LAS VEGAS, NV – Thursday, 48 hours before UFC 264, Dana White operates backstage in his dressing room-turned-office at the T-Mobile Arena.
With dinner plans on tap for later that evening with Celtics star Jayson Tatum, an update is shared with White about ESPN’s preparation for the 264 card. The UFC president gives a nod of approval when informed the network load tested at four times the previous Conor McGregor pay per view volumes to ensure smooth operations for Saturday night. McGregor is the centerpiece of the weekend, a bonafide star with genuine crossover appeal.
“McGregor is a massive superstar,” said White. “It’s perfect. Whether it’s a quarter or a half or whatever, everyone thinks they’re Irish. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day, and people love Conor.”
The 264 card offers depth and compelling matchups, but there is no question whatsoever about the top draw. McGregor is the attraction, and he has an outstanding opponent in Dustin Poirier, an elite mixed martial artist who is performing at a peak level in the Octagon.
“It’s very rare that you get a perfect trilogy,” said White. “Poirier gets knocked out the first time. Conor gets knocked out the second time. Now here we go in the third.”
There is an electricity surrounding T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. With the pandemic suddenly beginning to feel like an old memory, people are out in flocks for the fights, largely to support McGregor.
“To be back in Vegas, it feels good,” said White, briefly reflecting on his other-worldly career for more than two decades in MMA. “It also felt good to be back in Jacksonville [for UFC 261], Houston [for UFC 262]. How about [the title victory for Brandon] Moreno [at UFC 263?]? Imagine that fight without a crowd?
“It’s weekends like this where I hit up [former UFC CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta] and we talk about how this is the sh-- we used to dream about. But there is still so much to do with this sport.”
No different than the fighters on UFC’s wildly talented roster, White knows how to generate a distinct blend of controversy and interest surrounding his product. He is currently embroiled in a public dispute with Internet personality/boxer Jake Paul centered over fighter pay. Always a promoter, White explained that any doubts and criticisms only make the UFC success story that much sweeter.
“I’ve heard it all,” said White. “I’ve heard we’re in trouble, whether it’s the sale, guys retiring, fighter pay, people saying our fans wouldn’t pay for the fights after our ESPN deal. I look at it from a different perspective. When we first got on TV, some of our distributors were Direct TV, Dish Network, and cable. Now there is Fight Pass, now there is streaming.
“We keep moving in the right direction. There is no ceiling here. And there is going to be a day, in the next 10-15 years, where it’s the right fight at the right place at the right time, and the world will want to buy it. It will exist on a global level, and we’ll be in the world of five million pay per view buys. When we hit a home run, we’ll be doing 20 million pay per view buys.”
UFC is built around its talent, which is a phenomenal business model when employing the caliber of women and men that currently comprise the roster. The sport’s biggest personality is McGregor. If he can find a way to defeat Poirier, which may be unlikely but is far from improbable, then that will place the mega-star directly back into the title picture for UFC’s lightweight championship.
“The winner of this fight gets a title shot,” confirmed White. “If it’s Poirier, he’s already the number-one ranked guy in the division.”
The McGregor-Poirier main event is overshadowing the rest of the bouts, but there are some solid fights on the card. A welterweight bout pitting the vastly underrated Gilbert Burns against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson has the potential to be outstanding. The great Kamaru Usman’s reign atop the welterweight division looks unstoppable, but Burns gave him headaches in their recent meeting and would relish a rematch, while the 38-year-old Thompson is seeking a final run at the belt.
“Colby Covington is still the number one contender,” said White. “But they both need this fight to stay in the title picture.”
Irene Aldana missed weight for her bantamweight fight against Yana Kunitskaya, removing some of the optimism over that (now catchweight) bout, but there will be a genuinely fascinating open to the pay per view as the unknown Kris Moutinho stepped into a fight against “Sugar” Sean O’Malley on only two weeks’ notice.
“What an opportunity for this kid,” said White. “Anything can happen in this sport. You look unstoppable until you lose.”
Part of the UFC allure is what comes next. White has a slate of upcoming fights that will attract attention, including the potential return of Nick Diaz–who last fought in 2015–to the cage this fall in a scrap against Robbie Lawler.
“That’s a fight we’re working on right now,” said White. “We’re shooting for September. If we don’t get it done, he’s probably never going to fight again.”
There is also the controversy surrounding the heavyweight division. Francis Ngannou looked sensational when he won the belt in March, dethroning the great Stipe Miocic. Before he will have the chance to defend the title, next month’s UFC 265 is headlined by Derrick Lewis against Ciryl Gane for the interim heavyweight title.
“We’ll do the interim title fight, and it’s going to be a great fight,” said White, who has shared his own bravado when defending the controversial decision to add an interim title belt. “The winner of that fights Francis, and the winner of that fights Stipe. That lines up nothing but great title fights.”
When Ngannou won the belt, the narrative regarding the future of the belt quickly shifted from Miocic to Jon Jones, who appeared to finally be making a move to the heavyweight division to challenge the title (and cement his legend even further). In the ensuing months, their negotiations over pay turned public, and a fight date pitting Jones against Ngannou still has not been set. White was asked about Jones’ heavyweight future.
“We’ll find out,” said White. “He said he wants to fight next year. We’ll see what happens.”
White will next speak at the press conference following tonight’s pay per view, a point when all the anticipation adjoining UFC 264 turns into analysis and opinion.
“We have a stacked card,” said White. “The network prelims on ESPN are incredible. The co-main event with Burns and Thompson is being drowned out, but that’s another fight that is going to be amazing. Whenever you’ve got going on this weekend, you’re going to get what you paid for with us.”
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