Looking for a fun thought experiment? Imagine other sports commissioners going about their jobs in the manner of Dana White, overlord of the UFC: Roger Goodell engaging in profane Twitter battles with NFL fans critical of a game. David Stern, clad in a formfitting T-shirt, barging gleefully into an NBA locker room and awarding cash bonuses to players simply because he was impressed with their performances. Bud Selig calling major leaguers caught using PEDs "f------ idiots" and going on social media to second-guess umpires.
Early in the first of what would become many conversations with Dana White, his—how to put this?—absence of filter was jarring. (What? Did he just say, "Investment bankers are f------ pencil-neck geeks"?) I chalked it up to a promoter who needed to be outrageous to generate publicity for his fringe fighting league. Through the years I've watched the UFC change beyond recognition, becoming positively mainstream. (Check out this Saturday's Demetrious Johnson versus John Dodson card, part of a long-term deal with Fox.) And, as reflected in this most recent sit-down, I've watched the league's inimitable, singularly polarizing president change not at all.
L. Jon Wertheim: So you're in your mid-40s now.
Dana White:Early 40s. Calm down. I'm 43. [Laughs.]
January 28, 2013
All right. But we're in a different stage now with the UFC. You no longer have to go around and explain the sport. How has that changed things for you? What is this job in 2013?
What I'm focused on right now is this Fox deal. My full-time job is making sure this thing gets to where we want it to be.
Still get to wear a black T-shirt and tennis shoes to the office?
You haven't had to get a little corporate as it's grown?
Not even a little bit. The guys at Fox knew what they were getting into. They know who I am, how I am.
No dialing back Dana?
There is no dialing back Dana. I am who I am.
The first time we ever spoke, five minutes into the conversation you were telling me about working at a hotel in Boston and carrying bags.
Yeah, I was a bellman at the Boston Harbor Hotel. I was 19 years old. All the experiences I had with jobs from 17 to 19 helped me get to here. I did paving for a while in Boston. I worked for hotels in Vegas, in Boston. I realized this isn't what I want to do. I really don't care about money. I care about getting up every day and doing something I love to do. I'm going to do it whether I make money at it or not. I'm going to be in the fight business.
You started college and ...
Didn't even make it through a semester.
I asked you once: If you weren't doing this, would you still be doing this?
This is what I would be doing. You probably wouldn't know me, and it probably wouldn't be on this scale, but this is what I would be doing.
How would 25-year-old Dana White like working for you now?
That's a tough question. I don't know. I never really did well with bosses either. [Laughs.]
You told me once that women were pretty, and you didn't want them fighting in the UFC.
[I said] it would never happen.
So how much of your signing Ronda Rousey is about Ronda Rousey ...
It's all Ronda Rousey.
... and how much of this is your having a daughter?
Has nothing to do with my daughter, believe me. At the end of the day, what everybody needs to understand about me is that I'm a fight fan. I'm a fight fanatic. I love fighting. Everybody wanted to come out and say it's because Ronda Rousey is hot, and I got a crush on her. [Former MMA fighter] Gina Carano is hot too. Ronda Rousey is a different animal. Yes, she is pretty. She is also mean, she is nasty, and she likes to finish people.
How many of your fighters have that attitude? How many of them just grind it out?
There are grinders. We got guys like Roy Nelson who say that all that matters is winning; doesn't matter how you win, just as long as you win. [But] I would say me and 90% of the fight community like people who are finishers. We were just talking before this interview about who? Mike Tyson. Why did everybody like Mike Tyson? Because he had fantastic boxing skills and loved to go the distance? No, because when you watched a Mike Tyson fight, you knew somebody was about to be executed. When Tyson would walk into an arena you would get goose bumps. As a fight fan those are the kind of fighters you like. And trust me when I tell you, Ronda Rousey is that person.
Who's the closest to that now?
I would say Anderson Silva. He has a different personality and demeanor, but you know when Anderson Silva is coming in, something crazy is gonna happen. He's a killer. I think Jon Jones gets a bad rap because of his personality. Some people don't like him; some people love him. But Jon Jones is a finisher too. And I can tell you this: There are a lot of people who think that women's fighting doesn't belong in the UFC. Once they see Ronda Rousey fight, they'll change their minds.
Leaving Rousey aside, I think much of this sport's appeal comes from the testosterone-driven man's world ...
One of the things that made me fall in love with this sport is the type of people we're dealing with. I was in the boxing business for a long time, and let me tell you what, you are never dealing with good people in boxing. Never. We're in a deal right now with some guys involved in boxing, and they're just the f------ scum of the earth.
What about your fighters?
They're good people, man. Most of 'em. Not going to say all my fighters are great guys. Some of my fighters I don't even like. But I would say that 95% of our guys are really good people.
Fighters always say the same thing when you ask, "What's it like going in there with a dude who wants to wreck you?" They say: "It's an adversary, not an enemy."
You seem to have some enemies.
I seem to have enemies?
Yeah. I mean, you seem to like the conflict ...
Listen, this is the way I am. If I don't like you, I will tell you straight up. But it doesn't mean we can't do business together. I'm not going to play the fake, Hey, Jon, good to see you.
You never have to do that?
No. I don't have to do it. I've never done it.
What trait ticks you off? Disloyalty? Stupidity?
