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Battles yield winning 'Fighter'
By Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — During Saturday night's live finale of Spike TV's reality hit, The Ultimate Fighter, entrepreneur Dana White had a decision to make.
Dana White says his show is 'what the new generation is watching.'
By Steve Marcus for USA TODAY
The two young light-heavyweights competing for a six-figure contract, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, had just brought celebrity fans such as Busta Rhymes and Kevin James roaring to their feet with a bloody, evenly matched slugfest. (Related video: Clips from 'The Ultimate Fighter')
This was the first time White's mixed martial arts operation had aired live on basic cable TV. Should the president and co-owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship hand out one contract? Or was a little showmanship in order during the UFC's coming-out party with many sports fans?
About Dana White
Title: President and part-owner of Ultimate Fighting Championship. Co-host of Spike TV reality show The Ultimate Fighter.
Age: 34. Born in Manchester, Conn.; grew up in Las Vegas, Boston and Levant, Maine.
Personal: Married to Anne. Two sons: Dana III and Aidan.
Education: Attended University of Massachusetts Boston for two years.
Career: Has been an amateur boxer, trainer, fight manager and promoter. Founded Dana White Enterprises in Las Vegas in 1992. Coached and managed pro boxers and UFC fighters and ran three gyms. In 2001, he teamed with gaming operators Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III to buy troubled UFC through privately held firm Zuffa.
Interests: Established a boxing program for inner-city youth in Boston. A mixed martial artist, White likes training and sparring. Enjoys checking out new music for Zuffa Music record label. Calls the Boston Red Sox World Series victory the "greatest moment in sports history."
Quote: "Nothing should be more important to a man than how he raises his kids. That means the world to me."
"There is no loser in this fight," White told more than 2 million viewers on Viacom's network for young guys as he handed both fighters deals.
White is a former amateur boxer turned Las Vegas entrepreneur behind the improbable comeback of "ultimate fighting," which pits boxers, wrestlers, karate and jiu-jitsu artists in often-brutal matches inside a caged, eight-sided ring known as the "Octagon."
Attacking the then-out-of-control sport as "barbaric" and "human cockfighting," critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., virtually drove UFC events off pay TV in the 1990s. The league was on the mat. But White, after joining with partners to take it over in 2001, cleaned it up and brought it back from the dead in just four years.
Now, at a time when federal decency hawks are on the warpath for sexual or violent programming, White has managed to make his first-season reality show of extreme fighting and scantily clad "Ring Girls" into must-see cable TV for an army of young men.
Despite an 11:05 p.m. ET/PT Monday slot on Spike TV, the average audience grew 19% to 1.98 million through the first 12 weeks of the 13-week show, according to Nielsen Media Research. The elusive, advertiser-coveted audience of men ages 18 to 34 is up 55% since the Jan. 17 opening. Viewers are 73% male, with an average age of 30. Advertisers include Miller, Nintendo and the U.S. Army.
White now is negotiating with Spike for second and third seasons. He also has signed a deal with News Corp.'s Fox Sports Net to replay taped UFC fights four times a year. Revenue for the league's flagship pay-per-view live events in the USA and 36 countries is up twentyfold in four years.
White's long-term goal: supplant boxing as America's martial art. "Boxing has become your father's sport," he says in an interview from his Las Vegas headquarters. "We're what the new generation is watching. We're the most extreme of extreme sports."
At age 34, with a shaved head and fighter's build, White still likes to mix it up in the gym. As a kid, he never missed USA Network's Tuesday Night Fights boxing. Now, he hopes to launch a live weekly UFC fight show on prime-time cable.
"We've proven we can draw a number at 11:05 p.m. on Monday nights," White says. "I guarantee you Spike is thinking, 'What would these guys draw at 9 p.m.?' "
Critics worry about influence on kids
Sure to oppose that are plenty of critics who still see ultimate fighting as modern-day gladiatorial combat.
Sports consultant David Carter calls it "train wreck TV," where viewers tune in for carnage.
Phil Mushnick, a sports columnist for the New York Post, accuses Spike executives of peddling violent, anti-social fare they'd never show their kids. "Ultimate fighting sells kids on violence. Does anyone think we need more violence?" he asks. "A show like this would not have been on TV in the past because it was inappropriate. Now, it's on TV because it's inappropriate."
White is quick to point out that, unlike boxing's record, no UFC fighters have died or suffered a serious injury in its 12-year history.
