Born to Brawl

On the eve of another titanic UFC weekend in Vegas, the sport’s no-holds-barred boss talks about the fight game and the fight in him

Everybody has an opinion on Dana White. Just bring up his name next time you are out on the town and see what happens. “Guy’s an idiot,” “ignorant loudmouth,” “super nice guy,” “one of the most real people in Vegas,” “totally down to earth” and the age-old classic, “asshole.” Those are just a few samples from people I encountered in the run-up to this interview, but one conclusion is clear: The jury is all over the place, except in the middle. That’s one area in which you’ll never find an opinion about the UFC alpha male. That’s because whatever he does or says, he’s all in. Maybe that’s why he recently made the list of 2010’s most influential people in both Time and Esquire.

Street 7

Ben Conmy asked random Las Vegans he ran into what questions they had for Dana White. Here they are, along with White’s answers:

  1. What would you be doing if you weren’t in charge of the UFC?
    I’d be in the fight business somewhere, doing something.
  2. Doesn’t “Dana Black” sound much more dangerous than “Dana White”? Have you ever thought about changing your name?
    Fuck no!
  3. If you had trained as a youngster, how effective a UFC fighter could you have been?
    When I was young I wanted to be a fighter, but one day it hit me in the gym: You’re not it. I was 20 years old. I saw a local fighter recently, and I thought maybe I could have been good. But I had my moment, and I knew it wasn’t me. You gotta realize what you are and what you are not.
  4. Could Floyd Mayweather Jr. be effective in the UFC?
    Floyd, in my opinion, is probably the best boxer ever, when you talk about pure boxer. He is so fucking talented. Floyd has all the attributes to be a great UFC fighter, and if he’d have chosen that route, I’m sure he’d have been successful.
  5. What would your poker style be at the table?
    I don’t know how to play poker. I’m a blackjack guy. But if I played poker, I’d probably be in your face.
  6. If you ran a casino, which one would it be and why?
    Bellagio. You just feel good when you walk in that place. And it doesn’t have that uppity attitude of some of the others.
  7. Do you think the U.S. soccer team will do well in this summer’s World Cup?
    I care as much about soccer as I do about two insects having a race on the floor.

I ruminated on these character assessments while I waited to meet Mr. White himself. It’s a few weeks before the next colossal fight weekend (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Rashad “Suga” Evans in UFC 114 at MGM Garden Arena, May 29), and I’m sitting in the lobby under the vaulted ceilings of the Ultimate Fighting Championship headquarters on West Sahara Avenue, watching clips of fights on the three giant plasmas. On one screen, a fighter is getting ripped to shreds. The coup de grâce is a knee to the skull, followed by a cascade of blood down to the Octagon floor. It’s another clue that I’m not about to meet Roger Goodell, a suit-and-tie Brylcreem guy who lays down the NFL law with the clean precision of a corporate lawyer.

Dana White’s image is closer to an NFL lineman than a sport’s CEO. But there is one parallel with the latter: I’m kept waiting 20 minutes past our appointment, and it’s not stacking the deck toward the pro-White side of the debate. Just when I start to get restless, his ultra-hospitable assistant, Chari, arrives to summon me upstairs, and it’s clear by her “so sorry” expression that I’m not the first individual bumped around by the hectic schedule of the UFC czar.

After a trek down some long corridors clad with UFC hype, I’m led into the impactful office of The Man himself. I was expecting a motif along the lines of an Affliction T-shirt, so I’m surprised that it is both tasteful and subtle. The room features floor-to-ceiling windows and a lounge area with couches and a table, presumably for high tea with really important people (myself not included). There is also a couple of striking prints on the walls by Albert Watson—one’s the back of Mike Tyson’s head; the other is a monkey holding a gun. But the most dominant feature in the office can be summed up in one word: space. Put it this way, if you work in a cubical and you somehow get invited to Dana White’s office, don’t go—it’ll only humiliate your existence. This could be a hangar at McCarran.

Now that I’m feeling sufficiently emasculated, Mr. White (“Dana’s good”) rises to greet me from the room’s commanding meeting table. The 40-year-old president of a billion-dollar empire is in good shape, dressed casually in jeans, T-shirt and a baseball cap curved tightly around his shaved dome. He is less imposing than I expected, and his tone is subdued and deliberate, a little incongruous with the vigorous Dana White I’ve seen on television. As I begin to speak, White interjects: “You can ask me anything you want, man.”

