Your mom's worst sports nightmare—brutal hand-to-hand combat in a cage—has become the fastest-growing sport in the country, dominating cable, pay-per-view and probably an arena near you. One man is responsible: a shaved-headed, bullnecked college dropout whose three favorite words are "fuck," "fucking" and "fucked." At 39, Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White has risen from aerobics instructor to the kingpin of professional mixed martial arts, an often violent combination of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and jujitsu that makes old-fashioned sports look about as tough as Scrabble. He appears constantly on TV, jets around the globe promoting the UFC, parties with celebs and feuds with some of his own fighters. His hard-nosed approach to contract negotiation made him an enemy of UFC legends Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, but White rolled merrily on, and so did the brand he built from the ground up. The UFC has kicked so much butt in the prized 18-to-34-year old demographic that rival mixed-martial-arts leagues are now springing up like Las Vegas casinos, backed by deep-pocketed businessmen such as Mark Cuban and Donald Trump. White's next fight will be to keep his brand on top in the face of this new onslaught of competition.
Eight years ago White was a washed-up amateur boxer and gym owner in Las Vegas, managing Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, semifamous stars of the UFC, then a near-bankrupt cage-fighting circuit. After hearing the UFC was for sale, White persuaded a couple of his high school buddies— casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta—to buy it for $2 million, make him president and give him a 10 percent ownership stake. Four years later he owned 10 percent of less than nothing. White and the Fertittas were millions in the hole.
Most people weren't surprised. Mixed martial arts had been tagged as brutal—Senator John McCain branded it "human cockfighting"—and it was illegal in most states. But White carefully engineered a turnaround, making the sport safer and then lobbying for government approval. It worked. The bloody spectacle he calls "this monster" stomped, kicked and thrashed its way to pop-culture dominance and a current value of more than $1 billion. It's one of the most watched sporting events on TV, and the UFC has been so successful that even its competitors are doing well, one landing a special on prime-time network TV. But no one has achieved the stature or power in the sport that White has, and no one has made more enemies doing it. We sent contributing editor Kevin Cook to UFC headquarters in Las Vegas to find out how and why.
"I've covered every major sport," says Cook, whose new book, Driven: Teen Phenoms, Mad Parents, Swing Science and the Future of Golf, just hit bookstores. "Nothing quite compares to the UFC. It's as rich and rowdy as White, who has enough energy to power the lights of the Vegas Strip. Over two blazing-hot days in the desert, we talked in his office, with its jumbo photos of his boyhood heroes Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, and in a basement gym where he shadowboxed and pumped iron. He can bench 325 pounds—not bad for an executive who turns 40 next summer. During our talks he often jumped up to illustrate a point, pretending to crouch like Tito Ortiz or throwing a punch that stopped an inch short of my chin.
"White is loud, brash, cocky and unstoppably profane. I fucking loved meeting him."
WHITE: Fucking big. What are the major sports in America right now? The NFL and major league baseball, with the NBA third. The NHL was fourth for years, but now we're fourth, and we're still in our infancy. Our ratings on Spike TV beat most of the major sports in our 18-to-34 demo. Last year we beat four Monday Night Football games in the demo. In eight years the UFC will be bigger than the NFL, bigger than World Cup soccer. It will be the biggest sport in the world.
PLAYBOY: You won't beat the NFL as easily as you beat hockey.
WHITE: There's nothing bigger in this country than the NFL. Everybody watches the Super Bowl. But football is limited. The NFL has spent billions to move into Europe, but it will never work. They don't give a fuck about NFL football in Europe. They don't know the rules. They didn't grow up playing the game.
PLAYBOY: They didn't grow up fighting in the Octagon, either.
WHITE: But the Octagon transcends cultural barriers. People get it. You know why? Something in our DNA loves fighting. Women are attracted to the toughest guy. "Ooh, I want to get close to him." Guys want to be him. Go to an intersection anywhere in the world: On one corner they might be playing basketball, stickball on another corner, street hockey on another, and on the fourth corner a fight breaks out. What does the crowd do? They run to the fight. Not only the crowd but the guys playing the other games! We're human beings, man. We love a fight.
PLAYBOY: So why is boxing dying?
WHITE: Corruption, fragmentation and greed killed boxing. When I started with the UFC I took all the shit I hated about boxing and changed it.
PLAYBOY: You grew up loving Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. How do you feel about killing their sport?
WHITE: The UFC didn't kill boxing, but the timing was perfect. We're filling the void boxing left behind.
PLAYBOY: What if there's a Tyson out there now—the next great boxer. If big-time boxing goes away, he'll be unknown.
WHITE: Nah. He would become a mixed martial artist. Think about it: If Tyson started out in martial arts at the same age he started boxing, he would still be Tyson, but he would have done his thing in the Octagon. I'd pay to see that.
PLAYBOY: Under the original UFC rules, he could have bitten guys' ears.
WHITE: That's illegal now. We're a real sport.
PLAYBOY: Who's a better athlete, Chuck Liddell or Kobe Bryant?
WHITE: Kobe could out-jump Chuck. But my guys are well versed in boxing, kickboxing, muay Thai, wrestling and jujitsu and fierce in cardio and weight training. UFC fighters are the best all-around athletes in the world.
PLAYBOY: But not the most famous. That's Tiger Woods.
WHITE: I fucking hate golf. It's a stupid game and a waste of time and good land. But I love Tiger's passion and killer instinct. We watched the U.S. Open on TV here at the UFC offices, and I was yelling for him. Tiger's got more money than God, but he's still out there pumping his arms, going crazy. Some guys might think, I've already won everything, I've got money coming out of my ass, and I'm playing on a broken fucking leg. Maybe I'll lose this one time. But no, not him. He's thinking, I'm gonna bury you. Tiger Woods is a fighter.
