The Big Interview: After a year of change for the UFC, Dana White remains unfazed and unfiltered
Even by industry standards, it’s been a tumultuous stretch for the UFC. In July, the promotion was purchased by WME/IMG for $4.5 billion, the largest fee ever paid for a sports property, the ultimate signifier of how far the sport had come in such little time. Jon Jones, perhaps the world’s best pound-for-pound MMA fighter, failed another drug test and has fought just once in the last two years. Conor McGregor, the brightest star in the UFC hemisphere, retired, unretired a few days later, gave up his belt at 145 lbs., picked up a belt at 170 lbs., and continues to gain leverage as he threatens to box against Floyd Mayweather.
Maybe most jarringly, Ronda Rousey—once the UFC’s center of gravity; indestructible when she fought and refreshingly accessible when she didn’t—was not just been beaten, but beaten badly (“smashed,” in UFC locution) in her last two fights. She’s disappeared from every public arena, save Instagram, where she revealed recently that she’s hit rock bottom.
There is one constant amid all the change. Dana White remains boss, the UFC’s President/Promoter/Ringmaster/Public face, roles he has filled since he and his partners purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001. And never mind that, technically, he has a new boss in Ari Emanuel, WME’s co-CEO. White remains ferociously candid, the rare sports executive who is allergic to conventional p.r., sterilized talking points or cautious syntax. He’ll stump for Donald Trump, as he did at the GOP Convention, without worrying about alienating fans or cleaving public opinion. He’ll tell you which fighters need to train harder or adopt a more entertaining style. And don’t get him started on the notion of fighters unionizing.
The promotion is back in New York with the UFC 208 card at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center on Saturday night—the sport’s hard-fought legalization in New York still another change within the past year. In advance of the fight, Dana White visited with Sports Illustrated. With some light editing for clarity, herewith some outtakes from a recent sparring session.
Jon Wertheim: 2017 will be a successful year if….
Dana White: If we just keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 16 years. As far as me, I’m running this business just like I’ve always run this business. Everyone keeps asking, ‘How’s it been with the transition?’ I assume that means, ‘How are me and Ari [Emanuel] getting along?’ I’m gonna tell you right now—and this is no bulls—, you know how I am—Ari and I have been together for 12 years. He was my agent. It’s a thousand times better than I thought it would be. And I knew Ari was the right guy to be with. I feel great. I swear, I had a meeting with a couple of guys the other day and Freddie Roach was one of them. They said, ‘The bet people are talking about right now is that you don’t last a year.’ I told them, ‘You’re f—ing crazy.’ Listen, people think they know me. You don’t know me if you think I’m outta this in a year. I’m not going anywhere, man, I love this s—. I love working with Ari now. And I’m into the vision.
JW: When you think about Ronda, how are you dividing the personal from the professional?
DW: Yeah, [sigh] when you have people who fight for you, it's human nature. You have some you're going to like. There are some you’re not going to like. There are some you just do business with. It’s always hard when the personal side takes over and you become close. I mean, there’s nothing worse than watching someone you care about go in and fight.
JW: So how’s this been for you?
DW: Ronda came into this sport and the only reason women fight here is because of Ronda Rousey. I did that initial meeting with her and I remember calling Lorenzo [Fertitta]: ‘I just met with that Ronda Rousey girl and I think I’m gonna do this!’
He said: 'What?! You’re gonna do women’s fighting?'
'I’m gonna f—ing do it. If this is even a possibility and can work, she’s the one. I’m gonna give it a shot.'
Everything she told me she would do, she did. She worked her ass off for this sport, for this company, for women. She worked herself to the bone. I’ve never had a fighter work [with publicity] the way she has. She’s made a lot of money. I know for her that doesn't matter—her legacy means more to her than anything else. But you know what, sometimes we can’t have it all. But let’s be clear: she built this house. She really did.
JW: You’re in the past tense.
DW. I care about her as a human being more than the fighter side. You read the bulls—, ‘Oh man, UFC’s in trouble, their golden goose….' She’s not a f—king golden goose. She’s a human being. And she’s a very good f—ing friend of mine.
JW: So as a friend, if she calls and says, 'If you’re me, what do you do?' or 'Can I ask for advice: do we call it a career or keep going?' what do you tell her?
DW. She won’t call and ask that. She’s so f—ing strong-willed. She knows what she wants and doesn't want. If she calls me today and says, ‘I’m done. I’m gonna wrap it and call it a career’ I’m gonna be like, ‘Awesome. That’s amazing. We’ll plan something.’ And if she calls me and says, ‘I want three more fights,’ she’s got it. She’ll make that decision on her own.
JW: What did you learn from this election that could help you going forward?
DW: I guess this election could be seen like the UFC. Want to hear a story?