I would say both of those things. We've had some people around who have been incredibly disloyal. Once you're like that with me, you're done. You're shut off. Maybe we repair it for business reasons, but you'll always be a short-termer. If you look at the guys—Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Forrest Griffin—who have always been solid, good guys to the company, they're guys who will be with the company. Chuck Liddell works here. He's an employee. He hasn't been here in a long f------ time, but he gets a paycheck every week. That's what I mean about loyalty. Chuck Liddell gets a big fat paycheck every week, and he's out doing his thing.
What other sports are you into?
I watch football. I watch boxing.
You're still a boxing fan even seeing the underbelly?
Oh, yeah, I love boxing. Love it. I f------ hate Bob Arum, but I'm going to pay whatever it is to watch Manny Pacquiao fight, because I like Manny Pacquiao.
What are your kids, 10 and 11?
My boys are 10 and 11, and my daughter is six.
"Dad, I want to get into this MMA thing."
My kids have been training MMA since they were three.
You're cool with that?
Yeah. As a father, do I want my kids to become pro fighters? Not really. Kids are going to do whatever their passion is. My oldest son, his is football.
You let him play tackle? You don't worry about head injuries?
Football is more dangerous than fighting, no doubt about it.
Do you worry that 20 years from now, say, we're going to see data that reveals head injuries and concussions in fighters in their 40s and 50s?
Here is the reality: Let's say Tom Brady gets a concussion in the NFL. You going to pull Tom Brady out for the season? No. They're going to do these tests where he can probably come back in 13, 14 days, whatever. You get a concussion in the UFC, you're on a three-month suspension. That's the difference. Yes, fighting is a contact sport. There are definitely risks. [But there] has never been a death in the almost 20-year history of the UFC. Are guys banged up and are their joints this, that and everything else? Yeah. But talk to any professional athlete. If you play at that level, it takes a toll on your body.
There have been a lot of training injuries lately. Is there any way you can monitor your fighters' training?
They have new camps now, and you have to understand, for guys like [renowned MMA trainer] Greg Jackson, training the best [fighters] in the world is a business. I get it. So he has five to 10 guys training at the same time, all for their [own] fights. His 10 guys are all rolling together, and everybody is trying to kill each other. We never had these [injury] problems until we had these supercamps.
Anything you can do about that?
The fighters are just going to have to get smarter. [You get hurt and you] sit out for a year. That's what guys have to understand: You're out without a paycheck and missing so much opportunity. They're going to have to figure out how to train smarter.
You ready for a gay UFC fighter?
If somebody came out and said they were gay, I couldn't care less. It would be interesting to see the reaction from other fighters, but I don't think it would be that big a deal. We would probably get a lot more of the gay market tuning in to follow.
What's your relationship with Jon Jones now?
I like Jon Jones. He's a young guy under a lot of stress. You know, the toughest part isn't when you're as talented as he is, or B.J. Penn or some of these guys. It's not about talent. It's about all the other things around it when you become famous and make money.
What do you tell these guys? You see a talented fighter coming up and you see the membrane around him changing ...
I do the best I can to talk to them, walk them through what's going to happen and just try to make sure they don't implode, because I've seen it happen so many times.
An NBA team can say, This is your mentor and here is your curfew.
Yeah. But even if you take a guy in the NBA and you give him a mentor and a curfew and all this stuff, you're still dealing with a grown man with free will. He can do whatever the hell he wants to do. If he wants to do drugs, he can. If he wants to do steroids, he can. If he wants to go hang out in clubs until four, five in the morning, he can.
There is a perception that the UFC leveled off in 2012.
Leveled off? Let me put it this way: Eight out of 13 main events fell through in 2012. If we could have pulled off the fights that were supposed to happen in 2012, we would have had an even better year. But eight of 13 main events fell out and we still had a kick-ass year. If that doesn't show you that the UFC is here to stay, nothing will.
How do you determine what fans are thinking about the product you're putting out there?
Twitter. People can talk to you. There are a lot of things that I read from the fans. Some stuff that is stupid and makes absolutely no sense and other stuff that is very valid and that I agree with. The thing I love about Twitter is I can talk directly to the fans. There have been situations where I've been sitting in the arena that night and some guy's tickets get screwed up. I can see it on Twitter and we fix it.
Superfights: Jon Jones versus Anderson Silva? Silva versus Georges St-Pierre? What's most likely?
They're both likely to happen. The great thing about Anderson Silva is he falls right in the middle. He's 185 [pounds], GSP is 170, Jones is 205. Silva is the best ever, and he's right in the middle. He can fight both.
So you think that X number of months from now, Silva will fight both Jones and GSP?
Yeah. Before he retires, he will fight both. Probably. When you leave here today, Silva comes in. Me and Lorenzo [Fertitta, owner of UFC] are sitting down with Anderson, and this won't be a one-hour conversation. This will be an all-day affair.
What are you? You said promoter and president. I still see you as the face of this whole enterprise. The reality is you hold up a picture of Dana White and a picture of Anderson Silva ...
Let's not get crazy here. I'll go out in public—me, Anderson Silva and Chuck Liddell, us three? Nobody wants to talk to me, man. Everybody wants to talk to those guys. And that's what's cool about being me. When I go places with these fighters, they get mobbed, man. Mobbed. When people see me out, it's, Hey, UFC guy. I wave to 'em, and that's it. I walk around Las Vegas and every other major city all over the world like anybody else. My life is completely normal, man.
What everybody needs to understand about me is that I'm a fight fan. I'm a fight fanatic. I love fighting.
Listen, if I don't like you, I will tell you straight up. But it doesn't mean we can't do business together.
More from L. Jon Wertheim's conversation with Dana White, as well as a one-on-one video, at SI.com/mag