PLAYBOY: His mother taught him to "step on their throats." Suppose Tiger wanted to try a real man's sport. Could you train him to be a UFC fighter?
WHITE: He's too old to start. You don't just jump into mixed martial arts. Fighters get punched in the face every day. I don't see Tiger going in for much of that.
PLAYBOY: You used to get punched every day. What made you quit boxing?
WHITE: As a kid I liked wrestling. Like a lot of World Wrestling Entertainment fans, I was into the story lines and soap operas. I loved Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka—
PLAYBOY: Flying off the top rope—
WHITE: But once you turn 16 you want the real thing. I was a tough enough kid, a boxer who could punch and take a punch. I wanted to be Sugar Ray Leonard or Marvin Hagler. I was dying to win a title—IBF, WBA, a state title, even a city title. Then one day I met this local big-deal boxer, 30-some-years old. A name guy. He was so fucking punchy, his brain was mush. He didn't have a job. He just moped around the gym. That's the day I realized I wasn't a real fighter, because real fighters don't think, I might need a job someday. They'll lose two or three in a row or 10 in a row and keep fighting. I respect that more than anything, but I'm not that guy.
PLAYBOY: How hard on the brain is Ultimate Fighting?
WHITE: People think our sport's more violent than boxing. Wrong! They're weirded out because it goes to the ground. We grew up with John Wayne movies—you don't hit a man when he's down. It's un-American! John Wayne would deck a guy, stand him back up and hit him again. So when Americans first watch UFC—one guy's on top of the other, hitting him when he's down—they say, "Oh God, he can't defend himself!" It's not like that in Asia, where they've been doing martial arts since the samurai days.
Here's another misconception: Americans think, How much can it hurt, getting hit with those big padded boxing gloves? But they protect the hands. When boxing was bare-knuckle, fights would last about two seconds. Guys kept hurting their hands punching the other guy's hard, bony head. So they created a padded weapon, and you could punch a guy in the head—bam bam bam—without breaking your hands. Boxing also has a three knockdown rule. You hit me so hard you jarred my brain, so I couldn't stand up. That's one. Now, if I can get back up, you can concuss me again. I go down and get up. If you do it again, the fight's over. Boxers die every year, mostly from brain damage.
In the UFC a lot of the punching is on the ground. I'm trying to make you cover up so I can pull off a submission, get an arm bar, and maybe the ref will stop the fight. It's not like a punch from a boxing stance, which is boom—throwing my whole 205 pounds right into your face. We also use smaller gloves. Our guys don't take anything near the punishment boxers take.
PLAYBOY: Senator John McCain famously called the UFC "human cockfighting." That actually helped you, didn't it?
WHITE: Exactly. John McCain created the UFC. All he meant was, you can't put on illegal fights; you have to be sanctioned by an athletic commission. We agreed. The Fertitta brothers and I wanted to change the rules and be legal. We're still not sanctioned in Massachusetts, New York and a lot of other places.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever thank McCain for his help?
WHITE: I walked up to him at a boxing match and said, "I'm Dana White from the UFC." He mumbled hello. The guy's running for president; he doesn't give a shit about me.
PLAYBOY: Who would win in the Octagon, McCain or Barack Obama?
WHITE: I would go with Obama. He's younger. Hillary Clinton might kick the shit out of both of them.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned being a tough kid.
WHITE: I grew up in Las Vegas. My dad used to be a firefighter, but later he was mainly out drinking. My mom was a nurse. She worried because I was a horrible student who hated school. She kept threatening to put me in private school and finally did—St. Viator's School in the eighth grade, then Bishop Gorman High School. Strict Catholic schools. I got expelled twice. Once was for kicking an old nun's door shut. That door would make a huge bang; I would kick it and run, then she would freak and let the kids out of class, so the kids loved me. One day I kicked it and my shoe flew 30 feet in the air—right to her! "Ha-ha, I've got him now!" They caught me walking around with one shoe and kicked me out.
The other time was for fighting. This guy was tossing big heavy rocks at a toad in a planter. I said, "Knock it off. Leave that toad alone."
"Fuck you," he said. So we fought. I was throwing punches, thinking, Here I am in Catholic school, saving a horny toad's life. They'll say I'm a hero! No, they kicked me out again.
PLAYBOY: Are you still a Catholic?
WHITE: I don't believe in God, the devil, ghosts or any of that shit. But I'm still fascinated by religion—how violent and crazy it is. That stuff sticks with you.
PLAYBOY: Ever have a religious experience?
WHITE: The summer of my junior year I was 16, drunk and hauling ass in my girlfriend's Subaru with a girl who wasn't my girlfriend. I had just met this girl at an under-21 club. I hit the median, spun the car and hit a pole, and the impact shot me out of the car. It scalped me, took all the hair off my head. I landed in the parking lot of the Dunes, which is now the Bellagio, with chunks of glass in my head and rocks and shit in my knees. Broke my collarbone. My feet busted open like baked potatoes. The girl was okay, but she was screaming. I couldn't see, but I heard someone say, "I'm a doctor, I'm a doctor." The doctor looked me over and said, "He's dead." I remember lying there, thinking, Oh my gosh, I'm fuckin' dead. Then he said, "I got a pulse. He's alive!" I spent that summer in the hospital. Then my mom sent me to live with my grandma in Levant, Maine. That makes sense, doesn't it? You've got this troubled kid the parents can't handle, so you send him to a 70-year-old lady in Maine. I just went out drinking and partying every night. Girls and more girls.
PLAYBOY: You were a ladies' man?
WHITE: I was very sexual. I was 14 the first time I had sex. It was in a maintenance shed in Vegas with a girl named Jane, with rakes and lawn mowers all around us.