DW: So what happened was, that [election] night, it was actually my 20-year anniversary. I was at my favorite restaurant here [in Manhattan]. Lorenzo hits me and he goes, ‘He just won Florida. He's in this fight.’ So me and my wife got up, came back here to the hotel, and started watching it. And Ivanka's husband called me, said, ‘Listen, my father-in-law loves you. You've been so great through this whole thing and everything else, looks like we're going to win this thing. Meet us at the Hilton right now.’ I'm like, Oh, s—. I didn't have any clothes. I had one suit. I had a suit for the fight, that's it. I said, f— it, I threw my fight suit on, walked out on the street, went down to the Hilton, met those guys down there. Think about this. Donald Trump, it's just another testament to the type of guy that he is. He's winning. He's going to become the president of the United States. He thinks of me, to have his son-in-law say, 'Hey, come on down to the Hilton and come be with us for this thing.' That's a testament to the type of man that this guy is. I'm telling you, he is a good guy.
JW: 2016 was a 'blank' year for you. Fill in the blank.
DW: It was a rollercoaster ride in so many different ways. Obviously a great year with all the fights that we had. It was a great year for fights. All the fights were incredible. The possible sale of the company, then the actual sale of the company, then the transition to WME-IMG. It's been crazy. Unfortunately in takeovers, when somebody comes in and takes over a company, they come in, bring in a lot of their own people, and a lot of people end up getting….leaving. So that was all tough.
JW: You said it messed you up for a while?
DW: Oh, yeah, I was f—ed up. Yeah, I was f—ed up.
JW: Why was that?
DW: I literally went up into a hotel room for two days and kind of Howard Hughes'd myself off from the rest of the world for a couple days.
JW: Why? This didn't come out of the blue.
DW: It did, though. It did come out of the blue. That's what a lot of people think, ‘These guys were covering it up, they were lying, doing this.’ This was a process that we'd been through many times. We'd been through this process. This wasn't the first time this happened.
Even Lorenzo had said to me, ‘Listen, don't even think about this. Just keep running the business. Keep doing what you're doing. This stuff, you know, especially at the multiples these guys are talking about, never happens. ‘
I didn't know then, I didn't know how done he really was. That came after, after the sale. You know, I was a mess. All this s—'s going on. The thing that turned me around, one day we were together, he looked at me and he said, ‘You're my best friend, be happy for me. This is what I want. Be happy for me.’ …It's pretty emotional. If you'd have told me that I'd act like this, I would have never believed it. But it got me, got me good. Plus, to be honest with you, when you're sitting there reading and watching all these news stories from all over the world talking about how much money you just made, it's not fun.
JW: It’s a rough sport. Injuries are going to happen. But there were so many—
DW: I know where you’re going with this—
JW: These fighters are independent contractors. But the UFC cuts the checks. Do you think you’ve made progress addressing the overtraining of these guys, improper training?
DW: Some of the gyms we did. With others it's as bad as ever.
JW: You know who's who?
DW: Listen, guys at AKA get injured every single fight. Luke Rockhold is out. Khabib [Nurmagomedov] got hurt there training. Then you have Cain Velasquez. The champ, Daniel Cormier is hurt.
JW: So what can you do?
DW: I don't know, man. We started doing these seminars and stuff. They're receptive to it. But I don't know. Where there's smoke there's fire, man. Staggering numbers.
JW: What else do you see for next year?
DW: Next year, we're working on Russia, working on China. Our TV rights are up. Going to be an interesting year.
JW: When you guys were conceiving this, you buy this distressed asset, this idea that people are going for the show as much as anything—
DW: We just put tickets on sale in Brooklyn, sold over 10,000 tickets.
JW: How much of that was by accident, how much of that was by design?
DW: It was all by design. I mean, from the get-go, our goal was to do the exact opposite of what boxing had done, you know. We stacked cards. You can never be in the situation where you take one fight—I blame a lot of the guys for this, not just the promoters, but the fighters, too. You say a De La Hoya-Mayweather fight, they make all the money, then there's nobody on the under card, right?
DW: The one thing I sell, what I'm selling you every Saturday night, they're 'holy s—' moments, where you jump off the couch with your friends, look at each other and go, ‘Holy s—, that just happened.’ Everybody is going crazy.
You can't bank on one fight doing that, especially a big fight where everything's involved, all the stakes are so high and everything else. Boxing, that's why you got the guys that run around in circles and actually don't fight. They just want to win to get to the next payday. Whereas in this sport, everybody is making money. We put great fights on all the cards so you could have those moments.
JW: Someone from the NBA was saying to me, 'If there wasn't a union here, it would absolutely be the wild west. At least we can negotiate with one unit. We don't have to worry about anti-trust.’ Do you feel that at all?
DW: It's the fight business. It's such a different world. It's not the NBA. It's not Major League Baseball, not the NFL. It's a whole 'nother world.
