It’s amazing to think about it now, but it wasn’t all that long ago that the Ultimate Fighting Championship—the global MMA empire responsible for household names like Chuck Liddell, Conor McGregor, and Ronda Rousey—was something of an ugly back alley on the fringe of American sports.
In 2001 the league was not only deeply mired in debt but also facing stiff mainstream opposition. (See: “John McCain” and “human cockfighting.”) But the UFC’s new owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the founders of Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company at the time, put the fate of the fighting organization in the hands of its new president, Dana White, a pugnacious former bouncer turned boxing trainer and manager who was born in Connecticut, had lived in Boston, and had recently decamped to Las Vegas at the youthful age of 26.
Under White’s stewardship, the UFC quickly gained momentum and, frankly, never stopped. White swiftly signed big-name fighters, often fighting with them publicly in the press. He then launched a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, which is in its 24th season (now on Fox Sports 1). Ths show is credited with raising the visibility of the sport and in helping ink major deals, including one with Fox Sports Media Group for $100 million a year (for seven years) and another with Reebok for a reported $70 million; and, in one of the most indelible images of the sport—Dana White standing between two blood-hungry fighters at prefight press conferences—seemed to single-handedly bring MMA out of the shadows and onto prime-time SportsCenter.
Today, a few months after Zuffa’s sale of the UFC to entertainment empire WME-IMG for $4 billion ($360 million of that is estimated to be White’s), the biggest boss in fighting sits down for a lengthy interview in which he opens up about his relationship with his fighters, his managerial pet peeves, what fans can expect from the “new UFC,” and what he’s learned during his long journey from scrappy young man to seasoned mogul.
Men’s Fitness: The deal with WME-IMG went down in July. Can you take us through your emotions when that happened?
Dana White: It was a little weird because I’m not that emotional with things. People have always asked me, “Do you ever look around and look at what you’ve built and be like, ‘Ah, look what I did’?” My answer to that was always no. I always just kept my head down and kept plugging, trying to knock out all the goals that we had set for ourselves for the sport and for the brand. Obviously, I’ve said it publicly, but there have been tons of people inquiring about buying the UFC for years. People would come in and offer big numbers. Either we weren’t interested or there just was never really a deal there. When this one started to materialize, I honestly didn’t believe that it would happen. You have to think like that. You have to think that it won’t happen. You can’t do what you’re doing every day and worry about whether this deal happens or not. It was always fun for us to see where this thing was valued, because at the end of the day it’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. When it happened, I freaked out a little bit.
Did you cry?
I didn’t cry, but I literally went up in a room at Palace Station, which is across the street from our office, and pretty much boarded myself up in there for two days. Didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and obviously was watching a lot of the news on the sale. I don’t know. I was in a really weird place. Then I had to snap myself out of it and get back in the game.
Now that the UFC is under new ownership, how do you see the sport evolving in these upcoming years?
We always said that if that day ever came, we would only hand it over to the right person who could take it to the next level. Look at what Frank and Lorenzo [Fertitta] and I were able to do, and we’re not even media guys. Then you look at what WME-IME has the potential to do… Even though we have new guys coming in, it’s all the same goal. We always believed that this thing would work globally. Fighting works everywhere. It works everywhere all over the world. I always believed that and then I proved it.
Let’s switch gears for a moment. You spoke at this summer’s Republican National Convention in favor of Donald Trump, and you said that Trump is a fighter. What did you mean by that?
Donald Trump is a guy who has been in big business for many, many years. He’s worked hard to get to where he is today.
Also, the Donald Trump that I know, when you’re hanging out with Donald Trump and [he’s] not on TV, if that guy would go on TV, he’d win by a landslide. He gets a little crazy when he goes out in public. It’s almost not even really who he is. He’s such a good guy. He’s a good, good guy. My point is he’s not a career politician. Those are the kinds of men or women you need running this country. Let a guy like that get in there and see what he can do. I’m a huge supporter of his.
What do you mean that he’s a fighter?
What I mean by that is the guy doesn’t have to do this. You know what I mean? The Clintons are career politicians and most of these people are career politicians. This guy doesn’t have to do this. At his age, with his stature, and all the things he’s accomplished, for him to even want to do it, that’s what I talk about being a fighter.
