Issue 68, Sep/Oct 2010 | Words by Nick Halili | Photos by Matt Campbell
“Do you let your competitors just walk all over you and do whatever they want? Or do you wake up, get up out of bed, and try to kick their f*cking asses? When you punch in, you’re ready to go to f*cking war, and when you punch out, you hope you took another big chunk outta their f*ckin ass that day.” This is UFC President Dana White’s mindset when he gets to the office every morning. Like some of the worlds’ greatest mixed martial arts fighters on his roster, White is an absolutely ferocious competitor. Only his opponents aren’t Jiu-Jitsu black belts, Olympic wrestlers or champion Muay Thai fighters wanting to knock him out or choke him unconscious. They are pro boxing, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and, especially, any company that dares to challenge him on his home turf of mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion.
Back in January 2001, White and his business partners, casino magnates Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, took an organization on the brink of collapse and made it made into one of the fastest growing sports in the world. With “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show on national TV, dozens of annual, live events in packed arenas all around the world and coverage on ESPN, the UFC has become a part of the sports landscape of the 21st century. But White’s aspirations are not just to be talked about along with its fellow major sports. It is to surpass them all and become the No. 1 sport in the entire world. The one thing he emphasized is that he plays not only for success—he plays to win. When DUB Magazine spent the day with Dana at UFC Headquarters and at the Fertitta-owned Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas, he discussed his still intense passion for MMA, his love of cars and his plans to take the UFC to an even higher level.
What makes mixed martial arts such a compelling sport to you and fans?
I believe that fighting was the first sport on Earth. I believe that two men popped up on Earth, somebody said something, somebody threw a punch and whoever was standing around ran over to go watch it. I have no proof whatsoever, but I guarantee you that f*cking happened. Before a guy picked up a stick and said, “Hey, throw me that thing!” and f*cking hit it, or some guy threw a f*cking rock through a circle, somebody got punched in the face and people sat around and watched it.
How did you first get exposed to mixed martial arts and the UFC?
I’d been involved in boxing my whole life. One night, Frank (Fertitta) and I were at the Hard Rock. We saw a guy named John Lewis who used to fight in the UFC; he’s a Jiu-Jitsu guy. We set up a private lesson [with Lewis] and started taking Jiu-Jitsu. I can’t remember if it was the blue or red pill in The Matrix, but that’s what it was like. When I did my first Jiu-Jitsu class, I was blown away. I was like, “How am I walking around for 30 years and not knowing this?” This was 1998. (Writer’s note: It was the red pill).
Can you describe how this experience evolved into you and the Fertittas buying the UFC?
I started to meet some of the fighters. Then, I started managing Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Through that, I got into this huge contract battle with the old owner of the UFC over Tito’s contract. And that’s when I found out that the UFC was in trouble and would probably go out of business. At the time, Frank, Lorenzo and I were talking about getting into the boxing [promotion] business. I called them and said, “I think we can buy these guys.” A month later, we owned the company.
What was something you wanted to do with mixed martial arts from the outset that was different from pro boxing?
When I was a kid, my dad and all my uncles used to watch boxing. All the big fights would be on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I remember sitting there watching the fights, and I started to love it. Once everything went to a Pay-Per-View model [in the 1990s], boxing promoters didn’t put sh*t on free TV anymore. Kids that were 10 years old in 1991, for those 10 years, didn’t see boxing on television regularly. You just knocked off an entire generation from being involved in your sport. My main goal was, no matter what it costs, no matter what it takes, we need to get fights on free TV. And now, [starting] with the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” we have a generation that has grown up with the UFC. We’re in 175 different countries on television where kids are growing up right now watching fights with their dads. That’s how you build a business.
What other mistakes from boxing did you want to avoid after taking over the UFC?
The sport not being run by one organization; the sport being fragmented. There are so many sanctioning organizations [in boxing], and they would only sanction guys they could deal with. So you could never pull off a lot of the big fights. Or the fights would happen long after they should have. I said if we can go in there and lock up the space, we get all the best fighters in the world and we can [then] make any fight we want to make.
You sometimes have a very direct, non-politically correct way of doing business. Can you describe this style in your own words?
It’s honest. We watch sports and politics and the guy is up there reading some canned statement that his attorney wrote, and you know he’s f*cking lying. You know what he’s saying is bullsh*t, or he’s being PC. I don’t have to be that. This is the fight business. I don’t run Microsoft or GE. My style is aggressive toward my competitors, but isn’t that what it’s supposed to be like?
How do you respond to fans that do not like your aggressive style, especially when it comes to rival organizations like Strikeforce?
I know one of the big criticisms about me is how I attack these other promoters. I don’t attack anybody. But if you come out and say you’re going to compete with us, then we’re going to f*cking compete until somebody wins and somebody loses. That’s what competing means. I never said anything about Strikeforce, and then Showtime gets involved. They start going after talent I have and, basically, start trying to compete with us.
Do you think the UFC will eventually expand to the point that you will have to compromise and be more PC?
