WHITE: Probably the smallest! It was awkward and very fast. I obviously didn't impress Jane, since that was the only time we got together.
PLAYBOY: You took a long, strange trip from that shed to the UFC headquarters a few miles away. What made you think you could be an executive?
WHITE: I never did. I just wanted to be in the fight game. After high school I moved to Boston with my mom. I was a bouncer at an Irish bar, the Black Rose. Tips were great on New Year's Eve and St. Paddy's Day. You would give me 10 or 20 bucks and I'd let you in ahead of other people.
My other job was pouring asphalt for EJ Paving, working for these crazy Italian dudes who would throw buckets at you. They would throw wheelbarrows! That was a shit job. All day you were rubbing diesel fuel inside your wheelbarrow to keep the asphalt from sticking, and when the hot mix went in, it steamed right up in your face. It was 100 degrees out, 100 percent humidity. At lunchtime me and this other kid, Al Filosa, would put on a show. We'd punch each other while the other workers watched.
PLAYBOY: In the face?
WHITE: No face shots. We would have broken our hands.
PLAYBOY: Then you worked as a bellman.
WHITE: Yeah, at the Boston Harbor Hotel. I once got a $100 tip. The bellmen would argue over who would get the next guest. We would settle the arguments by punching the shit out of one another in the bellmen's closet. Again, no face shots.
PLAYBOY: Was the closet octagonal?
WHITE: No. It was just a narrow little room where luggage was stowed. That job was good money. I was 20 years old, making $50,000 a year, cash, but I hated it. Carry the bags out, put 'em in the car, the guy gives you three bucks. 'Oh, thank you, sir." I would drive to work feeling miserable, like 99.9 percent of America. One day I told my bellman buddy, "I'm done, bro. I quit."
"Are you fucking stupid?" he said. "What else can you do?"
"I'm gonna be in the fight business," I said. "I don't give a fuck if I carry spit buckets for a living."
PLAYBOY: So you went back to Vegas?
WHITE: Not yet. I had a little bar fight.
PLAYBOY: What should a guy do in a bar fight?
WHITE: Run. My sister got into an argument. The bar was in south Boston—Southie, a tough part of a tough town. I went over and said, "Did you fucking touch my sister?" Next thing I knew there were guys coming from every direction. They kicked the shit out of me for 20 minutes, the worst ass kicking of my life. I would get up, hit the guy closest to me and try to run. They would beat me down again, but I would pop back up. Bam, down again. I thought, They're gonna kill me. Where are the police? Finally the police came, and these guys started fighting them. They all got arrested.
Weeks later I got a call from an attorney. He was working for one of the guys who beat me up. They were worried about my testifying against them, which I would not do. I would never go to court and say, "Ooh, he hit me!" I asked the lawyer, "Is your client there? Put me on speakerphone." And I went off on his client. "You want to know something, you fucking pussy? You and your 50 friends beat on me for 20 minutes, and I don't have a mark! I'm not even sore! You must be the biggest pussies in the world, and if I ever see you again, I'm gonna kick your ass when all your friends aren't around."
PLAYBOY: You weren't sore?
WHITE: The reality was, I was so sore I didn't want to touch my hair for weeks. I lost the hearing in my left ear. I'm still deaf in that ear. But I didn't want him to know that.
PLAYBOY: Did you see him again?
WHITE: Never. He probably sees me on TV and says, "We kicked the living shit out of that guy!"
PLAYBOY: So you left Boston?
WHITE: Not yet. First I taught a boxercise class at a health club in Southie—until two guys showed up in the middle of class. "Can we talk to you?" We went out in the hall. "Do you know who we work for?" I knew.
PLAYBOY: Boston's Irish Mob was reportedly run by James "Whitey" Bulger, the model for the Jack Nicholson character in The Departed.
WHITE: "You're doing business in our town," one of them said. He wanted $2,500, or maybe it was $3,500. It might as well have been $35 million, because I didn't have it. "Borrow it from your girlfriend," he said. They knew I had a girlfriend.
"She doesn't have it either."
"Just get it." I finished teaching my class and pretended it never happened. I didn't want to know those guys. Then my phone rang and the same voice said, "You've got till fucking Sunday."
PLAYBOY: Did you pay them?
WHITE: I couldn't. So I called Delta Airlines, packed a suitcase and flew home to Vegas. I left my furniture, stereo and girlfriend behind.
PLAYBOY: In a way, the UFC owes its existence to McCain and Bulger, who is now on the FBI's most wanted list.
WHITE: Every guy loves the Mob, but it's not so cool when it's after you.
PLAYBOY: In Vegas you reconnected with your old friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the heirs to a local casino empire. In 2001 they bought the floundering UFC for $2 million. They made you president and gave you a 10 percent stake in the company. What's your 10 percent worth today?