On the subject of fighters, let’s get back to the UFC. I know that fighter pay in the UFC has been a little bit of a hot-button issue. Now with this infusion of energy, these big new partnerships, do you see the issue of fighter pay changing under the new regime as it goes even more global and is even more prominent?
No matter what happens, no matter how big the sport gets, fighter pay will always be an issue. Pay is always an issue. Everybody always feels they deserve more. Everybody always wants more. It’s always going to be an issue. The one thing that has happened since the day we bought the company, even the days when this thing was tanking and not making money, fighter pay has gone up every year. Believe me, the guys who deserve the money are the ones you don’t hear bitching about money.
At what point in your career did you know that UFC was going to be huge?
The first time that I ever sat in a live event and I started looking around and I started going, “Man, if they did this and if they did that, this thing could be big.” I believed in this thing from the first time I sat down and watched an event, before we ever owned it.
What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a boss?
The toughest decision you ever have to make is letting somebody go. When you’re taking a job away from somebody and their family lives on that, in whatever town it might be, that’s always going to be the least fun.
What are your biggest pet peeves as a manager?
Number one? When I call my employees and they don’t answer their phone. You better answer your fucking phone. Number two: the people who come in at 8:59 a.m. and are out the door at 5:01 p.m.—you know, the absolute nine-to-fiver who wants the weekends off. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t have a business full of die-hard people who are going to be there 24/7, but it’s a pet peeve having somebody who works for you who isn’t into it and isn’t passionate about what they’re doing. They’re just there for a paycheck. People think I don’t notice, but I do.
If you were sitting down a young aspiring fighter, what’s the fighting style you’d tell him to master to excel in the UFC today?
Wrestling. The fact is, if you have a good wrestling base, you can pick up all the other things. Wrestlers traditionally do pretty well in the UFC.
Your confrontational management style gets a lot of attention. Do you think young guys can learn from it?
Funny enough, when I was younger, I was a thousand times more aggressive than I am now. When I see these guys, like Vince McMahon [of the WWE], who is 71 years old, and he’s still just an absolute animal, it’s superimpressive to me. I’m 47, man. I was obviously a lot more aggressive when I was younger and we were building the business. I think that’s normal. When companies are killing it and doing really well, you get a little fat and bloated.
But I wouldn’t call you fat and bloated. Today, you still don’t shy away from calling out your fighters in the press, for instance. Can you explain the thinking behind it a little bit? Basically, from your perspective, is it a conscious managerial tactic or is it just you being you?
That’s a good question, because there’s two different sides to that. With my employees at the UFC, I’ll never rip somebody apart in public. There are cases when—it happened yesterday, in fact—somebody does something really stupid on a chain e-mail. I’ll be the first one to rip you apart in front of everybody if you do something like that on a chain mail. Now, the difference with the fighters is if a fight just happened and I’m the promoter of this fight and your fight sucked, I have no problem saying, “That fight sucked,” publicly. The fans aren’t stupid and I’m not going to fool anybody into thinking they just saw a great fight when they didn’t. Hopefully that motivates you to put on a better performance in the future. This isn’t a team sport, where as a football coach, you come out and say, “We played bad today as a team. We’ve got things to work on.” This and that. There is no team here. It’s just you and another man or you and another woman. I’m brutally honest about it.
You’ve obviously been very successful financially. Do you find that success and wealth have changed you?
I don’t think so. What I do was never about the money. I did it because I loved it. It was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I always wanted to be successful at it, but you never think you’re going to be wealthy from it. That just comes along with being happy and doing what you love. That’s why when this deal went down, everybody was wondering if I was going to leave. The answer is: No. Then professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek called me a couple of weeks ago and he says, “I’ve got to know one thing, man.” He says, “How do you run the race every day when you already won the race? How do you get up in the morning, strap your shoes on, and go to work? I’m so baffled by that.” This is what I love to do. The number that’s in your bank account doesn’t change the fact that you love what you do. People always talk about “fuck you” money. If you’re looking for “fuck you” money, you need to find a new job because you’re not doing what you love to do.
How do you keep fit these days? Do you still fight?
We have a gym down in the basement of our office building. Five days a week—I take Saturday and Sunday off—I go down there. I usually start on the treadmill. I’ll warm up and do a mile on the treadmill. Then I usually hit the mitts for two to three rounds. I’m trying to get a little bit of jump rope back in my life. I started jump roping a couple of weeks ago again. Then I do the regular chest, shoulders and triceps, back, thighs, and legs. I usually do chest, shoulders, and triceps on Monday and back, thighs, and legs on Tuesday. Wednesday is an all-cardio day, and then I repeat Thursday and Friday.
