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In-Depth Interviews with the Biggest Names in Mixed Martial Arts
By Mike Straka
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Mike Straka
All rights reserved.
Dana White, UFC President
I admire Dana White for his fortitude, his work ethic, and his passion for mixed martial arts and the UFC brand of which he is captain. If it weren't for Dana White, people like me who make a living in the MMA industry, whether we are journalists, commentators, fighters, promoters, managers, agents, retailers, or ring girls — wouldn't be where we are today, and like it or not, we owe Dana White for that.
I've interviewed Dana more than 50 times over the past decade, but no matter how many times I do, I'm always a bit intimidated. He is after all, the Godfather of MMA, the Grand Poobah of the UFC.
The first time I interviewed Dana was in 2001 when I was the weekend sports contributor on FOX News Channel, and I think the first thing he said to me was, "I don't know if we're going to fucking make it, but I love this sport more than anything." Right there I fell in love with his honesty. Most people in his position would try to sell me a bill of goods about his company and the fledgling sport, but not Dana. He's honest and frank, and he's proven throughout the years that he has no problem telling anyone what's on his mind.
White was Chuck Liddell's and Tito Ortiz's manager before he became the president of the UFC. In 2001 he convinced his high school friends, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the billionaire owners of the Nevada-based Station Casino Group, to purchase the organization for some $2 million dollars.
Today, the UFC is estimated to be worth over $2 billion. A lot of that success comes from White's brash, in-your-face style of doing business. Dana did me the honor of being my first guest on Fighting Words, even at a time when he was having issues with HDNet, which goes to show you what kind of a guy he is.
"People think I'm brash, I'm this and that. Listen, this is the fight game, this isn't Microsoft or McDonald's," White says. "This is the fight game, and it's blown out of proportion too, the whole bad guy image thing."
Indeed, Dana is probably one of the nicest guys when it comes to the fans. In business, however, he can be as tough as the most hardened Fortune 500 CEO.
Dana is not afraid of controversy. He speaks his mind and often takes to Twitter or YouTube with messages to fans, journalists, fighters, judges, referees, and competitors. He has single-handedly increased sales at Pinkberry frozen yogurt stores across the country by announcing UFC ticket giveaways there, in cities where events are taking place — while he enjoys his favorite Pinkberry treat: a large original with Fruity Pebbles.
"To be honest with you, the whole social network thing and Twitter is because I don't have the greatest relationship with the media all the time," he says.
"I feel I call the media out on a lot of things and the whole internet has changed the world of media. Anybody with a website is a 'journalist,' so I just don't play their games. The thing I love about Twitter and a lot of the social networking is I can talk directly to the fans. I can cut out the middleman. I can say exactly what I want to say the way I want to say it without somebody else interpreting what I said."
White has been known to call out members of the media by name when something they say or write gets under his skin, including Sherdog.com's Loretta Hunt and Jake Rossen.
He even tweeted a four-letter salvo to the San Francisco Chronicle when the paper's sports editors refused to cover UFC 117 in Oakland, writing:
"San fran chronicle says they hate UFC and would NEVER cover the UFC and were such rude dickheads to our pr girl. Hey SFC, fuck u!!!! ... San jose mercury, oakland tribune, contra costa times, west county times, valley times and many more thanks 4 ur support!"
White makes no apologies for his public lashings.
"This isn't 1986 anymore, where the media can say anything they want about anybody and there's no way for you to respond, so when I see the media doing something that is wrong — or misquotes or misinformation or flat-out lying — I'm going to call them out on that. And I don't see what's so controversial about that," says White.
Whatever people may want to call it, it's working. The UFC has supplanted boxing and the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) as the world's biggest pay-per-view draws, and ratings for its TV productions on SpikeTV and Versus have far exceeded network executive expectations. A network television deal with ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX is in the cards in the very near future, and even an Initial Public Offering on Wall Street is not so far-fetched.
While Dana is widely credited for taking the UFC to where it is today, he doesn't always make unilateral decisions. Majority owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the billionaire brothers who own the Stations Casino Group in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founded Zuffa, LLC (UFC's parent company) with White, have a big say in what goes on.
"There are a lot of decisions I make on my own, or Frank and Lorenzo and I will get together as a team and make decisions," he says. "The greatest thing I have is I've been in the fight game a long time. I know this business better than anyone does. Having two really smart, really open-minded businessmen as my partners is huge. Part of the reason this thing has become so big is because of the friendship and the trust that we have in each other."
