Every few weeks Dana White spends an evening cageside watching a couple dozen fighters show him their courage and toughness. This Saturday night the UFC president will be sitting among fighters he considers the toughest and most courageous of all -- some 6,000 of them -- when Fight for the Troops 2 takes place in front of a crowd of military men and women at Fort Hood outside the small central Texas city of Killeen.
"Look, I consider myself a tough guy. I'm not afraid of anything," White said this week. "But I'll tell you what: I'm not going into some f---ing jungle with a gun and fighting a war. You know what I mean? These guys have the balls to do that for this country. They're our heroes, and they should be taken care of."
There it is, laid out in White's inimitable, pull-no-punches style: the motivation behind this weekend's fighting-meets-fundraising event as well as the UFC's first Fight for the Troops back in December 2008. That night in Fayetteville, N.C., to the sound-offs and salutes of an audience of 15,000 troops bused in from nearby Fort Bragg, Josh Koscheck had his hand raised in the main event, knocking out Yoshiyuki Yoshida in the first round. But the evening's biggest winners were the nation's soldiers and those who love them, because the UFC and Spike, which televised the fight card, raised more than $4 million -- via phone-in and online donations -- for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a private foundation that supports soldiers severely wounded in combat and the families of those lost in military service.
For Fight for the Troops 2, headlined by a main event between lightweights Evan Dunham and Melvin Guillard, White is aiming even higher with his fundraising push, adding an online auction (at fightforthetroops.com) into the mix and expanding the event's reach beyond Spike's 9 p.m. ET telecast by making a couple of preliminary fights available for streaming on Facebook. White is quick to say how thrilled he is that the UFC can help, although he doesn't hide his disgust that this effort must be driven by private entities.
"The government just doesn't take care of our fallen troops," he said. "I really think that in this country we've lost our patriotism. Back in the old days, you supported the troops. There's something seriously wrong here."
That's an opinion White began to form a few years ago, when he was invited to San Antonio to visit the Center for the Intrepid, a newly opened rehabilitation facility for those who've returned from combat badly burned or as amputees. While in west Texas he saw the sad, shocking byproduct of wartime -- "guys with no arms, no legs, some of them burned beyond recognition" -- and also encountered another stark reality facing the wounded military: Even though the center is adjacent to Brooke Army Medical Center on the Fort Sam Houston base, it was built without a dime of federal money. The entire $50 million construction cost was funded by private donations from some 600,000 American citizens, solicited by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and its honorary chairman, Arnold Fisher.
Fisher and his family have been involved in several endeavors aimed at bettering the lives of military men and women, most notably through their own Fisher House Foundation, which provides temporary lodging for families of wounded military during treatment. Since 1993 the foundation has built 45 Fisher Houses around the country, including four at Brooke Army Medical Center. White visited one of them during his stay in San Antonio, and that experience was a significant springboard for the UFC's stepped-up commitment to the military.
"If these houses don't exist, what do you do when your kid comes home from Iraq with no arms or legs and is in some rehab facility out in the middle of nowhere?" White said. "Here's what you do: You quit your f---ing job, you pack up and drive to the place, you sit in a chair beside your kid's bed every day, and you live in your car. That's what a lot of these parents were doing before the Fisher Houses were built."
What so deeply moved White during his visit was not just seeing family members with a roof over their heads, but witnessing something no less essential: families sharing a house with other families that understand.
"They live together and support each other," he said. "It's so badass and so necessary. As soon as I saw what was happening there, I knew this is something we have to be involved in."
The UFC's involvement has not gone unnoticed by the closest supporters of the military. At the Armed Forces Foundation's Congressional Gala in Washington, D.C., in May 2009, White was given the Sheldon Adelson Patriot Award, a recognition of his humanitarian efforts. And in his brief remarks in accepting the honor, White left no doubt where his allegiance lies. "These [expletives] in Hollywood make me sick," he said, "with the way that they talk, smashing our armed forces." White, whose father was in the military as a young man and whose uncle served in Vietnam, made a lot of friends in the room that night.
