The Rise of the UFC under Dana White (Boston Globe)
The Tough Get Going
Joseph P. Kahn, The Boston Globe, 30th November 2005
With Ultimate Fighting, Dana White Thinks He's Landed The Next Big Hit
"As real as it gets" is the mantra of the Ultimate Fighting Championship league and its brashly confident young president, Dana White. For better or worse, reality doesn't get much starker than in the two bouts capping off "UFC 55: FURY," a televised pay-per-view event staged last month at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The first mixed martial arts contest, pitting Boston cop Sean "The Cannon" Gannon against Branden Lee Hinkle, ended with Gannon pinned to the mat and bleeding profusely while Hinkle drove elbow after elbow into his forehead. The fight was stopped two minutes into Round 1, Gannon's face a pulpy mess.
The crowd roared approvingly.
Then UFC heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski met Paul Buentello in the feature match. Like the rock soundtrack pulsing through the arena, fans were amped way up as the two fighters came out swinging. Fourteen seconds later, Arlovski dropped Buentello with a vicious right cross, ending the bout by TKO. The crowd, stunned at first, booed loudly.
"Get up and fight, you [expletive]!" screamed one fan seated behind the press table, where tickets cost upward of $350.
White, who with his shaved head and burly physique looked ready to go a round or two himself, stepped into the ring. After conferring with the fight doctor, he hugged Arlovski and waved to the crowd. Moments later, White claimed the boos didn't bother him.
"Nobody could really see the punch until the replay," he said, as fans jockeyed to get his autograph. "What can I say? I told you these fights were real. He took a hell of a shot."
If anyone can make the case that fans had gotten their money's worth or sell Gannon's mauling as must-see TV, it is White, 34, a former Boston boxing impresario who in four short years has led the UFC from palookaville to the promised land and is on a mission to raise his sport's visibility even higher.
Love it or loathe it, the UFC is a force to be reckoned with. Nineteen states including Massachusetts have sanctioned its bouts, a quantum leap from the late-'90s, when UFC events - a ferocious blend of boxing, wrestling, and martial arts - were disparaged as "human cockfighting" and banned from the airwaves. New rules and safeguards - no eye-gouging, for one - have helped placate state regulators. Meanwhile, White and his Las Vegas-based partners, who took over the struggling UFC in 2001, have capitalized on the appeal of reality TV and their own marketing savvy to make ultimate fighting as hot as the WWE.
A partnership with Spike TV, a successful reality show ("The Ultimate Fighter") with two seasons under its belt and more than 2 million viewers per week, several best-selling DVDs and video games, and a global fan base attest to the boom, especially among males 18 to 34. White returns to the Boston area today to conduct auditions for the third season of "The Ultimate Fighter." Tryouts are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Boston Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Dedham.
"All my friends are into it," said Matt Schwartz, 28, a UFC fan from Queens, N.Y., who was attending his first live bout at Mohegan Sun. "It's one-on-one, man-to-man. I'll watch football and basketball, but this is way more intense."
UFC headliners such as Arlovski, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture have become breakout stars. Liddell will earn $2.7 million this year including endorsements, according to White's calculation. Mainstream media outlets are paying attention as well. White recently appeared on "Dr. Phil," hard on the heels of a Time magazine feature on ultimate fighting.
"Do we want legitimacy? Absolutely," White said during a lengthy interview at Mohegan Sun. "ESPN and major newspapers are going after the same demographic we bring to the table. To me, it's a win-win situation."
Not to everyone. The American Medical Association has called upon states to curb ultimate fighting. Dr. Peter Carmel, a neurosurgeon and AMA board member, says he's concerned not only about the medical risks but about the UFC's knack for profiting from controversy. "Any sport that has as its principal aim damaging or incapacitating an opponent's brain or body is not something we should approve of" says Carmel, who at minimum wants fighters' medical records made public. That being said, Carmel continues, "It's an interesting decision for society to make whether to sanction a sport like this. But the more we talk about the dangers, the more they seem to like it."
`A real sport'
Dangerous? Too violent for some to stomach? Maybe, said White, but ultimate fighting is "not bloodthirsty" and will continue to attract better athletes as sponsors and fans support it with their hearts and wallets.
