It’s two hours before showtime, and Dana White is fuming. His bald head turns a pinkish hue, and he can’t quite believe what he just saw. White is seated in a nondescript room in the underbelly of the rickety Baltimore Arena amid a rotating cast of friends and associates, four leather sofas and two ﬂat-screen TVs. It’s a late April Saturday that ﬁnally feels like spring, and the UFC has come to Baltimore for the ﬁrst time.
White is the president of the powerful mixed martial arts organization and feels a sense of ownership over every aspect of the company. Outside this small room an interview is taking place, which White is able to monitor on one TV. Interviewer Ariel Helwani just asked Chuck Liddell whether he would want to ﬁght Jon Jones, who’s 18 years younger than the retired MMA legend. The broadcast is Internet-only at this point, a lead-in to the night’s pay-per-view, but that doesn’t matter to White, who is momentarily slack-jawed before making a bee-line for the door.
“He’s retired, you idiot!” White yells at Helwani, his voice echoing in the concrete hallway.
White, 44, has no ﬁlter and sees no sense in waiting for a day-after critique. He wants every problem solved yesterday. He feels responsible for everything, which makes sense: He built this entire ﬁght circus, and more than anyone else, his face is the one at the front of the lucrative UFC brand (which stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship). He’s on the TV broadcasts; he hosts the reality show; he runs the news conferences. Fighters will come and go. They’ll get too old and too slow. But White is the constant — the smiling, bald, profane beacon in the middle of it all.
“I don’t see anybody other than Dana White who could’ve done this, because he’s the ultimate maverick businessman,” says Bruce Buffer, the UFC’s longtime announcer. “And that’s what it took to make this happen. It’s just amazing what he’s done.”
White has nearly 3 million Twitter followers, and he’s engaged all day. For him, every interaction is a chance to remind people about the night’s pay-per-view show. He’s not a typical salesman and certainly not like any other CEO. It’s impossible to imagine Roger Goodell or Bud Selig interacting with football or baseball fans the same way. “Steroids and cheeseburgers are rottin ur brain,” he tweets to one fan. “Look at u starting [expletive] this early in the morning,” he tells another, “U must be hitn that Capt Morgan dummy.” “Go watch Spider-Man if ur looking for a role model,” he tells a third. “I’m not trying to be.”
White’s brash and colorful demeanor is the same whether he’s talking to an employee holding a mop or a sponsor with a fat checkbook. He reenters the room and pulls out a flip phone to call Craig Borsari, the UFC’s senior vice president of production and operations. (Here’s how White describes Borsari’s job: “When [expletive] goes wrong, he’s the guy I start [screaming] at.”)
“I just [expletive] ripped Ariel Helwani’s head off for that interview of Chuck Liddell. . . . How do you call out a 44-year old [expletive] legend and ask him if he wants to fight a 26-year old [expletive] kid?”
White paces around the room a bit before sinking into one of the sofas. Soon Borsari arrives and explains that a producer was the one who suggested the offensive question. White is quiet for a second.
“Well, I’ll go apologize to him then,” he says, walking toward the door, still brooding.
Truth is, White has been fired up for a while. Years, in fact. The UFC’s top spokesman — its undisputed champion — has no formal business background. He convinced a high school classmate to purchase the UFC more than 13 years ago and at the time brought two things to the table: passion and vision. The result was a meteoric rise for a sport that barely existed a generation ago.
Mixed martial arts is a full-contact sport that combines boxing and ground grappling. Violent and bloody at times, the action takes place inside a chain-link octagon-shaped pen. It has seen enormous growth in recent years. According to research by Fox Sports, the major rights holder in the United States, more than three out of four men ages 18-34 say they’re fans of UFC. The sport’s Fox Sports 1 audiences have a median age of 39 and are spread pretty evenly across the country. Seven in 10 viewers are men, and the UFC enjoys the youngest median age and the highest concentration of Hispanics among all major sports. Now the UFC can be seen in 147 countries, in 23 languages.
