An inside look at Dana White
The face of the UFC is, quite literally, foaming at the mouth.
I am ushered into Dana White’s personal office by his charming public-relations guru, and before she can introduce us, he emerges: bald, beaming, suddenly and surprisingly charismatic, wearing hip, ripped jeans and a T-shirt and mumbling through the white madness, “Hi! Come in!”
All I see at first is white foam, bubbling at smiling lips, the kind of lather you might expect if you allow yourself to believe in the supernatural, particularly from a man crazy enough to go from hotel valet in Boston to instructor to, thanks to some nudging by the Boston mafia to get the hell out of dodge, a Vegas man.
And to, a few short years later, multimillionaire and face and force behind mixed martial arts, one of the country’s fastest rising sports.
I am too stunned to speak. And then I see the toothbrush. I exhale and realize the president of the UFC is, in fact, merely brushing his teeth.
Still, this candid look at a complicated man serves as the perfect introduction in a two-day blitz, on the verge of UFC 137, to Dana White and his fast-paced world. It will turn out that White, a 42-year-old mesh of controversy, cunning, charm, vision and intensity, is everything his newfangled PR machine wants you know about him — and everything they want you not to know.
White, at this exact moment, is simply the guy disappearing back into the bathroom, the guy barking orders as he reemerges, the guy dictating tweets on the fly and the guy rushing next door to watch every second of an upcoming UFC promo with the methodical precision of a control freak. He needs to be at the Mandalay Bay like, right now, but he takes the time to go frame by frame, shot by shot. He is certainly the guy for whom every last moment, detail and piece of control still matter deeply.
The triumphant music ends. The computer screen goes blank. The room waits.
For the first, and perhaps only, time in this two-day burst of personality, Dana White whispers. “I like it.” There is palpable relief. “I want to see the Mitre line one more time. If I like what we’ve changed I want to tweet it.”
This, too, is Dana White — a man who approves, shapes and is responsible for almost every aspect of the UFC.
It will soon become clear that Dana is also much, much more. He is the guy who gives vast sums of money to charity, has stayed loyal to childhood friends and interacts with genuine affection with fans no matter how busy he might be.
He is the guy who won $200,000 the night before — yes, more than most of us make in a year — at the blackjack tables at Caesar’s Palace. Who put down another $35K on the Cardinals to beat the Rangers in that miraculous Game 6, which, of course, he won, followed by a similar score betting on the Cards in Game 7. He is certainly the guy who talks about these things and more, even as his PR staff makes it very, very clear he should not be.
Dana White is the guy whose bare-knuckled approach to negotiating, ambition on behalf of the UFC and himself, and embrace of all things Vegas — he likes to say, particularly when his lead PR person tries to cut down on the candor, “We’re men! She doesn’t get it!” — has made this failed boxer, onetime fight manager and pejorative spewing bald dude an all-powerful MMA force who’s equal parts dictator and visionary.
Some hate him. Some love him. Some fear him. Some resent him. Some respect him. Some see a brilliant, game-changing, hard-charging catalyst at the center of the rise of the UFC and mixed martial arts. Some see a wildly magnetic bully they can’t stand. Many see him as some combination of these things.
Either way, for the next 36 hours, we’re going to see him up close. It will be a rare, behind-the-curtain glimpse of an Oz-like figure ruling over an increasingly lucrative and relevant part of the American sports landscape.
And that is largely true because Dana White is — as best as one can discern through the layers of obfuscation, powerful personal performances, natural charm and well-oiled public-relations machine — the kind of nuanced person perfect for taking a blood sport like mixed martial arts and selling it with unprecedented success to the general public.
* * *
Dana White doesn’t really walk. He struts. He glad-hands his way along a route filled with fans, sycophants, friends and admirers. He puts his barrel chest out and pushes at a pace that’s not quite running, not really menacing, but something other than a casual gait. He moves like the coolest bouncer from Boston might, all confidence and personality and inexplicable likability. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like walking because, even if he’s the one moving, people are drawn to him. It rarely seems the other way around.
This is how he leaves the nondescript headquarters of the UFC, with a vibe that seems out of place among the drab scenery, In-N-Out Burger and general malaise of this very ordinary stretch of Vegas.
“This FOX thing is huge,” he says, nodding toward me. FOX Sports, the company for which I work, recently announced a seven-year deal to air UFC fights on its various networks, the first of which premieres Saturday, live at 9 p.m. ET on FOX. It is a very big step toward White’s goal to turn MMA into one of the premier sports on earth. Some see the deal as proof the sport has entered the mainstream.