"It's a real sport, and it's not going anywhere," White maintained, a punch line he uses often in interviews. "So let's get behind it and regulate it." A generation raised on X Games, "Doom," and "Survivor"-like reality shows, he added, is dissatisfied with what pro wrestling and boxing offer.
"You can't write a better script than reality, and that's what we're selling," said White, poking at a salad he was too wound up to actually eat. "When I was 12, there was nothing cooler than the WWE. When I turned 16, I wanted to see real fighting. If you like real combat with real athletes, you're going to like the UFC."
And if you like the UFC, you'll find White impossible to ignore.
Strolling through the hotel lobby at Mohegan Sun, White was mobbed by autograph seekers and fans wearing UFC jerseys. During a pre-production meeting for the "UFC 55" telecast, he assumed total command, tweaking every facet of the show to his liking.
Over lunch, accompanied by his father (Dana White Sr., a UFC employee) and a league publicist, White was candid, cocky, thoughtful, articulate, diplomatic, edgy, tough on his detractors, and unapologetic about his aggressive way of doing business. He credited Senator John McCain, once a severe UFC critic, with forcing the sport to clean up its act. Yet he also mocked Hollywood executives for failing to see the UFC's potential when White went shopping for a broadcast partner years ago. UFC fighters are "not pieces of meat to me," White continued, nodding toward a nearby table where several of his fighters sat eating. "When the day comes when all I'm doing is talking to some fighter's agent about money, I'm out."
What about the day, he was asked, when his own sons, age 4 and 2, cheer guys like Gannon getting their faces carved up like Halloween pumpkins?
"I might let my kid do something you wouldn't let your kid do, and vice-versa," White answered calmly. "I've always loved fighting. Maybe that's why I was such a problem child growing up. But when you watch wrestling and guys hit each other with chairs and don't get hurt, what message does that send?"
One parent at his son's school, White confided, voiced concerns about White's 4-year-old having "anger issues," given what he must be exposed to at home. White smiled. "Hopefully," he said, "my boys won't be axe murderers by the time they're 16. But you know what? This is fun, and I love it. But the only thing I want in the long run is to be a good dad."
White, who grew up in Las Vegas, freely admits he had a wild streak. At 16, though, after a drunk-driving accident, he was sent to Maine to live with his grandmother - White's parents were divorced by then - where he finished high school.
He moved to the Boston area in 1988, working as a hotel bellman and taking courses at UMass. Wondering if he had the right stuff to be a pro boxer (it turned out he did not) he trained at the Somerville Boxing Club, where he met Peter Welch, now a UFC boxing coach. The two started a boxing program for city youths and launched a boxing-for-fitness program for non pugilists. White was making good money ($50,000 a year as a bellman), but he had bigger dreams.
"One day, I thought, `I can't be doing this in 20 years,' " White recalls. "So I quit."
Back in Las Vegas in 1995, White started a boxing gym that attracted a Who's Who of businessmen. One was Lorenzo Fertitta, a schoolyard chum of White's, who was vice chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Flash forward to 1997. Fertitta and White had become UFC fans. But the enterprise was bleeding cash and desperately seeking investors. Fertitta and his brother Frank, co-owners of a Vegas casino company, elected to buy the UFC outright instead. White was brought in as a partner and manager of operations.
For two years, the UFC had only three employees, including White. "No smart businessman would have bought the UFC," he says. "Only guys who were passionate about it."
Minimizing the fighters' risks while maximizing their TV exposure changed everything, though.
"When you watched the first season of `Ultimate Fighter,' you felt you were looking through the fence knothole," White says. "It was real, and it was raw."
Gannon, a former martial-arts champ, met White a decade ago in Boston and gives him props for rescuing ultimate fighting from oblivion. "He's always had that organizational knack," Gannon says, "and now it's really paying off for a lot of people."
For White, too, presumably, although the UFC is close-mouthed about its financials. According to White, the business has grown by "20 times" over the past four years but it's not now, nor ever will be, about the money.
"If that were the case," he says, "I'd be standing in the Boston Harbor Hotel lobby right now, asking for your bag."
What I meant to say is . . .
I think it was more a case where TUF may have allowed Spike to drop the WWE.
Originally Posted by garbanzobean
But I'd need to see the ratings (or someone else post that)