The UFC actually has been a friend to the troops for as long as White has been with the organization. In the early days of Zuffa's ownership, a decade ago, that meant smaller gestures like shipping DVDs and other merchandise to military bases overseas. Then, when televisions deals began to fill the UFC coffers, White allowed the Armed Forces Network to televise all its programming -- from The Ultimate Fighter to the UFC Unleashed greatest hits shows to every one of those $50 pay-par-views -- free for U.S. troops around the world. And in December 2006, for the first time, the UFC held an event on a military base. The crowd for Fight Night 7 at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar outside San Diego consisted of 3,500 Marines and sailors -- plus five civilians who each bought a pair of tickets in a UFC auction that raised more than $10,000 for the base's Operation Homecoming, which helps troops adjust upon their return from overseas.
Following his San Antonio trip, White ramped up the UFC's efforts significantly, with a tangible and highly visible result. The $4 million raised during the Fight for the Troops event in '08 helped complete the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund's private financing for construction of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a medical care and research facility in Bethesda, Md., for soldiers with traumatic brain injury or psychological issues. "They needed a few million to finish the place," White said, "so we did the fights and raised it for them." The center opened last June.
The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund will be the recipient of monies raised Saturday, too, and Fight for the Troops 2 stands to bring in some big bucks. There's going to be an auction again, but this time not for tickets, as the helicopter hangar at Fort Hood seats only around 6,000, and with more than 50,000 active military personnel on the base, tickets are hard to come by. "I want all the seats to be filled by soldiers," White said. Instead of tickets, the auction at fightforthetroops.com will put up for bid some pretty cool experiences, including a private training session with Randy Couture and Forrest Griffin and some non-MMA gems: being the guest of Phillies outfielder (and Dana White pal) Shane Victorino at a game in Philadelphia and attending the season premiere of HBO's Entourage. (If Johnny Drama gives you any trouble, tell him you're a friend of Chuck Liddell's.)
The piece de resistance, though, is an item called the "UFC VIP Experience." While a typical "VIP" package might get you a couple of primo seats and a meet-and-greet with a B-list celebrity, this package goes over the top. If you're the winning bidder, you pick a favorite UFC fighter and get flown in for one of that fighter's bouts, are put up at the UFC host hotel and have dinner with White, a few "UFC greats" and someone a heck of a lot better looking than any of them, Arianny Celeste, the Octagon Girl last seen striking a pose on the cover of Playboy. You get special access during the weigh-ins and especially on fight night (assuming you don't hit it off with Arianny and run off to a Vegas wedding chapel), when you basically serve as a corner man for your fave fighter. As a member of his entourage, you accompany him from the dressing room to the Octagon, sit in his corner with his camp and, if he wins, celebrate with him inside the cage. That's a dream come true for a devout fan, which is probably why bidding was up to $17,100 as of Wednesday morning.
Some of the auction items may have high-roller price tags, but last time the UFC did a troops fundraiser, a lot of the money came in small donations. And White is pretty confident that a good-size chunk of the cash that's donated this weekend will be from military men and women, veterans and other brave souls, because they're among the UFC's biggest fans.
"We have a huge military following, and police as well," White said. "It makes sense, because mixed martial arts is the new martial art. It's real fighting. So if you're a military guy or a cop, it's good for you to train in this stuff."
And when White turns from the cage at a UFC event and looks out into an audience dotted with military as well as police and others he considers heroes, he sees people he thinks should be given equal respect and support.
"I don't see why our troops should be treated any differently than police or firemen -- those guys all have great pensions, the best health insurance, and can retire after 20, 25 years," he said. "It's a pretty good setup. And it should be the same way if you're a military guy.
"What these guys do is so f--ing crazy, man, so brave and so unselfish. These guys risk their lives every day. And when you go to the places I've been and meet these guys and their families, well, I'm just blown away by them."
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