Catching up with Dana White on eve of UFC's network TV debut
UFC prez Dana White says he's 'nervous' for his promotion's network TV debut
Fans can watch UFC on Fox for free, with plenty of time for Pacquiao afterward
The telecast is one fight only, so there's a lot riding on Velazquez-Dos Santos
If you've watched even just a few minutes of an NFL game on Fox recently, chances are you've heard the news. This Saturday night the UFC debuts on the network with a live heavyweight championship bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. And yeah, it's a pretty big deal.
It's not because it's never been done; the now-defunct EliteXC put on a live event in prime time (aptly named "Primetime") on CBS back in 2008. But the UFC -- unquestionably the sport's premier organization -- has long resisted the siren's song of a network deal ... until now.
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Saturday night's event isn't your typical UFC fare, however. While pay-per-view cards typically feature at least five fights, usually with a few prelims thrown in for good measure, this is a one-fight, one-hour special. It's the main event, sans appetizer. Think of it as a sample to get you hooked before the UFC's deal with Fox begins in earnest in 2012.
Will it work? That may depend on whether Velasquez (the heavyweight champ) and Dos Santos (the challenger) can deliver with the pressure from their boss and from fight fans everywhere cranked up to an all-time high. It's a gamble, in other words, and it's a big one.
One man who hopes it pays off is UFC president Dana White, who says he's essentially giving away the short-term pay-per-view dollars in this case just to spread the gospel of the UFC to the millions of unwitting congregants out there. With the event just a few days away, I sat down to talk to White about what we should expect from the UFC's network TV debut, and what he thinks he can accomplish with just one hour of America's time.
SI.com: Tell the truth: on a scale of 1-10, what would you say your stress level is at right now?
Dana White: [Laughs] I wouldn't say I'm stressed out. This is what we do and we do it all the time. I'm nervous. This is the first time in a long time that I've been nervous. I don't get nervous anymore. I get excited and I get pumped up for fights. But you know, I'm nervous for this fight. I'm genuinely nervous like I was at UFC 30, when we did our first one.
SI.com: Tell me a little about how you guys made the final decision to only do one fight, no matter what. At first it seemed like you were considering the possibility of running another fight or some highlights if you had time. How did you decide to just focus on this one fight?
White: It was [Fox Sports Media Group Chairman] David Hill. I went in and said, listen, USA's Tuesday Night Fights and ABC's Wide World of Sports, we all used to watch those, all of us who were big boxing fans. I didn't miss Tuesday Night Fights ever. Every Tuesday night I was on the couch. But when I was younger, I remember my uncles all getting around the TV and watching Wide World of Sports. When we told them the fight was going to be the heavyweight championship, they said, 'Do that, just do the one fight, the heavyweight championship.' It makes sense. That's really the way it went down. It was David Hill's call.
SI.com: But this is an awful lot of pressure for one fight. I think every MMA fan has had the experience of inviting friends over to watch a fight, telling them how great it will be, and then it doesn't deliver. Are you concerned that this fight might not deliver and you'll miss your chance to make a good first impression on new viewers?
White: If I had to bet everything -- and I really am betting big on this -- I would bet on this fight. I would bet that this fight is going to deliver. I would bet that this fight is going to be exciting and entertaining. And I don't know if you saw any of the UFC Primetime, but the stories behind these two athletes are amazing. Plus, the other great thing I love on a fight night like this is you can watch the UFC live and free on Fox and you can watch the [Manny] Pacquiao fight too.
SI.com: That's another complicating factor. What effect do you think the Pacquiao-Marquez fight will have on yours, and vice versa?
White: I think it's going to be big time for both of us. Let me tell you, a couple months ago when Floyd Mayweather fought, that same night we had a free fight on Spike TV. We did almost two million viewers that night, and then Floyd did 1.3 million pay-per-view buys. The way that I see it is, people saw that night as a fight night. You could stay home, watch the whole UFC -- we had five fights on that night -- and then when you switched over a half-hour later, you could watch Floyd fight. It works out perfect, and I think the same thing's going to happen again on Saturday because Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez always deliver, and then an hour later you'll see Manny Pacquiao fight.