JW: You mean team versus individual?
DW: Individual versus individual, one-on-one sport, completely different. I'll tell you right now, you just said it at the beginning of this conversation, these guys start with a camp or a manager or whatever. These guys are going to try to get rid of the union once they had the union. If they had a union, they'd try to get rid of it, believe me.
JW: Does it worry you?
DW: I don't give a shit. Want to have a union, knock yourselves out. Then it becomes which group are you going to go with? There's three of them out there battling each other. Hilarious. The unions, sending each other cease and desist letters. 'We're the union. No, we're the union.'
JW: Are you fighting this classic battle now between brand extension and not wanting to dilute the product?
DW: No. I'm telling you, I've said this all along, people disagreed with me early on, but I don't think they are disagreeing today. As long as you're putting on good fights, people want to watch them. The reality is, as the talent continues to grow, more and more people start to come out of the woodwork, become fighters. We could put fights on every weekend all over the world, different territories.
JW: But that's what I mean. Would you want to do it?
DW: Yeah. I would do it. It makes sense. We'd have to have the same level of quality. I'd have to hire people in those different territories to run it, run the shows. It wouldn't be this staff that I have here in Vegas with me. We would oversee it.
JW: I look at the online metrics sometimes. Unless it's Floyd doing something stupid, boxing is just—
DW: That's why he won't stop talking about Conor. Keeping himself relevant while he's doing nothing.
JW: You'll feel guilty for accelerating boxing's death?
DW: They did it to themselves. I just filled the void.
JW: Would you let your kids fight?
DW: Absolutely. My kids play f—ing football. My son broke his collarbone. My son, first game of the season, broke his collarbone. Believe me, I would prefer them to fight, but they love football. I'm one of those guys, whatever your passion is, I will get behind you and let you do it, even though it's so dangerous. It's what they love to do.
JW: You'd let your kid get in there?
DW: Absolutely. All my kids have trained. Even my daughter. My daughter has trained. They've all trained, MMA, done it since they were little. They never had the passion for it. I definitely wouldn't want them to fight if they weren't passionate about it. You got to love fighting to fight.
JW: Nobody is doing this part-time anymore.
DW: Damn right. This is a full-time job. You got to focus. Everybody is so good these days. It ain't like it used to be.
JW: What’s the moral of your story so far?
DW: I believed in this thing. I thought we could do something with it. Two other guys believed with me, which was very important. It's not just a $2 million story to $4 billion story. There was $44 million in between there that was lost. Hanging on, staying loyal to each other through the good times and the bad.…Hitting things in business is definitely about the right idea at the right time. Timing is everything, but you also have to be with the right people. You tell me Guns'N Roses can't get together for a f—ing year and play? Egos, man. If you're a big egomaniac…I'm known to be one, but I don't think I am; but that's just the way my persona comes across. I get along very well with everyone I work with.
JW: With your media rights, why do you feel like you're well positioned?
DW: Realistically I look at my kids now. My boys are 14 and 15. They don't watch TV. My kids do not watch TV. They're on their phones watching content or Netflix. When you and I were kids, if we wanted to watch CHIPs, we had to be home Sunday at 8:00. If you missed that f—ing episode, you never saw it, or reruns if it goes into syndication. My kids will sit down and knock out a whole season of Game of Thrones.
JW: You think you're well set up?
DW: Yes. We're on it. What Frank, Lorenzo and I were able to accomplish is incredible. Then if you look at what Ari brings to the table. I'll be on the phone with Ari. We'll be talking about [something]. He'll go, ‘Get John Skipper on the phone.’ John Skipper pops up on the phone. We didn't have that power. If I wanted to talk to John Skipper, I'd probably have to f—ing set up a meeting with him. ‘He's busy till, you know, 2022.’
JW: But I think it's a big part of the story that you did all this…
DW: …largely without knowledge.
JW: You did this by clawing. You did this very much outside that….
DW: Without the help of anybody. And everybody trying to f— us all along the way. Crazy.
JW: “Mixed martial arts are not arts.” Defend, reject, modify.
JW: You heard that live?
DW: You think I’m a Golden Globes f—ing demographic? [laughs] Obviously as soon as it happened, everyone—friends, family, fighters—started blowing me up about it…I don't have any ill will toward Meryl Streep. She’s an older lady, obviously. I don’t expect an older lady of her age to be in the demographic—not that she couldn’t be—and you know what I learned?
JW: What’s that?
DW: It wasn’t a dig at the sport. It was a dig at Ari Emanuel, who was there. She’s with another [management] agency. That was a dig at Ari Emanuel.
JW: Not at Dana White for his appearance in Cleveland last summer?
DW: That’s what I thought, too.
JW: How many people in that room do you suspect now own of a piece of UFC?
DW: Quite a few. Quite a few.