"Guys are going to break bones or noses. A serious injury to me is a guy who can't walk, has brain damage or who is Million Dollar Baby-ed," he says, referring to Hillary Swank's paralyzed boxer in Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning film.
Born in Manchester, Conn., White is a fierce Boston Red Sox fan. During an often troubled youth, he bounced back and forth between Las Vegas and Maine. He tried college for two years in Boston but didn't finish. He got himself on track there, however, by launching a boxing program for inner-city kids. Back in Las Vegas, he founded the sports management firm Dana White Enterprises in 1992 and still owns three boxing gyms.
As a manager and trainer for pro boxers and UFC fighters such as Chuck Liddell, White often found himself negotiating with the freewheeling original owners of UFC, which they founded in 1993. When they were ready to sell, White enlisted friends and Las Vegas-based Station Casinos executives Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III to buy UFC in January 2001. They would not disclose the price for the league, which now is privately held by Zuffa (Italian for a "scrap"). White owns 10%; the Fertittas hold the rest.
Building a better brand
As the league's president, White wears a lot of hats. He directs all operations, including broadcast production, fight cards and financial and legal affairs. He stresses the importance of building the UFC brand every day, drawing a contrast with boxing, which he says gets attention only when the biggest names step in the ring. His UFC "Ultimate Knockout" DVDs and tapes rank among top-selling sports videos at such retailers as Wal-Mart. He's pushing UFC-themed video games, CDs, T-shirts and hats. He's even producing a UFC-themed movie by John Herzfeld, director of Don King: Only In America. Playing the Donald Trump role on his Spike reality show has made White a local Las Vegas celebrity. But his soft-spoken and thoughtful TV persona comes off in person brassier and more like the aggressive promoter he is.
During talks with Viacom executives, he has been known to stand up and loom over his opponent like a fighter itching for the bell to ring. "Dana is a showman. He knows how to make a point," says Kevin Kay, Spike TV's executive vice president of programming.
Besides looking at renewing Ultimate Fighter, Spike is mining White's library of 600 fights for taped specials and is considering live events. "We think we're on to the next big emerging sport," Kay says.
The UFC was conceived as a one-shot, pay-per-view event in 1993, which set the tone for the future when a fighter was kicked so hard that teeth flew out of the ring. It was a hit.
The owners touted the bare-knuckle fights as death sport: virtually no rules, no judges, no time limits. Its slogan: "Two men enter the Octagon, one man leaves."
As criticism mounted, U.S. cable operators stopped airing UFC pay-per-view events in 1997. By the time White took over in January 2001, it was reduced to an underground fight club on satellite TV.
White's first move was a road show for U.S. cable operators pledging changes. He sold them, and his new and improved UFC returned to pay-per-view cable that September. The company has since regained its license for live events in five states: Nevada, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts and Louisiana.
White believes the failure of the original UFC was "99%" due to bad marketing rather than mayhem. If the original UFC ran from regulators, the new UFC runs "toward regulating," he says.
Rules aim to make a sport out of chaos
White's reorganized UFC is more like boxing than the blood sport of a decade ago. He has weight classes, five-minute rounds and time limits. Judges use 10-point scoring. Fighters wear gloves and mouthpieces. And yes, there's mandatory drug and steroid testing.
White has instituted rules to moderate the made-for-TV brutality: no attacks to the groin, spine or throat; no head butting, biting, eye-gouging or hair pulling; and no kicking a foe when he's down.
"When (UFC) first started, we could not sanction it because it was no holds barred, anything goes," says Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. "Now, it's a real sport. And we're delighted to have it here."
The purses are still small compared with big-time boxing: Light-heavyweight champ Randy Couture, 42, earned $225,00 for winning a title fight last fall.
But "UFC 52" on April 16, pitting Ultimate Fightercoaches Couture and Liddell at the MGM Grand, is on track to be UFC's biggest, with a live gate expected to hit $3 million, vs. $225,000 for White's first event in 2001. The top ticket has doubled to $400.
Whether the UFC is the sport of the future, as White believes, or the end of civilization as we know it, as critics warn, White is not surprised by its recent success: "When we first bought this company, nobody thought it would get back on pay per view. It did. Nobody thought we would get sanctioned by every athletic commission in the country you'd want to go to. It did. Nobody ever thought it would get on free TV. It is."