White's critics like to say he was just a guy in the right place at the right time, lucky to have friends with deep pockets. But contrary to the petty jealousy of some of those critics, it takes a lot more than convincing two rich friends to invest in a controversial company and concept to get to where he is today. After all, the Fertittas have a lot of friends. How many of them are multimillionaires after going into business with them?
Dana laughs when I ask him if he got lucky knowing the Fertitta brothers.
"The timing and everything lined up perfectly, but people think Frank and Lorenzo and I had been hanging together for 15 years," he says. "What people don't know is Lorenzo and I hadn't seen each other for 10 years, until we bumped into each other at a wedding. Timing is everything, and anyone who knows me knows that I've put the work and dedication and time into this thing, but yeah, I've been very lucky, I wouldn't disagree with that, you know."
Before White "got lucky," he was offered a position to run another mixed martial arts promotion, the World Fighting Alliance, a rival Las Vegas promotion that had fighters such as Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Matt Lindland, and Ricco Rodriguez on its roster. I ask Dana if the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts would be where it is today if he had taken that job.
"I don't think so," says White. "Like I said, it was a combination of me and the Fertittas that made this what it is today. Listen, I knew the fight business, but the reality is the Fertittas are big businessmen. Back when we started the UFC, I ran some gyms dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars. We deal with billions of dollars now, and that is the Fertittas' area. They are aggressive, smart, big thinkers. I knew the fight game, but like I said, this awesome relationship that we've had together is one of the big reasons that MMA is where it is today and why the UFC is where it is today."
It wasn't always easy, even for the Ferttitas, especially in the early days of their UFC ownership. There was a lot of opposition within the Station Casino business that looked at the UFC as nothing more than a money-wasting distraction. That's why it was a big day in June 2008 for Dana when Lorenzo stepped down from his position as president of Station Casinos to become CEO of the UFC.
"When you look at it from my point of view, Station Casinos is the reason the UFC exists today. These guys made a lot of money through Station, and through Station they were able to fund the UFC. The UFC was the red-headed stepchild of the Fertitta business family. Everybody who worked with them and around them said, 'You're going to lose your money. This is insane. I don't know why you're doing this.' But they believed in it and they believed in me. And when the day came that Lorenzo was going to leave that business and come full time with us, that was a big day for me. It meant a lot to me because I felt I was key to getting us to where it [the league] was, for him to leave to come over and join us. I knew what he was going to bring to the table when he came. If you look at what he's done internationally in the last year, he's kicked some serious ass."
Indeed, during 2010 Lorenzo was able to sell 10 percent of the UFC to Flash Entertainment, a government-owned concert and events promotion in Abu Dhabi, for an estimated $120 million. The brothers and White diluted their own shares to make room for their new partners, and the UFC would go on to present UFC 112 on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
In August 2010, the UFC announced the hiring of Mark Fischer, a 12-year NBA executive who built NBA China into a $2 billion enterprise, to head a UFC operation in Asia.
"I think as successful as the NBA was there, I think we can do just as much with the UFC," Fischer said, telling me later the potential big areas for expansion include China, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong.
The Zuffa-era UFC's biggest foray into Europe was in April 2007, at UFC 70: Nations Collide, in London's O2 Arena. The promotion spent millions of dollars announcing its presence to the British MMA fans, however, much of that money was not recouped after dismal pay-perview buys. MMA bloggers made much of the fact that the UFC spent more money marketing that fight than it brought in for the event.
White, however, says the marketing spend was worth every penny, despite the short-term losses.
"I believed in it," he says. "I knew. Just like when we started this thing back in 2001. I knew England was going to be big. And the reason we got crushed over there is because I spent so much money. I went over there guns a blazing, especially with the marketing.
"When we put on that fight in London, I don't care if you lived in some small cow town, you knew the UFC was coming to England, that's how big I went on the marketing. You know, when you look back you're like, 'God, we spent this much money, we lost this much money.' But you never know, had I not done that, would it be where it is today? Would it have grown throughout Europe the way that it has, who knows? Now that it's all worked you don't know if it was the right answer or the wrong answer."
In 2006, prior to the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show on SpikeTV, the Fertitta brothers were [$30] million in the red with the UFC. White was tasked with finding a buyer for the promotion.