We head to his silver Range Rover — me, White and his head of public relations, Caren Bell, part of a new and impressive team hired to help sell the UFC and White to the world. He tells Bell he’s going to get her hooked up on his Twitter account. “Type this in for me. Say . . . ”
He drives fast. He drives while he stares down at his phone, tweeting or texting or whatever he’s doing; accelerating while he looks down at his phone. I swear he takes a sharp turn like we’re on rails while he looks down and works his phone. My first overriding impression of the man is: no fear.
He’s talking about how UFC is becoming a mainstream sport when his phone rings. He puts his phone to his year.
“Are you s****** me?”
“Where you at?”
“Haul ass up there.”
Hangs up the phone.
As if White himself can control, through force of example, whomever he was talking to, the bald man to my left accelerates again, the motor humming, and goes back to working his phone while we move swiftly onward.
The Range Rover moves past what you think of when you think of Vegas, zipping past the monuments to the left that American sin built in the desert through the sheer profit behind it.
First, though, before joining White in one of those palaces of pleasure, we need to pause for his past, for something Dana White rarely talks about. Something he was not, in fact, convinced he had talked about before. (He had.)
Behind us, where the Bellagio now stands, is where booze, blood, fate, glass and a girl nearly wiped from this earth the man behind the rise of the UFC.
* * *
He is going fast. He must be. What’s about to happen makes it definite even if years later he cannot recall the exact miles per hour. He is 16 years old. He has been drinking; that is certain. The girl next to him is not his girlfriend; that is certain, too — as is the fact the car he’s driving with the girl who’s not his girlfriend nonetheless belongs to his girlfriend. It’s a wild ride in Vegas about to get wilder.
He is on the strip. The casino in question is the Dunes. One minute it’s a joy ride. The next it’s glass and blood and pain.
“Thrown out the door,” White recalls years later. “The door peeled on this f****** car, like wrapped around the pole, and had this big f****** gaping hole and shot me out of it. Remember black Reeboks? I had black Reeboks on. There were little pieces of black Reeboks all over the f****** car. My feet exploded on impact. Is that crazy? And I held onto the wheel so tight the wheel was broke. Broke my collarbone. Both feet exploded on impact. And my knees were f*****. And it scalped all the hair off of my head.”
So here is Dana White, 16, head scalped, feet a mess, darkness around him. The sounds of madness and chaos everywhere. Then voices.
“At the time, there was this commercial where people would die — it was a life insurance commercial — people would die, and while they were dead they could hear everything everyone was saying,” White says.
“Then some guy comes and gets them and they start going up an escalator to heaven. That was the commercial at that time. I remember laying there and people screaming, and people freaking out, and I remember hearing a guy say, ‘I’m a doctor! I’m a doctor!’ And he comes in and says, ‘He’s dead!’
“And I remember thinking, ‘Holy s***! I’m f****** dead!”
Years later, White will laugh at this. Laugh with such gusto everyone listening leans in a little closer and laughs, too. That’s the thing about the big moments that shape you. Their horror, if it doesn’t destroy you, takes in an element of humor; their power becomes as much about the moment itself as those moments later when we reflect on it. This is how our most important and private experiences shape us into the people we become.
“I could hear what he’s saying,” White goes on. “I’m like, ‘Holy s*** I’m f****** dead!’ It’s just like that Prudential commercial or whatever it is! So I’m waiting for someone to come get me. When he said it I remember the girl with me starts f****** screaming. Screaming. And the next thing I know he said, ‘Oh! Oh! I got a pulse! He’s alive!’ and I’m like, ‘F****** thank God!’ ”
White laughs the whole time he tells the story, but had he died there, had Dana White expired as just some drunk kid crashing his girlfriend’s car into some casino’s parking lot while with some random girl, it is certainly conceivable many of us wouldn’t even know what the UFC is. Because then, White, about 15 years later, would not have been there to ask childhood friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, executives of Station Casinos, to spend $2 million to buy a fledgling company in the long-shot belief they could make MMA a preeminent sport and the UFC its primary engine for profits and popularity.
One can make a very compelling case that in that casino parking lot, coated in blood and glass and pain and darkness, lay not just Dana White but the future of the UFC itself.
* * *
He did survive, and the UFC is now what it is, and so we return to the present and the whirlwind of the day before a big fight.
