SATURDAY APRIL 29, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
DANA WHITE
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Say what you will about Dana White, the straight-talking president of the UFC, the premier organization of the fastest growing sport in the world. Chances are he’s heard it before or doesn’t really care what you have to say. While some have found reason to question his somewhat abrasive, no-nonsense style – and his credibility – the truth is that with White at its helm, the sputtering UFC went from being on life support to becoming an international phenomenon. To say that he has come a long way from his days as an aerobics instructor and amateur pugilist is a radical understatement.

Born in Manchester, Connecticut, White grew up in Las Vegas, Boston and Levant, Maine. He attended the University of Massachusetts in Boston for two years before dropping out to work as a hotel bellhop. Needless to say, bellhopping just wasn’t in the books for him. In 1992, he established Dana White Enterprises in Las Vegas and began managing MMA fighters Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.

While managing Ortiz and Liddell, White learned that Semaphore Entertainment Group, the parent company of the UFC, was looking to sell the struggling franchise. White contacted Lorenzo Fertitta, a childhood friend and executive at Station Casinos, as well as a former commissioner of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Within a month Lorenzo and his brother Frank Fertitta III bought the UFC, installing White as its president. And no, it wasn’t just a case of “and the rest is history”; in its first few years the UFC lost so much money (approximately $44 million) that the brothers almost folded it. But then White introduced a bunch of sensible rule changes, codifying a sport that had been stigmatized as a “free-for-all” or “human cockfighting”, signed on with Spike TV, started up "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV series, and an amazing thing happened. The sport took off. And not only did it take off, but with boxing on the ropes as a viable sport, the UFC comfortably filled that niche and perhaps also stole some of the fans and theatrical thunder from WWE.

TORO met with White at the Astral Media offices in Toronto, where we found him looking fit and relaxed. As expected, White held back no punches and spoke with a welcome and refreshing candor.

T: My wife is a fanatic about the UFC, something I find intriguing since she detests violence and has no stomach for boxing. Yet, she watches UFC fights with interest and respect. She loved "The Ultimate Fighter" series. You have female fans.

DW: I’ll tell you when we built this thing it was a no-brainer to me. Males 18-34, piece of cake, no problem. But the women that have become fans – it’s interesting how many women – Fox just did a study on it – and women are taking girl trips to Vegas for UFC fights.

T: Certainly, you have some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world, with amazing bodies, huge sex appeal.

DW: And they’re smart guys.

T: I’ve noticed a lot of the fighters are educated – a sharp contrast to the thuggish boxer prototype we’re accustomed to. Anyway, let me ask if a UFC fight will ever be sanctioned here in Ontario?

DW: I’m on it. It’s very important to us. One of the other things I didn’t expect besides the women – Canadians. I figured the United States, Mexico, the U.K., easy. Big fight fans traditionally. But Canada is by far the biggest country for us. It’s unbelievable how many fans there are up here. I don’t care where we are in the United States, the U.K., Northern Ireland, I’m always blown away by the number of Canadian fans out there. This thing isn’t getting smaller. It’s only getting bigger and better. It isn’t going away. We’re going to break into Ontario. Even in Montreal, when we went out for the press conference – nobody knew us, nobody knew George St. Pierre, nobody knew anything. All the fans were from Toronto.

T: Well, it certainly seems to be a big topic of conversation in this town. Most of the people in my circles not only watch it but have become real fans.

DW: I was approached to be on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine. I wasn’t in shape at all when they asked me. I thought, what the fuck do they want me on the cover of Men’s Fitness for? Our P.R. guy is like, ´you sell magazines´, and da da da. So I got in shape, and I did this thing – the biggest selling cover in the history of Men’s Fitness. It doubled what Tiger Woods did.

T: I’m not surprised. Has mixed martial arts finally shaken off the label of “human cockfighting?"

DW: I think we have, yeah. You know, this is seen as a real sport. The athletes are respected not only as real athletes but as some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world. These guys are smart, they’re educated, they’re good guys. You know, you’re still going to come across somebody who just doesn’t like fighting. You know it’s going to happen. I don’t like golf. I’m not a big golf fan. But it doesn’t mean that other people don’t and other people watch it on TV. If you don’t like UFC, I’ve got some advice for you: don’t fucking watch it.

T: Still, a repugnance of violence by some people seems to be keeping the UFC out of Ontario.

DW: It’ll happen. It’s just a question of time, money and energy, and we need more focus on it. Right now the last two states in the U.S. that have to be sanctioned are New York and Massachusetts. Once those two are done, which we are confident we’ll get done early 2009, all of the United States are done, now we’re focusing on Canada. Canada is very important to us.

T: Do you think the change of the label “human cockfighting” is a result of successful marketing or due to the rule changes and an elevation in the skill level of fighters?

DW: I think it’s a combination of everything. Obviously the direction that we took with this company – first of all when we got involved with this there was no doubt in our minds that these guys were real athletes and this is an amazing sport, you know. The old guy had it human cockfighting, no holds barred ... only so many people want to watch that. More people want to watch real sports and real athletes.

