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Better duck: Dana White is coming home

12/23/2009

Boston is a fight town. From Tony DeMarco to Rocky Marciano to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, from Terry O'Reilly and the Big Bad Bruins to Killer Kowalski and his gym full of wannabe pro rasslers, this is a city that gets right up in your face, that backs down from no one.

Dana White knows all about this. He lived it. Long before he became president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, White learned the ropes of the Boston fight scene as an amateur boxer and later as a trainer of young fighters. He also picked up some hard-won lessons on the feisty streets of Southie, and he appreciates the schooling.

"Boston's got a big chip on its shoulder," White says. "It's a place that says, 'We're the best and we're gonna kick everybody's ass.' It's got that whole fighting vibe to it. And I love it."

So when Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation Nov. 30 making Massachusetts the 42nd state to regulate mixed martial arts, White's thunderous reaction was, well, let's allow him to roar for himself, courtesy of Twitter: "I am so excited words cannot describe! Here we come, Boston!!" was White's tweet that day at 6:28 p.m., moments after news from the statehouse reached his Las Vegas office.

White's excitement wasn't simply over having a welcoming new venue for showing off the UFC, which he has spent nearly a decade transforming from no-holds-barred back alley brawling to a "SportsCenter"-worthy competition between multidisciplinary athletes. White might be a promoter at heart, but this was no mere dollars-and-cents response by the pooh-bah of a sport that, judging by box-office and pay-per-view numbers and Internet buzz, is fast surpassing boxing among a new generation of fans. This was personal. Dana White now has a chance to be the guy who reinvigorates the fight game in his old hometown.

"Boston has a great history as a fight town, but boxing has fizzled out from where it was," White says.

True, Boston did host a Ricky Hatton welterweight title fight in 2006; Chelsea's John Ruiz did hold the World Boxing Association heavyweight belt earlier in the decade; and Medfield's Peter McNeeley did famously fight Mike Tyson in 1995 (if you blinked, you missed it).

But for Boston's pugilistic glory days, you have to go back at least to the heyday of Hagler, who defended his middleweight belt twice in 1981 at the old Boston Garden, an iconic arena built in the '20s specifically as a boxing venue that through the years saw many of the sport's greats climb through the ropes. Joe Louis. Sugar Ray Robinson. Henry Armstrong. Willie Pep. And, of course, native sons DeMarco and Marciano.

"I'm going to bring the fight game back to Boston," White says. "I'm going to bring back the excitement of big fights, the energy of it."

The Boston Herald reported last week that the UFC's Massachusetts debut will take place Aug. 28 at TD Garden, and the UFC confirmed to ESPNBoston.com that that's the "working date." No fight lineup has been set, but White promises "a killer show," with Dover, Mass., native and Boston College grad Kenny Florian, who trains in a Coolidge Corner gym and twice has challenged for the UFC lightweight championship, "highly likely" to be on the historic Garden bill.

"Everybody's always telling me, 'Hey, I bet you can't wait till you can bring the UFC to Madison Square Garden,'" Dana says. "No, I want the [expletive] Boston Garden, OK?"

Rooted in New England

White is showing his deep New England roots there. He was born in 1969 in Manchester, Conn., where his grandmother lived. "My mom went down there to have me," he says. "And then we lived in Ware, Mass., until we moved to Las Vegas when I was in the third or fourth grade." Why Vegas? Dana's mother was a nurse, and at the time, it was one of the two highest-paying places for nurses to work. "I'm glad she picked Las Vegas," White says, "not Saudi Arabia." Yeah, there's not much of a fight game over in that desert, at least not one you survive to talk about.

During those early years in western Mass., White did what kids in New England do: He became a devout Red Sox fan. "Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, those were my guys back in the day," he says. "I used to have all of the baseball cards from those Sox teams."

Even after the Whites moved to sandy Nevada, the family would come east every summer to spend time with grandparents in Levant, Maine, up near Bangor. That meant lots of Sox games on TV and an occasional visit to Fenway Park. Dana's passion for the Boston nine was solidified when he spent a year of grade school and his senior year of high school living in Levant.

As soon as he graduated from high school, Dana treated himself to a vacation in Boston. He didn't go home. "I liked the city," he says. "I liked the people." He found an apartment in South Boston and landed a job as a bouncer at the Black Rose, the popular Irish pub near Quincy Market. He tried college -- twice -- but didn't last a semester at either Quincy Junior College or the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has no regrets.

