The president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship talks the human thirst for violence, women who can kick your ass, and why MMA really is the safest sport out there.
This feature appears in Complex's December 2012/January 2013 issue.
In 2004, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was $40 million in debt and its founders were on the verge of giving up on their idea of bringing mixed martial arts to the masses. Today, UFC broadcasts fights in 175 different countries, in 22 different languages, and has a net worth estimated at over $1 billion. UFC president Dana White led that turnaround, which helped legitimize MMA, the world’s fastest-growing sport. Far from complacent, he’s looking to put a choke hold on the fight game until the competition taps for mercy.
What’s the driving force behind the growth of MMA over the last decade?
I don’t care what color you are, what country you come from, or what language you speak—we’re all human beings, and fighting is in our DNA. We get it and we like it. It doesn’t have to be explained to us, and once you go to a live event, you’re hooked. The NFL is huge in the United States and has been trying to break into other countries, but Europeans didn’t grow up playing American football. They don’t understand the rules. They’ll never be invested in the teams. People in England don’t care about the Giants.
Other companies jump in because it looks easy and they copy everything we do. Nothing about what they’re doing is innovative or takes the sport to another level.
Do you see the UFC having any legitimate contenders in the future?
There are a million promoters doing events all over the world. People try to compete with the UFC but we’re the best at what we do. This is a tough business, and we’ve been successful at it because we’re fucking animals. We love this shit, and we have a plan. Other companies jump in because it looks easy and they copy everything we do. Nothing about what they’re doing is innovative or takes the sport to another level. There’s no passion in it.
We got into this shit when people thought we were fucking lunatics. People said, “This thing’s never gonna work. They’re gonna lose all their money.” We dug in, figured out ways to make it work, and changed the fight business forever. We’ve done things that people never did in 100 years in the fight business. All of our fighters have full-blown health insurance. No fight company has ever done that! We pay fighters more than what it says in their contract. We’ve created something like 57 millionaires. We’ve created a global industry that affects television, pay-per-view, T-shirt companies, equipment companies, gyms, mixed martial arts studios, and more.
What was the defining moment when you knew the UFC had arrived?
It was season one of The Ultimate Fighter. We had to get on free TV and everyone was afraid to put live UFC fights on TV. The Ultimate Fighter was our Trojan horse. You were watching UFC, with the fights, without even realizing it, because it was wrapped up in reality.
Did you foresee the decline of boxing back when you were starting the UFC?
I’ll tell you where I saw trouble for boxing early on. If you look at boxing’s heyday the United States dominated international competitions. Mexico and the United States, all our guys had world titles. At the Olympics our guys were always winning medals, then the sport fell apart at the amateur level. USA Boxing used to control it and they sold it off to some private organization, when the amateurs fall apart, you know what’s next. Plus [boxing sanctions] shoot themselves in the foot so many times, it’s crazy.
Where do you see the UFC in five years?
The UFC is gonna be in every country. We’re running The Ultimate Fighter in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Australia, and China.
What are your thoughts on the sport being illegal in some states?
Yeah about that, we’re working on it. What people have to understand about New York is we’re not illegal in New York because of MMA, it’s because of the Las Vegas Culinary Union. My partners, the Fertitta brothers, own Station Casinos. It’s the fourth largest gaming company in the country and the Culinary Union has been blocking us there. There's real dirty, under-the-table type of stuff going on.
What is your response to people who say MMA is too brutal?
The bottom line is: In the 12-year history of the UFC, there’s never been a death or a serious injury. No other sport can say that. Cheerleading can’t say that. People who think it’s too brutal aren’t educated about the sport.
What are your thoughts on Ronda Rousey and women in MMA?
I’m a huge Ronda Rousey fan. She’s extremely talented. What I like most about her is she’s mean and nasty. Everybody thinks I have a crush on Ronda Rousey, which is fucking retarded. They did the same thing with Chuck Liddell and me. They put a spoof video on the Internet of us singing a duet to each other. [Laughs.] As far as women fighting in MMA, I don’t like it when the division isn’t deep. I don’t like to see a woman who’s so much better than everybody else smashing other women. That’s tough to watch. That’s gonna be the case for Ronda for quite a while. She’s as real a fighter as any guy I’ve ever met.
In the 12-year history of the UFC, there’s never been a death or a serious injury. No other sport can say that. Cheerleading can’t say that.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The amount of traveling that I do—but I don’t even look at it that way. When I travel I’m going to talk about, or watch, or help put together events that I love. I genuinely love this sport and most of the guys who compete in it. I don’t have any complaints.
You recently had some choice words for Jon Jones. How are you able to deal with so many personalities? Who’s been the most difficult to deal with over the years?
Tito Ortiz. You know without getting into it with Tito, because Tito and I are cool now. But let’s just put it this way, he was the most difficult guy to deal with. I'm not going into specifics and starting a big shit storm with him again.
If you could set up a dream fight among any fighters in history, who would you have in the matchup?
The dream fight for me and a lot of fans right now is Jon Jones and Anderson Silva.
Do you think Silva would make the jump in weight to meet Jones?
Well here’s the thing about Anderson, Anderson’s not easy to deal with either but I actually enjoy dealing with Anderson. I think he’s the greatest fighter of all time. Every time I deal with him I feel like I’m dealing with an artist because that’s really what it’s like. I just think that Anderson is gonna get to this point where, if he continues to dominate the way that he has, I think that he’ll want to test himself like that.
What goes into the selection for the Ring Girls—besides their looks?
Over the last however many years, we used to hold these huge casting calls but it became a real fucking nightmare. I found Arianny Celeste five or six years ago, she was this shy girl who modeling here in Vegas. We brought her in and Arianny fucking grew into that role. She became exactly what I was looking for: she’s very professional, her body always looks the same, she says the right things, and she does everything perfectly.
She's our No. 1 girl. We care about her and she’s part of the family. I got her back just like I would any fighter who’s been a major part of this company. I just have this thing that once you’re part of the family and once you’re in the brand, no matter what happens, they’re always going to be a part of the family. That’s really the way we run this business.
Every sport reaches a pinnacle. Is that time coming for the UFC?
There are always naysayers, but even people who love the sport never could have dreamed that we’d get it to where we’ve gotten it today. The bottom line is: We’re the ones with the game plan who’ve built this thing. We have the road map. We know where we’re going. You don’t. So sit back, shut the fuck up, and keep watching.
Interview by Ralph Warner (@SoloWarnerBro)