White steps out of his Range Rover behind the Mandalay Bay and heads into the casino, Goodfellas style. Down this hallway, then the other, then another, shaking hands, following a very urgent woman who snaps, “This way please!” wholly encased by the unvarnished background of a very cool casino.
White does some interviews via satellite and heads back to his dressing room. There, he pulls out a stack — a very thick stack — of $100 bills and counts out 30 of them. He turns to one of his employees.
“Just go find Artie and give him this.”
He sees me eyeing this very Goodfellas-style transaction.
“The $3,000 is for this dude I went to high school with,” White explains. “He’s the St. Louis tipster. What he does is he gives me picks all week and I give him a piece. He’s damn good, man. I don’t know how the hell he’s doing it but he’s damn good.”
White’s PR person chimes in, “Are you really pulling out that money in front of him?”
White laughs, but the question — and the persistent PR machine that frets all weekend about his every word and my every observation — speaks to just what he is. He’s the franchise. These furious attempts to control the message do not extend to the fighters, not to this extent. Dana White is the face of his very important, quite lucrative company. That’s half the reason he’s hired a new PR team. There’s much more to protect now than even a few years ago.
White has gone on talking — talking about fights, about why he thinks UFC is poised to be the biggest sport on earth, about how, unlike the NFL, it has reach outside the United States, about how . . .
The phone rings.
Through the phone I can make out a familiar diminutive voice asking what time they can meet up.
“Whatever, bro. You tell me whatever time you want to meet, and I’ll meet you.”
White hangs up.
“Mike. Mike Tyson.”
The amazing thing about this exchange is not that Tyson called Dana White. It’s the realization just how much more important White is to the fight world than the former boxing champ. Times have changed.
A bit later we head out, and the rest of the afternoon is a rush. White glad-handing, hugging friends, pretending to know strangers, weighing in fighters on stage, breaking up a fracas at the weigh-in between headliners Nick Diaz and B.J. Penn and afterward exulting in their three-second dustup.
“That was f****** beautiful! That was better than an interview!”
When White gets back to his dressing room, a short guy with glasses and an impressive build is waiting. White gives him a hug. The dude plops down on a chair, and after a few moments it comes up that he surfs. And that, while surfing, he cracked open his skull on some crazy swell. And then this dude is pulling out one of his teeth — some kind of device is secured to the tooth, and wires run up the back of his skull — and White laughs uproariously.
Old friends, turns out. That’s the other thing about White. He has friends, close friends, whom he’s known for years, guys who remain an active part of his life. He’s as bonded to his past with guys like the surfer — he’s a lawyer — as he is to Mike Tyson or Simon Cowell, with whom he partied earlier in the week.
Somewhere along the way, a suggestion I might get to party later in the night with White and his buddies becomes a hard and fast invitation. While this is going on, and while Bell is urging that we do not in fact spend un-chaperoned time together, one of White’s people reads a long quote about how lucky we all are to be here. It’s a Robert Dawkins quotation that will play some role in some upcoming UFC promo or marketing campaign.
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” the man reads. “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
There’s a pause while we wait for White’s reaction.
“That is some deep s***,” he says.
By now, Bell, who is very good at her job and thus a little concerned about all that’s transpired, been talked about and been promised, is blatantly unhappy about the prospect of the face of the UFC partying it up in front of a reporter. White doesn’t care. He’s still dwelling on Dawkins.
He turns to me.
“We’re the sperm that almost didn’t make it! Let’s go get f****** crazy tonight!”
Sounds good to me.
But first, before that, we need to take one more look back. Because the Dana White who’s living the high life in Vegas was shaped by his time in Boston in the late 1980s and early ’90s. This, as much as partying past midnight in Vegas with him, is what his handlers don’t want you to know.
* * *
White moved to Boston after high school. Bartender. Construction worker. Bellman. That was the life trajectory of Dana White. Solid money. Normal life. A tough kid doing just fine in a very tough town.
One night, he was out with his sister when all hell broke loose. He was leaving a bar when he went back in to check on her.
“My sister has a completely different story these days, but I’m telling you this is what happened,” White says. “She said f****** that guy was pointing at her and saying all this s****. The bar’s closing and we’re all going outside and my sister says, ‘That’s him over there.’
“And I’m like, ‘Did you hit my sister?’ And he’s like, ‘What?’ ‘Did you hit my sister?’ He’s acting like it wasn’t him. My sister walks up beside me and he goes, ‘Oh, you mean this big-mouthed f****** b****?’ and gives her the face mush. Right? So I f****** hit this dude as hard as I could.”