When he moved on to a job as bellman at the Boston Harbor Hotel, he says, "There were security guards with master's degrees from BC, BU, Tufts. We've got this overeducated society now where everybody goes to college, everybody has a degree, but nobody knows what the [expletive] they want to do. I'm far from the smartest guy you're ever going to meet, believe me, but I always knew what I wanted to do. And when it comes to the fight business, yeah, I'm probably one of the smartest guys out there."

White has been a boxing fan all his life and did some fight training as a kid, but he got serious about the sport after settling in Boston at age 17. He sought out Peter Welch, a former New England Golden Gloves champion who was training fighters at the Somerville Boxing Club, and took some amateur bouts. White was training for a Golden Gloves event in Lowell when he injured his elbow and busted up his nose. "So I started helping train other fighters," White says, "and found that I liked it."

Soon, he and Welch set up shop at the venerable McDonough Gym in South Boston, launching a boxing program for inner-city youth. To pay the bills, they also began training grown-ups for fitness. "This was right around the beginning of the workout fad," White says. "Peter and I were ahead of that whole thing. We had businessmen and housewives coming in and paying us nicely to train them."

Before long, though, White found himself resettling in Las Vegas, after walking away from a fight he was smart enough to know he wasn't going to win.

"I had kind of a run-in with Whitey Bulger and his guys," he says. "They showed up at the gym looking for money. It was time to leave." Consider this: Had the Irish mob not come along demanding a piece of his business, White might never have moved out of Boston and become involved with MMA. So you might say the UFC owes its success to some wiseguys from Southie.

Dana's dirty little secret

White never really left Boston behind. He has lots of friends in the city, many of whom helped him build his MMA business. He mentions Frank Delaney, who used to show UFC events on closed-circuit TV at his downtown pub, The Times, long before sports bars would go near the rough-and-tumble fight cards. The Glynn family, who own the Black Rose and several other downtown watering holes, also gave MMA exposure before it was fashionable. So did some of Boston's radio stations and newspapers. And lots of White's old friends braved the parking-lot chill to put UFC fliers on windshields at Patriots games. "Boston has treated me like I'm one of them," White says. "They've supported me ever since I started this thing. I love coming to Boston."

One memorable, if bittersweet, Boston trip was in October 2004. White already was in the East, preparing for UFC 50 in Atlantic City, N.J., when his childhood friend Marty Cordova, the 1995 American League Rookie of the Year, got his hands on a pair of tickets for Game 4 of the AL Championship Series. The Red Sox were on the verge of being swept by the Yankees, which was not exactly something Dana wanted to watch. But he went anyway, and was sitting in "badass seats" at Fenway when Alex Rodriguez blasted one over the Green Monster to give New York a 2-0 lead in the third inning. The baseball was not alone in leaving the ballyard.

"Boston fans will want to [expletive] hang me from the [expletive] streetlights for this," White says, "but I hadn't dressed right that night and I was freezing my ass off. I couldn't take it anymore, so we left."

And missed witnessing the ninth-inning heroics of Kevin Millar (walk), Dave Roberts (stolen base) and Bill Mueller (tying single) and the 12th-inning walk-off homer by David Ortiz, all of which propelled the Sox toward ending an 86-year drought with a World Series victory. "We did see the rest of the game in a bar on TV," White says. "But, you know, it's not the same."

White is plotting a return to Fenway Park … with the UFC in the summer of 2011. A year after this summer's TD Garden debut, White says, "Fenway will be our first outdoor show. Man, it's gonna be really big." Big, indeed. Can MMA fill a ballpark that seats 37,000 for baseball? White has no doubt.

"One of the things I love about a Boston show is that you're not just pulling people from Massachusetts, you're pulling people from Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, even New Jersey and New York," he says. "We're going to blow people away with how many fans come."

To hear White talk, it sounds as if Fenway Park is in for its biggest fight night since Pedro Martinez vs. Don Zimmer. If you can pull that off, Dana, you had better dress right for the weather. This time, you're definitely not going to want to leave the ballpark early.

Jeff Wagenheim writes an MMA blog for thefastertimes.com.