"I thought it was over," says Dana. "Lorenzo called and said, 'I can't keep pumping money into this thing, get out on the streets and see what you can get for it.' That day I was making calls all day finding out how much we could sell it for. And by the end of the night it was anywhere between $4–6 million, and I called him and gave him the number. And he said, 'All right, I'll call you in the morning.' And he called me back the next day and said, 'Fuck it, let's keep going.'"
While he was relieved the UFC would get an extension, the pressure was certainly on White to perform, and he was already eating, sleeping, and breathing UFC. White had some dark days during that time.
"I never said, 'I'm in over my head. I was just like, that was a close one, this thing is about to be over. You know, I was working as hard as somebody could work, but I said, I've got to step it up even more and put this thing into overdrive."
If the fiduciary success of the UFC isn't enough to prove that that overdrive worked, in 2010 White was awarded an extremely prestigious honor, the inaugural PromaxBDA "Game Changer" Sports Marketing Award.
The award recognizes an innovator who's transformed the business of sports media and sports-media marketing through the development of new technologies, applications, business models, and industries.
PromaxBDA is a worldwide organization consisting of over 3,000 companies in 70 countries, dedicated to the development of the entertainment industry. Among the panel voting for the Game Changer Award were execs from ESPN, HBO, and HDNet's Mark Cuban (my boss).
"In selecting a recipient for our inaugural Game Changer Award, we felt Dana White perfectly embodies the type of sports-marketing figure worthy of setting precedent for this honor," PromaxBDA president Jonathan Block-Verk stated. "Shift in perception, evolution of the UFC brand, and its meteoric rise under his watch perfectly exemplify what it means to be a game changer in the sports-marketing arena."
White was born in Manchester, Connecticut, and grew up back and forth between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Levant, Maine. His parents were divorced and his mother raised him alone as best as she could. Dana was street smart from a very young age, and although he attended University of Massachusetts Boston, he dropped out to start his own business: Dana White Enterprises, a boxing instruction company that eventually led to managing two unknown mixed martial arts fighters named Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.
Dana's humble beginnings keep him grounded even as he hobnobs with the world's biggest celebrities and richest business moguls.
"I treat everybody the same, whether you're a media mogul or just one of the fans," says White. "Everybody's the same to me. I've always — this might be funny to people, but I've been a people person my whole life and I deal well with people. If you choose not to deal well with me, then I don't deal well with you. Either way, I know how to deal with people."
To Dana, loyalty means everything. Most of the people who started at the UFC with White in 2001 are still with him today.
"I believe that we all have to pick a team and go with it, man," he says. "You know, these people that hop from place to place looking for more money or looking for this or looking for that ... I sat down a group of fighters and a group of employees. And I talked to everybody one-on-one and said, 'Here is my vision. Here is where I want to take this. Are you with me or not?' And the people that were still are, and I guarantee they don't regret a minute of it. They have made a lot of money and they get to travel the world and have fun."
Indeed, since that day the UFC has been to Dublin, Ireland; London, Manchester, Newcastle, and Birmingham in England; Cologne and Oberhausen in Germany; Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; Montreal and Vancouver in Canada; and Sydney, Australia, to say nothing of the dozens of U.S. cities the UFC has graced, from Portland, Oregon, to Newark, New Jersey.
Dana has had some pretty public disputes with some of the fighters on his roster, most notably Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture. Both fighters were not happy with the terms of their contracts and essentially held out for more money. In Ortiz's case, the feud became extremely personal, with White and Ortiz actually setting up a boxing match inside the Octagon.
That fight never happened, but it emphasized how much the two hated one another during that time. With Couture, the matter was mostly business, with White putting most of the blame for Couture's unhappiness on Couture's new Hollywood agents, describing one as "that Hollywood scumbag lawyer."
Eventually Couture gave in, as court after court sided with the UFC. He did come away from it, however, with the best contract of his fight career. Ortiz also finally buried the hatchet with White, and he, too, came out with a much larger contract than he'd ever had before, but perhaps that was more a sign of the times than it was rewarding the squeaky wheel. One of the most gratifying things I've ever seen was on The Ultimate Fighter: Team Liddell vs. Team Ortiz, in the episode where Dana fires Tito from the show after Tito announces he won't be fighting Chuck after all, due to a neck injury. Ortiz looked like a deer in the headlights as White explained to him he was sending him away to get checked out by "one of the best doctors in sports orthopedics."
In contrast, the UFC's highest-paid fighters have mostly been the good soldiers, such as Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell, both of whom White considers friends.
Excerpted from Fighting Words by Mike Straka. Copyright © 2011 Mike Straka. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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