It’s not that I don’t have to be; I don’t want to be. I don’t want to wear a suit to every f*cking meeting. I don’t want to not swear. We’re all grown-ups here. Like you’ve never heard “f*ck” before? Let’s not be fake and phony—I won’t do it.
What do you think is the most crucial element to your success and to being successful in general?
Growing up, your mom and your dad say, “If you don’t go to college, you’re never going to amount to anything.” I don’t believe in any of that. If you go to college, I have nothing but respect for that. You should be as smart as you can possibly be and learn everything. But, on the flipside, not everyone is a college person. The reality is, I think you have to find whatever it is you love to do. Sh*t that you would get out of bed every morning and do for free. Don’t think about the money; money is a tool to have fun. If you look at it any other way, you’re f*cked up. Don’t go chasing money—chase your f*cking dream.
The UFC’s success has given you the opportunity to have a little fun by way of your ever-growing auto collection. Can you talk about some of your favorite rides?
I love old muscle cars. I have a Barracuda that they built for me on “MuscleCar” on Spike TV. I have two Ferraris. There’s always the big debate between Lamborghini and Ferrari. No debate for me. I like the way they look better. I don’t do paddle shifters. All these cars that I buy, I make sure they’re stick shift. But the car that I drive everyday is my Range Rover—it’s fast. You feel like you’re driving a sports car, but people can actually ride with you.
Which one of these cars is the most fun to drive?
My Ferrari is my favorite. I like to drive fast. When I have time, and I rarely do, I’ll take it outside of Las Vegas and just open that thing up and go as fast as I can go. I had it to, like, a-buck-forty. It feels like you’re going 65!
For comparison’s sake, what was your first car, and your worst car ever?
My first car was my worst car. It was a rusted-out Datsun B210. This thing had to be late-’70s or early-’80s. It was yellow, and the muffler had fallen off it. You could hear me coming a mile away. I didn’t grow up rich, with money or anything like that. I would’ve ridden a Moped if that’s what I had.
Just like the changes in your rides from back in the day, what are the biggest changes between when you first bought the UFC and now?
Everything is different. When we first started, I literally started in a broom closet. They had old computers and maps in there. That was my office. For the first seven years, I f*cking oversaw everything. A pencil didn’t get sharpened in this place without asking me first. When we first bought this company, we weren’t allowed on Pay-Per-View. Porn was on Pay-Per-View! The UFC was not. Arenas didn’t even want us.
Was there a time when you thought you were going to have to sell the company because it did not look like things would work out?
Going into 2005, we were like thirty-something million in the hole. Lorenzo called and said, “Man, I can’t keep doing this. Get out and see what you can sell this thing for.” He called back the next day and said, “So what’s the word?” I said, “Honestly, four million, maybe six.” We bought it for two [million] and invested thirty-three. He calls me the next morning and said, “ F*ck it. Let’s keep going.” It’s decisions like those that turn a business around. It’s about having the balls to stay in the game.
“The Ultimate Fighter” reality show was the big turning point for the company. Can you explain how that came about?
We were aggressively trying to get on television, but everyone was terrified of it. People were too afraid to put the fights on [television]. But like I always say, this was our Trojan Horse. You’re watching MMA without realizing you’re watching MMA because we have it in a reality show format. It worked perfect.
On the other side of that, are you ever concerned about UFC fight cards getting diluted because of the increased number of events?
No. You know how many cards I’ve had that fans have said, “Oh this card sucks!” and it ends up being one of the best of the year? If it sucks, I’ll be the first one to say it sucks. Not every card is going to have Brock [Lesnar] versus f*cking Cain Velasquez, then right under that Anderson Silva versus GSP, and then a BJ Penn fight. There’s a lot of up-and-coming guys that are really good fighters, and you don’t know how good or bad a fight is going to be until you watch it.
What do think of fans and critics who worry about over-saturation of the sport in the media?
Is there too much football on TV? Is there too much baseball? As long as we keep putting on great fights, people are going to want to watch them. I guarantee you, when you watch the UFC, you’re going to have a couple of what I call “holy sh*t!” moments. That’s why you’re hanging out with your buddies on Saturday night.
You have often said that you think that MMA will be the biggest sport in the world. What do you say to those who doubt this?
Listen, fighting is the sport that all other sports aspire to. When a guy dunks a basketball, he gets down and he’s like, “I just kicked your ass.” No you didn’t; you just dunked a ball through a f*cking circle. When a guy goes against a great pitcher and crushes a homerun, he’s like, “I just kicked your ass.” No you didn’t; you just hit a ball with a stick over a f*cking wall. When you go in, you fight and you kick somebody’s ass, you just kicked his f*cking ass.
What’s the next phase in getting the UFC to the next level? Where do you want to take the sport?
Global is where we’re going. We just hired a guy to run China for us. We are working on opening up India and South Korea next. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what country you come from or what language you speak—we’re all human beings. Fighting is in our DNA. Our goal is to get this sport everywhere all over the world: people training, people fighting and on television. And it will happen—believe me when I tell you.
Findlay Customs / Travis White
Special thanks to the UFC’s
Jennfier Wenk and Chari Cuthbert,
as well as Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa