Commentary

UFC struggles to shake outlaw nature

Updated: May 12, 2009, 11:42 AM ET
By Michael Woods | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the May 18th issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Crafting a portrait of Dana White is dicier than surviving a round in the Octagon with Brock Lesnar. White is a walking, (always) talking contradiction. He's known as a generous, charming family man and smart corporate strategist. He's also been called a misogynistic, vindictive bully ready to take out anyone in his way.

Consider: The bald, 39-year-old former bellhop has directed cage fighting from no-holds-barred brawling to the almost-tony sport of mixed martial arts. When he took over the UFC, in 2001, the sport was gasping; today his enterprise is valued at $1 billion.

Consider: When we most recently heard from White, in an April 1 video blog, he was snarling at a reporter who wrote a story he didn't like on sherdog.com, MMA's most popular news site. He called the woman unprintable names, slurred gays and dropped 34 F-bombs in a three-minute tirade that has been viewed more than 155,000 times. Sure, he apologized. He also refused to disavow the personal attacks.

Consider: Dana White hires and fires on a whim yet thinks nothing of handing cash to a random dude outside a casino ("He needs it worse than I do"). He opens pay-per-view events with images of a Roman gladiator strapping up for battle, yet feels websites like bloodyelbow.com and thesavagescience.com project the wrong image of his sport.

Consider also that this summer may be the most important moment so far for MMA, so who can blame those who are uncomfortable with having White as the sport's most vocal and visible mouthpiece? White fully expects New York State to hold sanctioning hearings, and if they go well, the six other holdout states will likely begin to allow MMA fights too. How will he answer if he's grilled about safety, jobs, money--and that video?

Gregg SegalDana White is dunked in a pool by Forrest Griffin and Randy Couture.

Then again, maybe the hearings don't even matter. White will be his usual brilliant showman self as he hypes UFC 100, scheduled for July 11. And his relentlessness will result in perhaps 1.5 million fans forking over $44.95 each to watch, making it the most lucrative MMA show ever. So who is Dana White? "You tell me," said the man himself, before making it a little easier by letting us tag along on a fight weekend last year.

Wednesday, 9:15 p.m. ET

You'd think White would be in his Vegas office, micromanaging every last detail of Saturday's Fight Night 14. Anderson Silva (maybe the best face-smasher on the planet) will battle James Irvin (he of the big right hand) in the 205-pound main event, but the show is really just one more example of White's clout, charm, organizational skill and ego. He has thrown together the card in five weeks in an attempt to choke out a dangerous upstart promoter, Affliction, which is staging its first event. White believes MMA is his turf; he's coaxed the sport to life. He's already taken down a cageful of rivals, including the IFL, EliteXC and Bodog Fight, but he's particularly irked at Affliction because the company boosted its rep putting T-shirts on the backs of his stars. "I'm doing this fight for one reason, to make Affliction spend money," he says. "If they're in business in January, I'll be horrified." (Affliction will stage an event in January, but has staged none since.)

Still, White isn't sweating the fight night minutiae -- where to seat Kevin James or Paul Pierce or Pamela Anderson, for example. Instead, he is on a company jet headed for Santa Barbara. Onboard, fighters Sean Sherk and BJ Penn sit side by side, chatting. Sherk's still recovering from the 15-minute pounding he suffered in his last fight, a title-belt loss to Penn. Across the aisle, trainers Mark DellaGrotte and Richie Vadnais debate strategy: Muay Thai (DellaGrotte) vs. stand-up banging (Vadnais).

The cabin is filled to its 12-person capacity. A few minutes into the flight White stands and calls for attention. He gets it. White is respected in the fight world because he's a former fighter and looks like one; he's feared because he can make or break careers. "As some of you know, we're going to Cali for a TV taping: Momma's Boys, produced by a friend of mine, Ryan Seacrest. They want us to put reality show wannabes through a UFC workout."