Match on. That’s the White I’m expecting—straight into it. My immediate thought is how and why fighting has been such a constant feature of his life. He explains that although he spent a couple of his high school years in Las Vegas, he came from the streets of Boston. A self-proclaimed pugilist (“I love to fight”), he realized in his late teens that the fight game was going to be his destiny, one way or another. “It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he says with conviction, “and when I realized I wasn’t going to be good enough as a fighter, it was time to adapt.” Adaptation is no doubt a survival trait fostered on the notoriously tough streets of Boston’s Southie neighborhood (think Good Will Hunting).

“I went looking for it, man,” White continues, “and I worked hard to be involved. Found the key guys and went after them. I don’t like to read, but when I was younger, at the start, I would read fucking everything about the fight business—everything. I’m into experience. I don’t give a fuck what your piece of paper says—a college degree, whatever—I want to know what you can actually do. My education was reading and learning everything about what it is I wanted to do: the fight game.”

I was surprised to find out he did attend the University of Massachusetts, but not that he dropped out after a few semesters.

“People make a big deal out of the fact I didn’t get a college degree, but if you went to any college right now, I guarantee half of the kids would have no idea what they want to do. None. They are just wandering around college because someone told them they have to go or they would never amount to fucking anything. These kids leave college with an education that they can’t fucking use, because they have no idea what the fuck they want to do.”

At this point I feel like I should I apologize for the Ph.D I spent six years getting and start telling all the stories from the English soccer dressing room I was brought up in—plenty of fights and shenanigans there. Although, in essence, I’m mentally agreeing with White’s sentiment. If Las Vegas in particular has taught me anything, it’s that a strong work ethic and some street smarts can go a lot farther than a fancy title. I share this thought with White, and he elaborates: “The one thing about this town is that young people can make it big, and it’s always been that way, unlike the East Coast or wherever. Old money doesn’t run everything here; young people, if they work hard, can make it.”

You have to give White the floor when it comes to that subject, because whatever your definition may be, he’s made it.

“In the beginning in Boston, I paved fucking roads because I had to support myself. Then I went to work as a bellman at the Boston Harbour Hotel, and I was making good money but I started to realize this isn’t what I wanted my life to be. I mean, I respect anyone who earns a living, I respect a hard worker, but I had that moment when I realized this is not my dream, and I decided, then and there, that was it. I told a good friend of mine at the hotel, ‘I’m gonna be in the fight game—I don’t care if I clean the fucking ring at the end of the night or if I’m the spit-bucket guy, this is what I’m gonna do.’ He thought I was crazy.”

What happened next reads like this (depending on whom you ask and what you read): White ran inner-city boxing programs. Started a box-aerobics business. Did well. Too well. Got pressure from the Irish mob in Boston to share the action. Didn’t like that. Moved to Vegas. Continued to be successful, managed some fighters, ran some gyms, met an old school friend, Lorenzo Fertitta, who had money and connections. Used his powerful personality and drive to buy the UFC with Fertitta and his brother, Frank. Used his vision to make it bigger and better, and his charisma to tell the world all about it. The rest of the legend continues to unfold.

White, a man with a million Twitter followers, is far more eloquent than the clichés, rumors and this article (thus far) would suggest. Yes, he drops a proliferation of F-bombs, but his speech pattern is thoughtful and considered, and the oratory is entertaining. This is not surprising; it is impossible to build a brand like the UFC simply by being a loud mouth. The disarming part is that White appears to actually listen. He asks questions, he probes for answers, he challenges you to engage—the very essence of what makes UFC so successful, and makes him its superlative spokesman.

“Some men are born to fight. That’s who they are. They are not gonna fucking change. Then you have another section of society who’ve had some bad things happen to them in their lives, probably at a young age, and they are fucking angry, they have a huge amount of aggression. You can do one of two things: Take that aggression and use it in a positive way, or you can be nothing but fucking negative. Fighting has always existed and it always will. There is always something to fight over—always. It’s a woman, it’s land, it’s where you come from, it’s religion, whatever. Combat is always going to exist.” All very true, but a huge section of society in 2010 loathes fighting in all its forms. UFC has been described as “shockingly brutal,” “archaic base violence” and just plain “disgusting.”

