- Ryan Hockensmith
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You wouldn't expect a wallflower to be in charge of the largest sanctioning body in mixed martial arts. And because Dana White, 36, has been UFC president since Jan. 15, 2001, you get the feeling he knows how to get things done. The former boxer and manager of UFC fighters Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell sat down for an interview and -- surprise, surprise -- he didn't pull any punches.
ESPN The Magazine: You ran into an interesting problem this season with "The Ultimate Fighter." You had a brawl at the house between two fighters, and you reacted with a passionate speech about how too many people think that MMA is just a bunch of brawlers beating the crap out of each other. But there was also the urge to see those two in the octagon, and the UFC actually announced that that would be a fight. Take us through that decision-making process.
Dana White: Spike really wanted that fight to happen, and we ended up booking the fight. Then I realized, 'How the [expletive] did we book that fight?' That fight will probably happen somewhere else, but it won't happen in the UFC. The thing that people have to realize is in "The Ultimate Fighter," those guys aren't UFC fighters. They want to be UFC fighters. We're looking at them through this microscope and looking at all their strengths and weaknesses. Not just in fighting, but in everyday life. Do they drink too much? Do they do this or that? We're looking for the next guy who can become a world champion. If you ask people out there, they'd love to see those two fight. But if you asked them if those two guys deserved to be in the UFC, everybody would tell you no.
ESPN The Magazine: At UFC 75, Dan Henderson will fight Rampage Jackson. Is this a unification bout or is this just for the UFC title?
DW: It will absolutely be a unification bout. We have to respect Henderson's titles. He knocked out Wanderlei Silva and had the 185-pound championship. When he fights Rampage, they both have belts. Why should Dan Henderson get the UFC title if Rampage can't get the PRIDE titles? It makes one of them the undisputed guy.
ESPN The Magazine: Chuck Liddell versus Wanderlei Silva. Is it going happen?
DW: God, I hope so. So many people have wanted to see that fight for so many years, and PRIDE basically killed the fight. Now that Chuck has lost, the fight makes more sense, and I'd love to make it happen. We're on the phone every day with fighters and fighters' managers. There's still work to be done.
ESPN The Magazine: Will this fight happen in the next six months?
DW: I'd say yes. I honestly believe that. But when you're dealing with me, I don't believe there is a fight we can't make, a TV deal we can't do. I'm a very positive guy.
ESPN The Magazine: What is Chuck up to these days?
DW: He's texting me every day, telling me he's ready to go: "When am I fighting? Who am I fighting?" He's already training again. He's ready.
ESPN The Magazine: What about the rumor that there will be a UFC event in November in New Jersey, at the new New Jersey Devils arena? True?
DW: It's true, it's true. It's going to happen. We haven't announced it yet, but it will be a pay-per-view.
ESPN The Magazine: Where are you with the New York athletic control board?
DW: We haven't even started working on them yet. We just got done in Illinois and Michigan. We'll start working on New York next.
ESPN The Magazine: What's that process like?
DW: This thing is so big now. Everybody gets it. There's not a whole lot of explaining to do. There aren't a lot of stupid questions anymore. Rather than us going in to sell people, the control boards want it in their states.
ESPN The Magazine: How do you feel about the IFL, Bodog, EliteXC and other competition popping up?
DW: It's good for us. I don't look at those guys as competition at all. They're nowhere near the league that we're in. I need shows like that. They're the feeder leagues. All the guys who fight in those shows aspire to be in the UFC someday. They're creating all the UFC talent of tomorrow.
ESPN The Magazine: Do you watch other shows?
DW: I actually watched the IFL once, and it was [expletive] painful. These guys are minor league shows. They're necessary. I need them to exist, to continue to pay money to put on their shows. I need them to create more talent and get guys experience in fighting. But I don't worry about them. I'll give you an example. There are races going on all over the country, every weekend. But you know when NASCAR rolls into town.