The plane lands at 11 and the group piles into waiting cars. They head out for dinner, White's treat. It usually is. Many banked millions later, he's still the bellhop he once was--just one of the guys. "I'll never be a suit," he says.

The group checks into the Santa Barbara Four Seasons at 2 a.m., but soon the front desk rings White to tell him a bunch of his guys are wrestling in the hallway. White makes a call: "Go the f-- to bed." They go the f-- to bed.

Thursday, 7:30 a.m. ET

White rarely sleeps more than a couple of hours a night, usually with BlackBerry and cell beside his pillow -- just in case Shaq or Usher texts a request for seats. Today, he is up early to cram in a workout before the day consumes him. He puts 275 pounds on the bench press and pushes through seven reps. He completes the eighth but it's a struggle. Fact is, little has come easy for White. Mom and Dad divorced when he was 3, and Dana didn't get along with his dad, who he says was a heavy drinker. (They've since mended fences.) Mom moved Dana and his younger sister Kelly all over the East Coast before settling in Vegas. As an 18-year-old, White moved to South Boston, a fiery, fight-loving Irish section known as Southie, and he learned to solve problems with F-bombs and fists. When he was a bellhop at the ritzy Boston Harbor Hotel, one of his first jobs, arguments with co-workers often ended in blows. "I was in a monkey suit, standing next to a marble wall," he says. "It was the most degrading job I've ever had."

Eventually, White saved a couple grand and opened a gym in Southie. He thought about becoming a boxer, maybe even turning pro. In the end, though, he says he picked the right time to run from a fight. Local gangster Whitey Bulger's goons asked for a piece of the gym's action, so White closed shop in 1994 and moved back to Vegas. He opened three gyms and taught aerobics to pay bills.

Even before leaving Boston, White had started following the start-up cage-fighting business called the UFC. In Vegas, White ran into two other fight fans, brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, old friends from high school who were now the rich owners of Station Casinos. The Fertittas, entrenched in the local fight scene, introduced White around the cage. He began managing two unknown fighters, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Before long, he was a player.

By 1997, though, ultimate fighting began to stall. John McCain dubbed it human cockfighting and several states, including California, banned it. Word spread that the UFC--pretty much just a name and a few contracted fighters -- could be had at a bargain price. White wondered what it could be if it were marketed as a real sport governed by real rules -- you know, no hair pulling or crotch shots -- with fighters promoted WWE-style.

He ran his plan by the Fertittas, vowing he could turn a $2 million investment into a lot more. Plus, he said, it would be a lot of fun. The deal, completed in 2001, gave the brothers 90% of the UFC and White the rest. Today, their sport attracts about 750,000 buys for each of 12-or-so PPV events a year. Five-to-eight live events on Spike TV draw upward of two million viewers, a number that trounces that of whatever NASCAR race or college football or major league baseball game it's up against on cable. White's reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, averages 1.9 million viewers weekly on Spike. The show's executive producer is also its biggest star.

Gregg SegalAnother day in the life of Mr. Dana White.

White's hour-long workout at the gym ends with an eight-minute treadmill mile. He's pumped.

Thursday, 12:45 p.m. ET

On the Momma's Boys set, White nails his lines out of the box. "I'm here for two reasons," he says to the women contestants and the bachelors they mean to woo. "To present your first challenge, and to kick your asses. Get ready for some pain, girls."

At the first workout station, men and women flip tires repeatedly. Two guys say they visited Taco Bell just before the shoot; seven minutes later one is spilling his guts as White laughs. At another station, contestants punch pads held by White's fighters. A woman grabs the boss's eye. "You're a little crazy and you punch like a f--ing man," he says, delivering (with some editing) a TV-ready clip. White spends two hours joking with the mortals, then corrals his crew and heads for the jet.

Friday, Midnight ET

Back in Vegas, White plays roulette and blackjack at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino, a half mile from the Strip. After an hour, he heads out the door and an emaciated man wobbles up. The guy whispers to White for 10 seconds, another down-on-his-lucker looking for a sucker. White hands him two $100 bills. The man darts back to the casino, probably not for the medical test he claimed to need. "If it's a lie, it's on him," White says. "Listen--money is a tool for having fun."