The guy, the way White tells it, took three steps backward and then charged. Along with every other dude there.
“These guys were from Charlestown,” White said. “It felt like there were 1,000 of them, but there were probably 15 or 20 guys. They beat the s*** out of me for 20 minutes until the police came. I kept popping up and going back down, popping up and going back down.
“And then the police came. I lost the hearing in this ear. The reason the kid got in trouble was because he started fighting the police when they came, too. A lot of times people get stabbed . . . ”
So make no mistake. White might not have made it as a boxer, and he might be one bright businessman, but he’s also experienced real violence.
Whatever it is about MMA that touches some primitive part of us, White doesn’t just know how to sell it. He once lived it.
“I got a call from the lawyer one day,” White said. “I could barely move the next day I was in so much pain. My ears were ringing for days. I’d go over and pick up the f***** phone because I thought the phone was ringing, that’s how bad my ears were ringing.
“The lawyer called to see if I’d testify against (his client) and he’s talking and talking and talking to me and I go, ‘Wait a minute. Is he there?’ He’s like, ‘Yes, he’s sitting here right now.’ I said, ‘Put me on speaker phone.’
"He puts me on speaker phone and I’m like, ‘You and all your f***** punk-ass p**** f****** friends f****** beat on me for 30 f******* minutes and nothing happened to me! I wasn’t sore! I wasn’t this or wasn’t that. One of these days me and you are going to see each other again and none of your p**** friends are going to be with you and it’s going to be a different story!’ And I hung up the phone. I didn’t want to go, ‘I lost my hearing and I couldn’t walk for 10 days after that.’ ”
Still, asked if he testified against any of the people who beat him senseless for half-an-hour, he answers as if it’s the craziest thing he ever heard: “Hell no.”
Violence aside, he did well in Boston. Got himself a job at the Boston Harbor Hotel, where he said he pulled in as much as $70,000 a year. Had benefits. Made good money. A nice life.
“I was standing in that lobby one day, and I said, ‘This isn’t for me.’ ”
He quit that day and opened a box-ercise class in Boston.
I ask Dana why he left Boston, what got him back to Vegas, having already heard the reason and wanting to know if the mafia really played a part. When I ask, Caren, his public-relations person, shoots me a smoldering look.
“Why did I leave Boston! Ha-ha!” White says, looking at her as well. “I just got tired of it, jumped up one day and left all my s*** there!”
“Thank you,” Bell says, relieved.
“Is that the answer you wanted?”
“Absolutely, very good.”
He’s still laughing. “I got so sick of that s*** and one day I said, ‘F*** it,’ bought a plane ticket and left everything there. My girlfriend and everything. Left it all there.” He lays on the sarcasm. “I’m very impulsive.”
He pauses, and you can see his eyes gleam and almost hear him think, “Who gives a s***!”
“You know that story right?”
I nod. It’s just the kind of story his handlers hate for you to hear, because the last thing they want are the words “Dana White” and “UFC” to in any way appear near “mafia.”
“So it’s true?” I ask.
“One-hundred percent true.”
“Can we just talk off the record on this stuff,” Bell interjects.
White ignores her.
“If you look at mafia movies, mob movies like ‘The Godfather,’ they’re really sophisticated, but the reality with gangsters is it’s more like the Johnny Depp movie ‘Donnie Brasco.’ They’re sawing off f****** parking meters to try and break into them. That’s really what it’s like. It’s guys trying to make money any way they can, whether shaking people down or something else. That’s what they do. One day they walked into one of my classes, literally walked into the middle of one of my f****** classes and said, ‘Yeah, we need to talk to you.’ I’m like, ‘I’m teaching a class.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, we need to talk to you.’
“We walk into the hallways and one’s like, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I was like, ‘No,’ but the way this thing was going down I had a feeling who it might be. It wasn’t (Boston mafia figure) Whitey Bulger. It was two of his guys. Kevin Weeks was one of them. ‘You owe us $2,500.’ ‘Really? Well that sucks.’ ”
They knew White had a girlfriend, knew where he worked, probably knew where he lived, and the implications were clear. So when they called a few days later, he bought a ticket to Vegas, slipped aboard a plane and ran to a brand-new life.