T: Trump/Affliction vs UFC. Some weeks ago Affliction had a pay-per-view – and UFC made their event free on cable. Did you lose much revenue from not going pay-per-view, or was the trade off of publicity and potential new customers and wider exposure enough to offset the cost?

DW: Yeah. Everything that we do – you know I’m a big believer in free fights on free TV. I do it all the time. I believe that it grows the market and more and more people tune in. We did killer numbers that night – that’s why the numbers were up.

T: It featured some great fights.

DW: If the Anderson Silva fight would have gone longer, the numbers would have been through the roof. You realize that the other night CBS had a live fight broadcast on. We re-aired B.J. Penn vs. Sean Shirk and spiked CBS in the ratings – with a replay! And they had a live fight.

T: By the way, your partnership with Spike TV was a stroke of genius and seemed to really spread the word about the UFC.

DW: We were looking for anybody to get involved. Think about this – people thought we were out of our minds. We bought a company that wasn’t allowed on pay-per-view. Porn is allowed on pay-per-view. And we said, we want to get this on free TV. People said we’d never get it back on cable let alone free TV. And here we are. And as far as your question about other promoters – I’m flattered that people think we make it look so easy. But this is a very hard business, a tough business to be in. There are so many different factors in it, and these guys all learn it quick, to the tune of losing millions of dollars. And you know how many fucking T-shirts you gotta sell to make $4 million back? A lot of T-shirts.

T: There was a much-hyped and hard-fought Miguel Cotto/Antonio Margarita boxing match recently. Are you concerned that after struggling for a time pro boxing is creeping back?

DW: Boxing is in trouble. You know, I love boxing. Listen, I bet on the Margarita fight, I went to the fight. I went to the Zab Judah fight the other night. I love boxing. But let’s face it, boxing is in big trouble. And I’ll tell you one of the biggest problems is that none of these kids growing up today are boxing. These kids are all doing mixed martial arts.

T: Also, the culture of boxing strikes me as darker and perhaps more sinister than anything we’ve seen thus far with the UFC.

DW: Exactly. Boxing’s story has been the same for a long time. I came from the mean streets of such-and-such and if it wasn’t for boxing I’d be dead or in jail. That’s really what every boxer’s story seems to be.

T: Whereas someone like Chuck Liddell – surprising as it may seem, he’s university-educated.

DW: Chuck Liddell graduated from Cal Poly with honours in accounting. Matt Hughes graduated from college. Rich Franklin not only graduated from college, but he was a schoolteacher. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. What’s so incredible about this is we live a reality world right now where everybody wants to know everything about everybody. And our stories are real and interesting.

T: Mac Danzig is a good example (winner of Ultimate Fighter VI). Quite a strange and interesting guy to say the least. I mean, he must be the only MMA fighter who’s a vegetarian.

DW: I was just going to say his name. Yeah, Mac is a good example.

T: I loved his story. I hated him at first, a real obnoxious customer. But then as he started winning fights and basically kicking everyone’s ass on the show with Zen-like calm and efficiency, and I started finding out more about him and how quirky and out there he was – it made for riveting television.

DW: (laughing) A great fighter, for sure. But with that whole vegetarian thing ... Yeah, Danzig is a real character.

T: You were an amateur boxer. How did you do?

DW: I was okay. I mean, you ask me how I was at boxing, well obviously I´m a promoter so I wasn’t that fucking good.

T: Actually, I asked that as a lead up to the next question. Were you really going to fight Tito Ortiz?

DW: Oh yeah. We were going to do it. I mean, you saw on the show we went before the Athletic Commission to get licensed, and it was a big deal. And actually, going up for that license created a lot of bad feelings with the Athletic Commission. Like, the guys who voted for me to get it and the guys who voted against me. There was a real split. It was bad.

T: But let me ask you, was this a personal beef you simply couldn’t put aside? I mean, you’re the face of the UFC, a big-time promoter. It seems undignified for a promoter to be challenging the fighters. Explain this to me.

DW: I’ll be honest, I just don’t like Tito Ortiz (laughing). And not just don´t like him. I hate the guy so bad that it’s borderline – maybe I need some fucking help. I need to see somebody about this, you know.

T: Just one of those things, eh?

DW: (laughing) Just one of those things.

T: Tell me something about your UFC partners, the Fertitta brothers, the enigmatic billionaires who’ve managed to remain almost completely behind the scenes.

DW: We were going to start a boxing promotion and we all got into this together. We learned about it and enjoyed it together. I found out that the UFC was in trouble and possibly for sale and went to them and we bought it. But these guys are – no secret they’re billionaires, you know, they own casinos in Las Vegas – but a couple of the most down-to-earth, well-adjusted people you’d ever want to meet. They’re just good guys. I know a lot of people that have money, and not anywhere near the money that the Fertittas have, and they’re the biggest dicks you’d ever meet and they look down on people and think they’re better than everybody else. The Fertittas are regular guys.