Friday, 6 p.m.

White stops at his suite in the Palms for a shower and brief meeting before heading out to dinner. He is exuberant, both because the event is shaping up and because he slept four solid hours last night. But his buzz is killed when his security guard jokes about writing a tell-all. The boss fails to get the joke.

"Are you f--ing kidding me?" White spits. As he stands, his fists ball and pectorals bulge.

"Sure," the man continues, thinking White is playing along. "What would you do about it?"

"I'd sue you. I'd sue everyone around you, until you didn't have a f--ing dime to your name," White says with tightly controlled rage. As he abruptly turns to exit, the security guard slumps.

Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

Dana, why you so quiet?

"I can't let the book thing go. This makes me question my guy, his loyalty. I might have to get rid of him." Consider: In the end, White spares the guard's job.

White lives in a 7,500-square-foot house in a gated community 30 minutes from the Strip. The yard is dominated by a majestic pool; inside pieces of art--Dalí, Warhol--line the wall. Anne, his wife of 13 years, says her husband may be consumed with work, but he's also a great dad to young kids Dana III, Aidan and Savanna. "Sometimes I have to remind him to make time for us," she says, "but he's good at making it quality time." She pauses. "The UFC is No. 1, though. I get it, I guess." White answers another call on his cell, then says it's time to go. Fight night.

Getty ImagesAmong White's celeb friends and UFC fans? Actress Gina Gershon.

Saturday, 5:35 p.m.

White is trying to reach the Octagon. Inside the Palms' arena, it seems every one of the 1,862 fans wants a handshake or photo. One guy congratulates White for not putting up with the BS that normally accompanies high-priced athletes. White nods and poses for a photo, and the man smiles because the bigwig seems like a big-rig driver. Fans believe he understands them in ways other sports executives don't, or won't. Example: He named Ken Shamrock and rival Tito Ortiz to be coaches for the third season of TUF, lending tension to the proceedings. It made for good TV. Shamrock and Ortiz fought in UFC 61, two weeks after the final episode, and White racked up 775,000 PPV buys. But when Ortiz mauled Shamrock, message boards screamed "unfair stoppage," so White booked a rematch, this time on Spike, and more than 5.7 million fans tuned in. Did it matter that Ortiz won again, in 2:23? No. What mattered was White gave the fans what they wanted.

White finally reaches his cageside seat, but fans continue to scream his name. He waves and sits, stands and waves again. Before the first of the 11 matches ends, White already knows Affliction has been wounded: After paying 22 fighters $3.3 million (more than double what the UFC typically pays), it pulled just 100,000 PPV buys.

Saturday, 9 p.m.

In the final fight, Silva throws elbows, knees and high kicks and finishes Irvin in 61 seconds. "Is he a bad motherf--er or what?" White shouts.

He rushes to the locker room to thank the fighters, then he's on the move again. A limo takes him across town to a postfight party. From the VIP section of Carey Hart's new rock club, Wasted Space, White watches Gavin Rossdale perform as Everlast, a texting buddy, prepares to follow. White spots Paris Hilton in the corner but before he can say hi, a burly, tatted guy gives him a hug: Mike Tyson loves the UFC and White.

White hangs for more than an hour, shakes a lot of hands. Near 4 a.m., he stands to leave; he never did catch up with Paris. The weekend has been a blur. The picture of Dana White? A little clearer. He's savvy but savage, creative but crude, organized but unpredictable -- also the recipe for success in the cage.

He offers his right hand, says thanks as if he means it and walks out into the new morning.

Michael Woods is a writer and researcher for ESPN The Magazine.

Michael Woods, a member of the board of the Boxing Writers Association of America, has been covering boxing since 1991. He writes about boxing for ESPN The Magazine and is the news editor for TheSweetScience.com.