* * *
That, perhaps as much as having survived the teenage car wreck, is why he’s sitting here now at the Marquee Nightclub at The Cosmopolitan, squished between a reporter and Chuck Liddell, drinking a Bud Light from a can, being told he’ll be needed in five minutes. Otherwise he might not have arrived in Vegas, discovered Tito Ortiz and Liddell, managed them, worked his way into the MMA hierarchy and changed the sport.
We’re here to launch the UFC’s latest video game, “UFC Undisputed 3.” Reporters wait across the room, eager for some one-on-one time with White. Beautiful women circle us. Part of his nervous PR team listens in with apprehension.
Their concerns are reasonable and telling: They say White has nothing to hide but that he does have enemies. That he’s a great guy who has a great time, but some might take it the wrong way. That his bare-knuckled approach to life helped make him the man he is, but now that that man is the face of a very valuable franchise perhaps he should stop talking about fights, the mafia, teenaged drinking and driving and the other moments that made him who he is.
And, certainly, not spend un-chaperoned time with a reporter.
Listening to such concerns, White interjects.
“No! We’re going out!”
Again, his PR person grimaces. And smiles. It’s hard not to like Dana White, it really is, but if you’re tasked with shaping his image, well, that would be a lot like herding cats. Not very easy.
“I’m a guy!” he goes on. “I’m a man’s man! This is Vegas, and I embrace this f****** town! I embrace what it was built on. My PR people are acting like we’re going to snort lines of coke and bang hookers. No, man. We’re guys, we’re going to play cards and drink and be men.”
Needless to say, Bell both laughs and looks horrified. Hookers and coke? Oh, God. Unsolicited, White barrels on.
“I hate drugs. I hate them! Don’t want them f****** around me. I brought a buddy out, and he was involved in drugs, and I had to get rid of him.”
Now he runs through the gamut, unasked, of the tougher questions I might ask. Yes, he once used a derogatory term to describe gay people and he says he gets it now, gets why that is not a word to use. Yes, he has enemies and can be tough, but this is Vegas, this is America, and a man makes his own way. No, he doesn’t want to talk about his family — he’ll say only that he has a wife and kids — and why not? Every man’s entitled to his family being off limits, certainly when you have a mom — as White does — who seems to revel in making videos for the public in which she slings awful accusations his way and is writing an unauthorized biography.
“We have had guys who make mistakes,” he says, talking about his fighters. And maybe about himself too. “But we’re f****** human beings. We’re all going to make mistakes.”
A little more than 24 hours later, after Diaz abuses Penn in UFC 137, White announces that Diaz will indeed fight Georges St- Pierre for a title fight over Super Bowl weekend. Another fighter, Carlos Condit, has “agreed” to step aside and pass on a title fight he’d had a few hours earlier.
This is almost certainly a unilateral decision by Dana White. That speaks to how much power he has, and also to why the UFC has grown so much. They bring about the fights fans want to see because the power rests not with the fighters but with White.
So who he is, the good and bad, it all matters if the UFC matters, as well. I like White. He’s cool, he’s funny, he’s refreshingly open and honest. I would not want to piss him off outside a bar, or at a negotiating table, or necessarily be one of his employees. But I would love to drink beer with him, take in Vegas with him and watch, with or without him, this sport he’s introduced me and many others to.
The fact is, he is the result of all the things he’s shared, which means the UFC has been shaped by them, as well, regardless of what his PR staff wants us to focus on when we focus on the man behind the UFC.
Dana White is the guy who nearly died in that parking lot. Who wouldn’t stay down outside that Boston bar. Who was forced out of Vegas by the mafia. Who ended up back in Vegas, took a shot on someone else’s money on the UFC and made them all a boatload of money. Who says his stake in UFC is worth about $400 million. Who can win $200,000 playing blackjack on a given night. Who good-naturedly but without reservation throws his handlers’ caution in their faces. Caution? This man’s life was built on the opposite of caution.
So it comes as a surprise when he slips out of the nightclub and, a little later, fires off a text telling me he’s going to bed early rather than showing me the town. Which is fine. Dana White does what Dana White does — and whether that’s sleep or get crazy away from some reporter or ignore people paid to give him advice he shouldn’t ignore, well, more power to him.
All weekend long, he’s said one thing to me over and over. Watching him, from the moment he brushed his teeth all the way through UFC 137 and his clear and total control over it and the fights to follow, his words ring loudly in my head.
“I have a great f****** life, man. I’m not going to lie. I do.”
That life, and the man it made, is as responsible as anything else for the current state of mixed martial arts.
“I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m the luckiest f****** guy alive.”
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.