Buffer was there from the beginning, working gigs in small towns from Oklahoma to Alabama. Now he says he can’t walk down the street in Brazil without fans jumping from their cars to take photographs — and he’s not even a fighter.
It just means White’s plan is well in motion: He wants to take over the world. “We’ve already passed the NFL globally,” he boasts. “But here in the United States, the NFL is just a beast. I mean, right now I would say the one we’re trying to outgrow globally would be soccer.”
One key is treating every night like the UFC’s most important. That means building a card of competitive fights and making sure as many eyeballs as possible tune in. “Ninety percent of it is awareness,” he said. “People need to know it’s on. The more people we interact with, the more people know it’s on.”
He’s seated next to social media consultant Kristin Adams, who’s closely monitoring a computer screen and occasionally transcribing White’s words into tweets. Usually White handles his Twitter account himself. Adams says a good way to tell who’s at the controls on fight night is the language. “If it’s the F-word, it’s usually Dana himself,” she says.
Nearly 90 minutes before the pay-per-view is scheduled to begin, Liddell pokes his head into the room.
“Sorry again about that,” White says.
“Nah, nah, you know me, bro. I roll with the punches,” Liddell says. “I told him, ‘If Dana wants me to do it, I’ll probably do it for him. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ ”
Liddell knows White better than most. The two have been close for more than a dozen years and have traveled all over the world. Liddell laughs as he recalls a visit to Boston in which the two had just returned to the hotel after getting cannoli.
“I got a call to come down to the lobby to wrestle the bellman,” Liddell says. “The bellman thought he could take me down. Dana offered him three grand if he could take me down or $500 if he could stay conscious for a minute. The guy looked like C-3PO the next day. But that’s Dana, looking for fun, seeing a challenge, not backing down, you know?”
Liddell knew White back when he was nobody, just another loud, tough guy in the gym who enjoyed boxing and was convinced he could offer Liddell better management. “He was so confident, so passionate,” Liddell says. “You had to listen to him.”
Soon White was representing two of the brightest young stars, but the sport was backsliding. It had been launched in 1993 as a violent, bloody spectacle with no rules and no mercy. Hardcore fans loved it, but the growing popularity invited red tape and controversy.
“You could see the handwriting on the wall,” said Art Davie, one of the UFC’s founders. “My big fear was that we would be banned completely. Politically, we were getting squeezed out.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously wrote a letter to all 50 governors in 1997, denouncing the sport as “human cockfighting.” Suddenly, the UFC couldn’t book an arena, couldn’t land a good TV spot and was selling off its assets to stay afloat.
While negotiating on behalf of his fighters, White learned the UFC was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. He immediately called an old high school classmate, with whom he had recently reconnected at a friend’s wedding. Lorenzo Fertitta was in Miami with his brother, Frank, when White made his pitch.
The Fertittas are the sons of a casino magnate — Station Casinos includes a handful of successful off-strip casinos extremely popular with locals — and they were fans of boxing and mixed martial arts. One month after White called, they were in the fight business. For $2 million, they essentially owned the letters “UFC” and an old wooden octagon, as the Fertittas like to tell people. White became president and was given a 10 percent sweat-equity stake and a never-ending to-do list.
“We bought the UFC when not only was it a bankrupt company that was going under, it had a horrible stigma attached to it,” White says. “This thing was so bad it was not allowed on pay-per-view. Porn was on pay-per-view, but the UFC was not allowed on pay-per-view.”
In those early days, the company consisted of White and two other full-time employees. The sport wasn’t even sanctioned in Nevada and was still tweaking rules to make MMA more respectable. Change was slow, and growth came at a cost. The Fertittas lost a reported $44 million in four years, and the company again was in big trouble.
The UFC placed a bet on reality television, paying Spike TV $1 million to air “The Ultimate Fighter,” which essentially served as an infomercial for the sport, its personalities and its pay-per-views. It saved the company. The Season 1 finale in 2005 topped out at 2.6 million viewers, and it’s now one of the longest-running reality shows.