We know you’re keeping in good shape because we always see the videos of you breaking up those fighters at the press conferences.
It’s getting tougher to do now. Especially as I get older. I’m getting older and slower, and these guys are getting younger and quicker.
You’re very much in the mix as this public face of the organization. I’m curious, how do the fans engage with you when they see you? Do they high-five you? Are they afraid of you?
When I’m out in public, everybody is pretty cool. For example, I’ll take my kids to Disneyland, and all day through the park, people are yelling, “Dana White! Dana White!” It’s always cool, man.
Do guys ever try to pick a fight with you? Does anybody say, “Hey, there’s the head of the UFC. That big guy. I can take him”?
Nobody has ever tried. Probably one of the funniest things ever is I was at the Mirage Hotel [in Las Vegas] one day. I pulled up and parked in valet. I got out and walked into the hallway, and this guy runs up to me. He’s like, “Holy shit, Dana White. I’m the biggest fan ever.” He was going fucking crazy. He turns around and his wife is down the hallway. He goes, “Honey, look!” He points at me. The wife shrugs her shoulders and she goes, “Howie Mandel?” All of us old bald guys look alike. That’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me with fan interactions. Other than that, everybody is awesome, cool, and great.
What would your fans be surprised to know about you?
Well, every day since they started school, I drive my kids to school. And you know what I love to do? On the weekends I go to the grocery store and buy groceries. I love going to the grocery store—which is weird, I guess. At the end of the day, I’m not mowing my fucking lawn or cleaning my pool or anything, but other than that I think I live a pretty normal life.
You had mentioned in the past that you’ve taken steroids when you were young. I know you don’t endorse them, but you haven’t quite condemned them maybe as harshly as some would think you should. What do you think about them and their role in sports? Is it really overblown?
I don’t think it’s overblown. Not in sports, but listen: When I took them in high school, we’re talking the late ’80s, and steroids were in a much different place back then than they are now. Pretty much everybody was doing them back then. Obviously, we’ve led the charge now in sports with our drug-testing program. But the big difference is that if you hit balls with a stick, who gives a shit what you’re doing? I couldn’t care less. But if you’re fighting another human being and you’re using a performance-enhancing drug, it’s dangerous.
Has there been a big steroid problem in the UFC?
I think there’s a big performance-enhancing drug problem in all sports. Everything became so gray. If you talk to four different experts about steroids, they would give you four different answers. You know what I mean? But it’s the right thing to do away with it. If you need TRT, you’re probably too fucking old to be fighting anymore, anyway. You should probably retire.
What keeps Dana White up at night?
Insomnia! I don’t know what it is specifically that keeps me up, but a lot of things. I lay in bed and I start thinking too much. It’s hard to go all day in building, and like I said, trying to take things to the next level and then shut it off at night when you go to bed. I try to lay in bed and watch…I try to watch stuff that doesn’t make me think. I’m a huge Family Guy and American Dad fan. I watch that shit. I try to laugh and not watch anything too serious. Then usually that helps me sleep a little bit.
Can you get by on very little sleep?
Yes, I can go on almost no sleep.
I feel like every article I’ve ever read about the UFC has referenced the John McCain phrase “human cockfighting.” Have you ever talked to him or invited him to a fight?
When we did the 20-year anniversary special, John McCain actually was interviewed on it. He’s completely flipped on the UFC. You can actually credit him for where we are today, because if Sen. John McCain hadn’t stood up against it the way that he did back in the old days, who knows what would have happened? Yeah, McCain has completely turned around.
Do you have any regrets?
I honestly don’t think I have any regrets. I’ve spent as much time with my kids as is humanly possible while running my business and trying not to neglect either. I don’t know. I think in life, people always ask me about my legacy and how I want to be remembered and all this other stuff. I always say, “Listen, the only thing that matters if you’re a father and you have kids is when it’s all over and you’re lying there in that box, man, and your kids get up and your kids are like, ‘He was a great dad. He was a good dad. He was a great dad. He was this, that.’ ” If that wasn’t the case, that would be a massive regret.