ESPN The Magazine: Did you watch Showtime EliteXC's Phil Baroni versus Frank Shamrock recently?
DW: I had dinner at the Palms, and I had them put it on in the room because I wanted to see Baroni knock his head off. It didn't work out that way.
ESPN The Magazine: What did you think of their skill levels?
DW: They both looked bad. Phil's a good friend of mine, so it's unfortunate. Frank Shamrock is not going to fight anybody near the top-10 level.
ESPN The Magazine: You wouldn't be tempted to bring back Frank for a big event?
DW: Who knows? But Frank is such a moron. He's so hard to deal with. He really is a jackass. If I could get it done, maybe I would. Look at me and Tito. We don't get along at all. You won't ever find two people who work together talk more [expletive] about each other. Tito's an idiot. He's a complete, absolute moron. But we can do business.
ESPN The Magazine: So why not kill two birds with one stone. How about Tito versus Frank Shamrock?
DW: Frank Shamrock would never fight Tito Ortiz. Tito would crush him. Frank's not going to fight anybody serious. He's going to very carefully handpick his opponents, and continue to play the smoke and mirrors game.
ESPN The Magazine: When did you know that all the work was paying off and that the UFC was about to hit it big?
DW: When we got the Spike deal. We knew when we first bought this, we knew we needed to get sanctioned. Once we did that, we knew that would help us get back on PPV. Once we got back on PPV, we knew it was going to be very hard to get on free TV. But once we got on TV, we knew we could do it.
ESPN The Magazine: But you also had to deliver a good TV series.
DW: It really did work out. If you really knew the backstory, it's [expletive] crazy. We financed the whole show ourselves; Spike wouldn't pay for it. It cost us $10 million the first season. We decided to take the shot because we believed it would work. We picked these fighters to come on, but we had no [expletive] clue what we were doing. We had a basic premise on how this show was going to work. We went and found these guys. But everything else just unfolded. I was out one day trying to get sponsors, and Lorenzo Fertita stopped by the gym. "The Contender" had started a week before everybody moved into the house. On "The Contender," it was on NBC, they had sponsors out the [expletive] and they got paid good money for every fight. When the guys heard they weren't getting paid, Lorenzo called me and said, "They're all saying they won't fight." I said, "Really? I guarantee you they'll fight." I went down and gave them the "Do you want to be a fighter" speech? That speech was 20 minutes, but you didn't see that on TV. Season 1 was an incredible, lucky experience.
ESPN The Magazine: Let's run through some quick UFC questions. How many PPVs for the coming year?
DW: We want 10.
ESPN The Magazine: When's the HBO deal going to get done?
DW: It will be done very soon, in a matter of weeks. People don't realize this stuff isn't easy to get done.
ESPN The Magazine: Fedor Emelianenko -- when will he be in the UFC?
DW: We'll have him soon. We'll have him before the end of the year.
ESPN The Magazine: What's the process? Do you talk to his agent? To Bodog?
DW: We don't talk to Bodog. We talk to his managers twice a day.
ESPN The Magazine: Twice a day?
DW: It's not easy to get these contracts done. It takes time and a lot of work. There are a million sticking points. Every guy has his own set of issues, what is important to him. Plus, we have our set of standards. It takes time and a lot of negotiating. There are a lot of trust issues in this business. We want people to trust us. We're having fun. We love this business. You won't find people who love this sport who promote it as much as us. We really, truly love this thing. We bought this and were investing in this when we were losing millions of dollars and nobody cared about it. It never looked like we were going to make it on pay-per-view, let alone free TV. At the end of the day, we don't want guys who are unhappy fighting with us.
ESPN The Magazine: The original plan was to have mega PRIDE versus UFC events. Is that still the plan?
DW: I don't know what we're going to do yet because that thing is so messed up. We're still trying to figure it out. It's a complete disaster. They went out of business for a reason.
Ryan Hockensmith is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne