UFC returns to Madison Square Garden tomorrow with a card that features two title bouts, as Colby Covington challenges Kamaru Usman for the welterweight belt and Rose Namajunas meets Zhang Weili to determine the top woman in the strawweight division.
UFC president Dana White first began promoting UFC shows with UFC 30 in February 2001, and he has witnessed—and played a role—in the company’s remarkable growth over the past two decades, including the opportunity to hold fight cards in the state of New York.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, White provided insight to the 268 card, as well as discussed Fedor Emelianenko, Glover Teixeira, Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor.
Sports Illustrated: Any trip to Madison Square Garden deserves a moment to reflect on your journey with UFC. At the beginning of your UFC tenure, a fight at MSG was not even a pipe dream 20 years ago.
Dana White: My first card was in New Jersey at Trump [Taj Mahal]—it was UFC 30 [in 2001], and Tito Ortiz beat Evan Tanner in the main event. At that time, New York wasn’t even a consideration. Vegas was the pipe dream. We wanted to go over everywhere, but Vegas was where we wanted to be.
SI: What stands out to you about that UFC 30 card?
DW: If you ever watch the footage of it, I look like a f------ deer in the headlights, number one. Number two, I remember the press conferences and studying for hours ahead of time, reading every bio on every guy. I’d study for so long and then no f------ press would even show up. It was a whole different world back then.
SI: MSG is UFC’s home in New York. For a card of this stature, why is Kamaru Usman against Colby Covington the right fit for the main event?
DW: The first fight between these two was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen. Kamaru Usman is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, and on the verge of becoming the best welterweight of all time, and possibly one of the best ever. And Colby Covington is truly the next best fighter. These two genuinely dislike each other.
SI: No one questions or criticizes Covington’s skill in the Octagon, but it’s the noise he has made outside the cage that has elevated his stature in MMA. If Covington didn’t adopt that controversial persona, would he still have this rematch?
DW: His persona has nothing to do with it. I actually believe his persona drowns out how good he really is. People think he’s an a--hole. They don’t focus on how good and talented he is because of the other antics. I truly believe he’s the second-best guy in the division.
SI: There is no questioning Covington’s ability. That being said, if he loses at 268, it will take him a long time before receiving another title shot?
DW: Yeah. That’s right.
SI: The strawweight title bout should also be spectacular, and Rose Namajunas appears to be reaching a new level of dominance in the cage.
DW: The four baddest women on Earth right now are Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko, Namajunas and [Zhang] Weili. This fight is extremely important for both of them.
SI: Another pivotal fight—and possibly the most entertaining on the card—is the three-round lightweight bout pitting Justin Gaethje against Michael Chandler. Does the winner here get a title shot against either Charles Oliveira or Dustin Poirier?
DW: It’s too early to say, but they’re both in a great position. And as much as I love Usman-Covington and Rose-Weili, this is my pick for the fight of the night.
SI: Looking back at last weekend’s UFC 267, there were a number of highlights and surprises, including Glover Teixeira defeating Jan Blachowicz to finally take his place as light heavyweight champion.
DW: Glover’s story and what he’s been through over the years in his career, and now finally winning the title in dominating fashion after his 42nd birthday, that’s a bada-- moment.
SI: Could we see Israel Adesanya make the move back to light heavyweight to challenge Teixeira?
DW: I think we’ll see [Jiří] Procházka fight for the title next. That’s what I think.
SI: Khamzat Chimaev did all he possibly could to get your attention last weekend by obliterating an extremely talented opponent in Li Jingliang. Chimaev is undefeated, and he’s now ranked 10th in the welterweight division. I know there has been talk about a fight against Nate Diaz, but could Chimaev be looking at a title shot against the winner of Usman-Covington?
DW: He’s so f------ dominant. And we’re looking at a possible Nate Diaz fight. We offered it to Nate, and we’ll see what happens.
SI: Unfortunately for Cory Sandhagen, he was spectacular at 267 in his interim bantamweight title fight against Petr Yan, but in defeat. Is the next move Yan against Aljamain Sterling to unify the belts?
DW: What you do is have Yan fight Sterling, and T.J. Dillashaw fights the winner. And if you’re Cory Sandhagen, you look back at the drawing board and realize you did everything right. He couldn’t have fought a more perfect fight, but Petr Yan is a savage.
SI: Would open scoring help a fight like that?
DW: I don’t like it. I always look at the negative side of it, which is if a fighter is up by so many rounds, then he starts coasting and not trying to fight anymore. Then he tries to avoid a fight to win the fight. With these nutty judges, you never know what the hell is going to happen, so you’ve got to fight your a-- off the entire fight.
SI: During the postshow press conference in Abu Dhabi, you were asked about Fedor Emelianenko, who nearly signed with UFC in 2009. Emelianenko recently made unfavorable comments about you, and it is unfortunate that he never competed in UFC.
DW: Here’s the thing with Fedor. We flew out there onto this island [in 2009], it was right out of a f------ movie and made this guy an offer. We end up meeting, and they had this guy with him that was making the decisions, and they were listening to this guy. We made them the offer, and they turned it down. We left and got back on the plane, and Lorenzo [Fertitta] turned to me and said, ‘Thank f------ God they turned that offer down.’ No s---, right? I guarantee his manager and Fedor must lay in bed at night and have nightmares that they didn’t take that deal.
He came out the other day and said some s--- about me, that I’m a bad guy and I’m all about money and all this other s---. He’s a failed promoter. His company was M-1. They tried to do the same thing we’re doing, and they failed. That’s why the guy is bitter. He turned down the biggest f------ deal ever, and the whole contract was guaranteed. And they failed as promoters. The guy’s still fighting at 45 years old. Yeah, he’s bitter and he’s pissed off.
SI: Based off their social media interactions, a potentially big fight for UFC could be Conor McGregor–Tony Ferguson. Do you think there is a realistic chance of that happening?
DW: We have to wait and see what happens with Conor and how quickly he bounces back from this injury and how soon he can start giving and receiving kicks again.
SI: Looking at 268, you’re asking for two very meaningful commodities in people’s time and their money. If they invest, what can fight fans expect to see at Madison Square Garden?
DW: The whole card is bada--. Frankie Edgar–Marlon Vera, Edmen Shahbazyan, Al Iaquinta vs. Bobby Green, there are a ton of great fights. But the three top fights on the card are worth the card alone. Gaethje vs. Chandler, Namajunas vs. Weili, and Usman vs. Covington, that’s why you’re staying home on Saturday night. Those are worth the price of the pay-per-view.
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