WHITE: About $200 million.
PLAYBOY: But there were dark days at first. Some accounts say the UFC was $30 million in the hole by 2004. Others put the number at $40 million.
WHITE: It was $44 million. In three years I'd lost my friends $44 million, and I was devastated. Lorenzo said, "We can't keep funding this thing. See what you can get for it." So I worked out a deal with some investors for $6 million to $7 million. That night when I went home, I didn't sleep. I thought the deal was done. Then Lorenzo called. "Fuck it," he said. "Fuck it. Let's keep going." I was already working like a nut, but after that I basically quit sleeping. I still don't sleep. Last night I went to bed at 1:30 A.M., and I got up at 4:45 in the morning. I'm too wired to sleep.
PLAYBOY: Your breakthrough was getting on Spike TV. Your reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, turned the UFC into a sort of soap opera.
WHITE: There would probably be no UFC without The Ultimate Fighter. Spike wouldn't pay to produce it, so we had to do that ourselves. It cost $10 million. Frank and Lorenzo said, "Okay, we're in for $44 million. Let's go another 10." If they hadn't had the balls to do that, we wouldn't be having this interview.
PLAYBOY: How did the show take shape?
WHITE: We got the right partner in the show's creator and executive producer, Craig Piligian, who tweaked the reality aspects. Originally, we had two houses, with the champion from one house facing the one from the other. Craig said, "No, there's only one house." He was right: You lock these guys up for six weeks without TV or music, nothing to read and no chance to get laid. It's torture, which is good TV.
PLAYBOY: It was torture for you in the first season.
WHITE: We spent our make-or-break $10 million, but Spike wasn't 100 percent behind the show. Then the president of Spike got fired. We were in fucking turmoil. By then The Contender was on, a boxing show that was the most expensive reality show yet. It failed, but our fighters watched and saw that the Contender guys were getting $25,000 apiece. They said, "What the fuck?" Then I got a call from Lorenzo, and he said, "Our guys won't fight unless we pay them something." I said, "Really? Would you like to fucking bet?" I hauled ass to the gym and started busting their balls. It was all on the show: "Do you want to be a fighter, or do you want to go home? I'll send you home right now!" They fought.
PLAYBOY: Spike gave you a second season, and you have consistently been its highest-rated show ever since.
WHITE: It worked out for both of us.
PLAYBOY: Your prefight speeches are legendary, both on the show and in real life. Last fall you flew the UFC fighters to Vegas for a summit meeting.
WHITE: I talked about where we're going. I took questions, mostly about taxes. Success is hard for fighters. They get a check for a million, and it's "Yeah, I'm a millionaire!" They don't realize they already owe $300,000 in taxes. So they spend it: houses, cars, women. Pretty soon they're saying, "Whoa, I blew a million dollars!"
PLAYBOY: You also talked about steroids.
WHITE: Everybody went steroid crazy after WWE wrestler Chris Benoit killed his family. Now, I'm not endorsing steroids, but guys have been taking them forever. Football players, weight lifters, baseball players, cyclists, track athletes—you name it. Horses! In all that time, how many went crazy and killed their families? One. That dude was nuts.
PLAYBOY: Have you taken steroids?
WHITE: Yes. There was a doctor here in Vegas when I was in high school; you went to his office and said you wanted to try his "weight gain" program.
PLAYBOY: Injections in the butt?
WHITE: Injections and pills. Pretty soon I felt strong. Superhuman. But I wasn't comfortable with it. It's like smoking weed—you do it because your buddies do it. I smoked weed and tried cocaine but didn't like them. Even alcohol sucked. I'd get drunk and feel shitty the next day, and semi-shitty the day after that. It was like wasting three days. So I quit drinking.
Nintendo was the same thing. They had a great game called Ring King. One day I sat there playing it, loving it, and then I looked up at the clock and it was 7:30 at night. I didn't get paid, didn't gain anything—I just wasted a day of my life. I never played a video game again.
PLAYBOY: How will you keep fans addicted to the UFC?
WHITE: My job now is to fight off all the maggots and leeches who are trying to take a chunk out of us.
PLAYBOY: Do those leeches include Mark Cuban and Donald Trump?
WHITE: Mark Cuban's a smart guy. He's passionate about basketball, but I don't think he gives a shit about mixed martial arts. He sees some quick money in it. Trump's different. I have a ton of respect for him. When the Fertittas bought the UFC, most venues wouldn't deal with us. We were outlaws. Our first event was at the Trump Taj Mahal, and Trump actually came to the fights. Way back in 2001 he was up in the front row, watching the UFC. You'll never hear me say a bad word about Donald Trump. He can have my seats anytime he wants.