T: But what also I perceive is a solidity there that, for instance, we never saw in boxing what with Don King and seedy, histrionic characters like him.

DW: I’ll give you an example. You hear about some of these guys who are getting into the fight business and who lose a lot of money in the beginning, then start going back to the fighters and trying to renegotiate their contracts, saying you’ve got to fight for less money. The Fertittas were $40 million in the hole and it looked like we were going to shut this down at one point – but every fighter got paid. When we were looking for an exit strategy, and we were trying to figure out how much it would cost us to get out of this, they were looking at how much it would take to buy out everybody’s contract. Basically, if we just signed a three-fight deal with somebody for $250,000, that guy was going to get his money even if the fucking company folded. We were $44 million in the hole and these guys were looking at how to pay everybody’s contract out. These guys are the most solid, honest, down-to-earth, smart, you know, brilliant fucking guys you’ll ever meet.

T: How is Rampage Jackson doing since his recent incident with the police?

DW: He’s doing a lot better. He underwent over 72 hours of psychiatric evaluation, and what they ended up finding out was that it wasn’t psychiatric. It was physical. Basically what it was, he had extreme exhaustion and dehydration which caused something called delirium. He had delirium. You know, after he lost his fight, he stayed in Vegas, hanging out at the pool, and he went on this fast where he didn’t eat for five days and he was only drinking energy drinks.

T: It must have been a devastating loss. But what about Forest Griffin, who continues to amaze? Not many people expected him to beat Rampage.

DW: I’ll tell you what, Forest Griffin is one of the guys who has literally helped us build this business.

T: He’s a very likable character – funny, irreverent – and a superb athlete. I couldn’t believe it when I saw him stuff a basketball on "The Ultimate Fighter" series.

DW: He really is an excellent athlete, and he’s as tough as they come. He’s got a lot of heart and he never ever quits.

T: Do you think the referees have been doing a good job lately? They’ve been criticized for letting the fights go too long before they come in.

DW: I hate to take a jab at any referees because it’s a really hard job. You’re always going to be scrutinized and at the end of the day they have to make the call. They literally have somebody’s life in their hands, so it’s never easy. I like taking shots at the judges. I hate the judging. I have a real problem with the judging. It’s so inconsistent.

T: What do you make of streetfighter Kimbo Slice and all the hype he’s been generating? Is he legit?

DW: No. He’s a legit streetfighter. He’s always going to be the toughest dude at the barbecue, but in MMA he’s nowhere near the level of even guys who are halfway decent.

T: The female fights in the Elite XC have been fantastic, Gina Carano is gorgeous. Is there a future for women´s fights in the UFC?

DW: Probably not. It’s a long way off. Gina Carano is awesome, but there’s not enough good girls right now to actually compete with her. If there were they’d have Gina Carano fighting nonstop.

T: Right now, who do you think is the face of the UFC?

DW: There’s a lot of faces. That’s the thing. It’s not just one guy. That’s one of the great things about the sport. Who’s the most famous mixed martial artist on the planet? The answer is Chuck Liddell. But as for the face of the UFC, I couldn´t pick one.

T: Pound for pound, best fighter? Anderson Silva?

DW: No doubt about it. Anderson Silva is the best fighter in the world. You saw him on Spike TV move up to 205 pounds and make easy work of a really tough guy (James Irvin). Yeah, Anderson is the real deal.

T: Irvin recently tested positive for a banned substance. Are drugs a problem in the UFC?

DW: No, I don’t think it’s a problem. I mean, any time you’re dealing with human beings you’re always going to have problems. But, what happened to James Irvin was he hurt his foot and he was taking painkillers. He stopped taking the painkillers over a week before he went to Vegas. He didn’t think it was a big deal. But the thing is you can do that, you can take that painkiller, but you have to tell the Commission before you can fight. I was on painkillers, here’s the prescription, and here’s why. He didn’t do any of that.

T: With the Olympics coming up, boxing, judo, karate are all Olympic sports. What about Mixed Martial Arts?

DW: I’m praying that it happens before I die. I would love to see MMA in the Olympics. When we do, that’s when we can say we’ve really made it.

T: Next set of candidates for the UFC Hall of Fame?

DW: That’s a good question. We just inducted Mark Holman so I don’t know who’s next.

T: Is there one martial art you would choose above the others if you were going to be an MMA fighter?

DW: I’m a real Bruce Lee fan and Bruce Lee’s philosophy was, no one style is the best. You have to have a little piece of everything to be a complete fighter and really that’s what the UFC is all about.

T: Finally. Will the UFC take over the world?

DW: (smiling) We are taking over the world.

** Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, UFC 87 features George St. Pierre vs. Jon Fitch. It´s St. Pierre´s first title defence since regaining the welterweight belt in April in Montreal. PPV

Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

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