It’s hard to remember any of that now, in this small room in the Baltimore Arena, the temporary control center for a sport that has spawned neighborhood gyms across the country, slapped its logo on everything from men’s underwear to women’s purses, spawned Hollywood acting careers and has staged fights in 13 countries. The UFC is worth billions. White is a millionaire. Liddell doesn’t fight anymore, but he’s a millionaire, too.
“The sport might have gotten here eventually, but it would have taken a long, long time without him,” Liddell says of his friend.
The pay-per-view show — UFC 172 — is barely an hour away, and the pre-show featuring undercard bouts moves from the Internet to Fox Sports 1. White is already convinced the night is a success. The stands are packed, and the early fights have been good.
Baltimore Arena has hosted the Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Pavarotti but has seen few nights like this. Five years ago, mixed martial arts wasn’t even legal in Maryland. On this night, the live gate will be $2.3 million, the second highest the building has seen behind only the Rolling Stones. The attendance of 13,485 will mark the second highest in the 52-year history of the arena.
“And it’s like this everywhere we go,” White says.
A friend comes in the room and gives White a big hug. Kim O’Connor was a cocktail waitress at the Black Rose, an old Irish bar in Boston, back when White was a bouncer more than 25 years ago.
“Oh my god, Dana! Look at you! This is so awesome!” she says.
As White tells it, he comes from a solid middle class upbringing, the son of a nurse who relocated from New England to Las Vegas where salaries were bigger. White says he wasn’t interested in high school and never really liked the idea of college. He moved to Boston, where he worked in construction, at the bar, at a hotel.
“I was a bellman — a great hotel, five-star hotel in Boston,” he says. “I made great money. I made cash every day. I had good benefits. We had 401k. All the things you could ask for in a great job, I had. You know what I didn’t have? I hated my job.”
He quit and began exploring the fight business. His last job before the UFC’s heavy, golden doors swung open? Leading boxing aerobics workouts for deep-pocketed clients in Vegas. He was not a millionaire.
“Same exact guy today,” O’Connor explains with a laugh. “Nothing’s changed. F-bombs every three seconds.”
“I had more hair, though,” White says.
White says he hasn’t changed; he simply has a more comfortable life. He and O’Connor begin running through old friends and new family members. White lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Anne, two sons and a daughter.
“This is my oldest,” he says, flipping through a photo of a young boy on a surf board in Fiji. “That thing was like a [expletive] professional shoot. I had guys in the water, guys in boats, guys in [expletive] helicopters. This is one of the most legendary places to surf. . . . We’re going back to Fiji this year for Christmas. Kelly Slater is coming to surf with them in Fiji for three days.”
In the preceding days, White was in Quebec, Orlando, Las Vegas and Connecticut. He’ll leave Baltimore on a private jet by 4 a.m. and get two nights at home before heading to Mexico for a news conference. Still, he says he misses nothing back home. If there’s a youth football game in Vegas and White is stuck in Abu Dhabi, he’ll send a UFC camera crew to film the game and stream it live to his laptop.
“I don’t miss anything,” he says.
But something is missing, his own mother has contended. There is no shortage of detractors turned off by White’s loud personality and abrasive tactics. June White is among those who had a public falling-out with her son.
“Dana went from being a true friend, a good son and a truly nice person to being a vindictive tyrant who lacks any feelings for how he treats others,” she wrote in a self-published book called “Dana White, King of MMA.” “It is hard to say if what changed him so utterly was the extreme amount of money he came into so quickly, the influence of those around him, or how suddenly he could make or break so many people. Power can create ugly beasts.”
The show begins in less than an hour. White’s mouth never stops, and his eyes shift constantly from his phone to the flat-screen TVs. He tweets about awesome kicks and takedowns while also juggling myriad requests. Actor Jeremy Piven is the latest. He’s in London and having trouble finding the show. “Why have you forsaken us?” Piven texts. Within minutes, White sends instructions, and Piven responds with gratitude.
“From what I’ve seen — and I’ve been talking a bit — but this looks like Gomi’s round, right?” White asks the room, all eyes locked on the Japanese fighter Takanori Gomi.
