As president of UFC®, Dana White oversees the world’s premier mixed martial arts (MMA) organisation with more than 250 employees across three continents. With a keen sense of competition and strong business acumen, White has achieved unrivaled success in the combat sports industry. After purchasing UFC in January 2001, White spent the next 15 years building UFC into the fastest-growing sports brand in history. UFC now produces more than 40 live events annually, and its programming is broadcast in 152 countries and territories to more than 1.1 billion TV households worldwide in 35 different languages.
Dana White is the president and brains behind the UFC. Dana rose from humble beginnings in New England to acquiring the UFC in 2002 when it was at the verge of bankruptcy. He proceeded to grow the UFC to a multi-billion dollar enterprise that many believe will be bigger than the NFL in the United States and the World Cup worldwide.
The fight began 26 years ago, the day a fresh-out-of-high-school 19-year-old named Dana White left a cushy gig working as a hotel valet.
“I’m standing in the lobby one day, and just thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here'’…I make cash every day, plus get a check at the end of the week, got great benefits…but I’m not happy here,” White says. ”So I literally walked out the front door, told my buddy I was quitting. Of course he told me I was nuts and [asked me], ‘What are you going to do'’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna get into the fight business.’ And that’s it…That’s what I did.”
Over the next decade, White worked every angle of the boxing world, from boxing himself to training and managing other fighters, “teaching housewives,” refereeing and running gyms.
It was at one such gym in early ’90s Boston where White’s fight almost took a sinister turn. In those days, much of working class Boston, legitimate and otherwise, was under the thumb of legendary Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger.
One day, White was paid a visit by a couple of guys who promptly informed him that he owed them $2,500 for reasons that were never made clear.
“That thing went down where they were trying to get money from me, and I got the phone call one day, and they were basically like, ‘You’ve got until Sunday to pay us’… [and] I left everything I had,” he says.
White hopped a plane to Las Vegas and never looked back, narrowly avoided a bout he almost certainly would have lost.
As any boxer will tell you, even the most scientific approach to the Sweet Science must leave a little room for serendipity, intangibles, emergent opportunities that only reveal themselves in the ring—that split second where your opponent’s heel slips just enough to throw him off balance, the tiny hiccup when he gets temporarily dazzled by the klieg lights and leaves himself open to a quick uppercut under the chin. These opportunities inevitably present themselves in any fight, but it is up to the fighter to make the most of them.
For White, such an opportunity came when he attended a friend’s wedding and became reacquainted with an old school friend named Lorenzo Fertitta, who was quickly making a name for himself running the Vegas casinos he co-owned with his brother Frank. White and the Fertittas quickly bonded over a mutual love for the Sport of Kings, and resolved to work together one day.
In the meantime, White’s own interests expanded from boxing to the nascent world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a young sport that promised no-holds-barred action from athletes trained in fighting styles ranging from wrestling to Muay Thai and everything in between. White was soon managing a few MMA fighters who featured in bouts presented by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a promotional company that positioned itself as MMA’s dominant presence. Drawn into a contract dispute with UFC on behalf of his fighters, White did what any David would do when outmatched by a towering Goliath: He looked for an angle, an approach that would let him floor an opponent who could destroy him head-on. He looked for that key opening, that chink in the giant’s armor, and he found it.
“I ended up finding that out, that they’re in trouble and they’re probably going to go out of business,” White says. “And I’d been to a [UFC] event, and I was looking around and thinking, ‘Imagine if they did this, and imagine if they did that. This thing could actually be really big.’ [So] I called [the Fertittas] and I said, ‘I think the UFC’s in trouble. And I think we can buy it. I think we should do this.’”
The brothers agreed, and in January 2001, they formed parent company Zuffa, LLC and bought UFC, with White serving as president. Under their joint stewardship, UFC secured sanctioning for fights in Nevada, and were able to use Las Vegas as the headquarters of what would become a multinational empire.
Today, the dream that inspired White to get into the fighting game so many years before has become a reality. UFC is the undisputed champion of the MMA world, with fights in 175 countries, over 100 UFC training facilities worldwide and a television presence that has reached over a billion households.
But that doesn’t mean that the fight is over.
“You always think that there’s gonna be that day when, if we get to this level, then we can kind of cruise a little bit and kick back, [but] there’s no cruise,” White says. “There’s no kick back. This thing is just a beast and it just goes and goes and goes and goes.”
This isn’t a problem for White, though, because he’s always had a secret weapon, a special move that has always made him a formidable opponent: “The thing where I’ve always been lucky is, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
And that means, although the size and scale of his fight have expanded exponentially, White is all too happy to keep right on fighting.
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