Always and forever, the only thing I care about are the fights,” White said in conclusion. “All of the bulls--- and everything else, none of it matters except the fights. With everything we have going on with company growth and how we lose our minds sometimes at the office, I’m always the guy who says ‘time out.’ It’s all about the fights and let’s not forget who we are and what we do better than anyone else. That is the only thing that matters and will ever matter to me.”
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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