Soon, Buffer appears on the screen to announce the results: Gomi wins on all three judges’ scorecards.
“That’s big for us,” White says. “He’ll fight in Japan now, and they’ll go [expletive] nuts.”
World domination is near. The global market is still mostly untapped, and American sensibilities are becoming increasingly delicate. “There’s no doubt that America has become soft,” White says.
Lorenzo Fertitta is in charge of most international business, while White handles the fights, the lucrative Fox deal — a seven-year contract that reportedly pays the UFC at least $100 million annually — and overseeing a small army of lieutenants.
“He’s the guy who lives and breathes it every day,” Frank Fertitta says of his partner.
Today, the UFC says it has 350 employees. In addition to its Las Vegas base, the company has offices in London, Toronto, Beijing and Sao Paulo, with plans to open one in Australia. The Fertittas sold 10 percent of the company to the Abu Dhabi government, a move they hope grows the brand internationally. There are fights scheduled for 13 countries, including Turkey, China and New Zealand. Brazil has already exploded, and White says Mexico is next.
While cash flow is no longer the company’s biggest problem, more fighters are speaking out about the way the pie is divided. Many fighters worry they’re bleeding, sweating and aching for mere crumbs. Some of the sport’s biggest icons, pioneers such as Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture, have expressed concerns. Shamrock has gone so far as to call White the “bald devil,” and the conversation gained steam earlier this year when Nate Quarry, a star from the debut season of “Ultimate Fighter,” shared his concerns on an online message board.
“People have no clue from the outside what it’s like to fight for the UFC,” he said. “After spending 10 [to] 15 years chasing your dream only to see that the company . . . cares nothing about the fighters and only cares about the bottom line. . . . [L]et’s not fool ourselves. It’s not a charity. It’s a business. And they are doing everything they can to make money. The fighters are just a product to use and discard.”
The UFC has about 500 fighters under contract and has routinely bought out upstart competitors. White holds all the leverage. He dismisses talk about possible unionization as unrealistic and says as the sport has grown, all fighters have benefitted.
With some top stars out with injuries, recent pay-per-view numbers have been down, but even if 350,000 fans pluck down $50 for a pay-per-view, that’s a $17.5 million payday. Gate revenues typically add another few million and sponsorships much more. The UFC will have more than three dozen televised events this year, including 11 pay-per-view shows.
“Reporters and stuff love to throw fighters’ union at me like it’s gonna scare me,” he says, sitting in the room in Baltimore Arena. “Like, ‘Oh, not a fighters’ union.’ . . . There will never be a fighters’ union. Ever. The reality is this: Fighting isn’t a team sport; it’s an individual’s sport.”
Suddenly, after hours of waiting, a black curtain is all that stands between White and the masses. On the other side, a halo of lights hanging above a caged octagon, a night promising blood and violence, a global appetite waiting to be fed.
White pushes the curtain aside and strolls through. Fans hang over barricades to get closer. Hands stretch out, as if pulled by a magnet. Those too close for a high-five hold up their phones.
Soon White will be seated ringside, his face just a couple of feet away from the chain-link octagon. The Fertittas will be to his left, and dignitaries such as Liddell, retired linebacker Ray Lewis and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank will be seated behind him. His first stop, though, will be the camera. Fox Sports 1 is about to go off the air, leading viewers to the pay-per-view. White will have five more minutes to sell the show, to share his dream, to prepare the world.
But for now, as club music blares, White slowly walks through the crowd, all the energy around the arena redirecting itself, taking aim solely at him. The cheers and taunts crash down from all angles. It could just as easily be the Beatles in ’64 or Ali in ’72.
White in ’14 is not a rock star and not a fighter. He’s not a businessman and not a mogul either. And yet he is all of these things, this guy who barely got out of high school.
He’s close to the octagon now, the tail end of this maze of adulation. The cameras flash and the bass thumps and everyone’s screaming his name. The ringmaster inches his way toward the center ring, each step taking him closer to world domination.