White’s response is swift and clear: “I don’t give a fuck what color you are. I don’t care what country you come from, or what language you speak. Fighting is simply in our DNA. It’s the way we are built, period.” He has moved to the edge of his seat, and for a split second I consider the possibility that he might prove his point. Instead he continues to wax lyrical on the inevitability of combat fighting. I suppose when fighting is in your blood, you are not going to espouse the virtues of peace and harmony. I don’t think Woodstock would have been White’s scene.

It’s simple in White’s eyes: “If you don’t like it, and you’re not into it, fuck it—don’t watch it,” he says. “I don’t like golf. You know what I do? I don’t fucking watch it! What’s golf? A bunch of rich dicks walking around in stupid clothes and hitting a fucking ball. If we stopped that shit, we could build housing for people who can’t afford it on that land. And you have a problem with UFC? Come on, man. Everyone’s gonna have their opinions. I’m not gonna change that.”

Just imagine what White’s like when presented with a situation that really affects his core passion. Like the UFC’s mixed martial arts competitors.

CBS recently aired a night of mixed martial arts fights with the support of Strikeforce (an MMA competitor) and Showtime, but the event is most remembered for an impromptu (though White doubts that) brawl that erupted as one fighter was being interviewed and another decided to pick this moment for a Kanye West-type interruption. The resulting brawl was an embarrassment for all involved, including the UFC, whose goal is for the sport to be allowed in all 50 states (so far 44 are on board).

“CBS, Strikeforce and Showtime couldn’t give a shit if we get sanctioned in certain states,” White says. “These guys aren’t doing anything to move the sport forward. UFC is the one doing that.”

It’s clear that White, who has more than 300 fighters under contract, does not intend to let “second-rate” competitors steal his thunder and muddy the brand he has worked so hard to build. But what about UFC’s own global events (in Dubai, the U.K., etc.)? Might growth in those markets take the shining light off those Las Vegas UFC nights?

“Never! Nothing competes with Vegas on UFC nights,” he says. “Vegas is the fight capital of the world, period. Always has been, and it’s always gonna be. This is the place, man. It’s electric here. I love this fucking city. I’ve been all over the world, to some of the coolest places on the planet, and I can’t fucking wait to get home, man.”

White is rolling now, and it’s time for a little lesson in what the UFC means, where it’s going, what it takes to compete.

“Let’s take jujitsu, for instance,” he says. “Jujitsu is like a giant human chess game. For every move there are several ways to counter. I love boxing, but realistically there are only a couple of counter moves to a punch. Jujitsu demands these fighters have a complex approach to what they do. Brawlers will be exposed quickly. Muay Thai, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling—you have to master all these skill sets. You have to be incredibly athletic and committed to be successful. To train properly across the board and be competitive, you have to be one of the most highly conditioned athletes in the world. These athletes are incredible. Incredible.”

And when I ask about the potential cultural impact of UFC—the odds that little Billy from Idaho will want to grow up to be a UFC icon instead of an NFL star—White really comes to life:

“Yes! For sure. I believe the impact is gonna be huge. Kids now are really thinking about being UFC fighters; it’s a realistic dream. It’s great to be a basketball star and win world championships. How about, I’m the fucking baddest dude on Earth! That’s the shit that gives you goose bumps. And all the other sports stars show up to these fights, and they are in awe of how powerful and skillful these guys are.”

Beyond further establishing his product in the States, White’s ultimate goal is to make UFC as universal as soccer around the world—same game everywhere. This means the sport will be his focus for a while yet. It’s clear there is a lot of fight left in him, and that he will not be distracted by the fame and fortune around him.

“This is what I do,” he says. “I don’t pop my head up and look around at what I have, because it will freak you out. I keep my head down, I keep plugging away. I know where the goal line is, and we keep running toward the goal, never stopping. I’m not kidding you: I started in a fucking broom closet across the hall—a fucking broom closet. That broom closet was my office. We just kept buying more and more of the building until eventually we owned it all.”

There’s a pause from White, and I don’t interrupt. I’m hoping for my closing sound bite, and I get it. It’s not the blockbusting right-hander that leaves you wondering what day of the week it is; it’s not boisterous, histrionic or aggressive. It’s calm, considered and lucid—the side of Dana White that perhaps many people (and the media) do not want to acknowledge exists.

“There’s gotta be something that gets you out of bed in the morning, man,” he says, “and for me, that’s fighting. When it comes to money, money doesn’t drive me. Winning drives me.”