SI.com: But you've been asking people to stay home for a lot of fight nights recently. You just had UFC 138 last weekend, now the Fox fight, and then UFC 139 next weekend. That's a lot of Saturday nights for fans to devote to staying home and watching TV.
White: I agree. My philosophy on that is, you ask people to watch a lot of football on Sundays, but they do it. As long as you keep putting on great, entertaining fights, people are going to stay home and watch them. I believe there is a huge number out there -- the number is massive -- of people who are hardcore fight fans, and there's an even bigger number of casual fight fans, and then there's the people who will tune in when they hear the buzz about a certain fight or certain fighters. So the pool is so big that it's not always going to be the same people sitting home every Saturday. The pool is big enough that you can have millions of different people home watching fights at different times.
SI.com: Do you think there are that many people who haven't seen the UFC, haven't developed an opinion on it yet, who will be seeing it for the first time? In other words, do you see this as introducing a new audience to MMA, or shaping their existing perceptions of it?
White: I truly believe that millions of new people will watch. Just the countdown show that we do, UFC Primetime, it did almost three million viewers. Almost three million people watched the show about the fight. I think we introduced a ton of new people to it, and I think millions of people will watch the UFC for the first time on Saturday.
SI.com: Fox seems to have really gotten behind you. When I watch the NFL I feel like I see a plug for this fight every 15 minutes.
White: They've been amazing. Think about this: we're not even in business with these guys yet. Our deal doesn't start until January, and look what they've done for us so far. They're already the best partners we've ever had. It's incredible. Wait until we're doing four fights a year on big Fox, The Ultimate Fighter will be live on FX, and we're going to do six fights a year on FX, and Fuel TV is basically going to become the UFC channel.
SI.com: You just had an event aired via tape-delay in the U.S. on Spike TV. When you move over to Fox, will that be the end of tape-delayed UFC events? Will everything be live at that point?
White: Everything's going to be live. We're working on everything being live. Fox is into live sporting events, and that's what we're working on doing. Think about this, as big as we've become, we've never been on a sports network. We're on a sports network now. That's where we belong.
SI.com: To a lot of us in this industry, it seems like MMA and the UFC have been big for a while now, but when you see that UFC on Fox logo and hear them plugging your heavyweight title fight during an NFL game, does it feel different? Do you feel legitimized by this?
White: Yeah, it's obviously an incredible milestone for me. If you look at all the things we've done and all the great achievements we've had over the last 10 years, this is by far the biggest. What I'm really happy about is these athletes who compete in the UFC, other athletes who compete in other sports know and respect how talented they are. Now, for them to be recognized on the same platform as all the other professional athletes, that's what I love the most about it.
But the way that I approached this whole coming-out party on Fox is we live in this little bubble. I live in a world of armbars and rear-naked chokes and triangle chokes and ground-and-pound and all that stuff, but there're millions and millions of people who have never even heard of any of that and don't know anything about the UFC. As big as the UFC may seem, it's not. We're so far from mainstream still, and now we've been given the opportunity to do it. That's why Saturday is so important.
SI.com: But don't you think that some people will just never come around to something like MMA? They see the blood and they see guys elbowing each other in the face, and a certain segment of the population is just not into that. How mainstream do you think something like this can get?
White: Let me tell you what my philosophy on that is. Take the Masters, which, on CBS, will do something like 12 million viewers. I stumble upon golf, I'm like, what the hell is this? I'm changing the channel. I stumble upon a cricket game, I'm changing the channel. So definitely, there are people who are not going to be into it. But what we're doing now, and what is the biggest thing for us and what boxing stopped doing, is we're investing in the future of the sport and of this brand. By putting this on, there's going to be a whole generation of people who grow up with the UFC on television, just like I did with boxing when I was a young kid, and just like many people did with football. It becomes nostalgic in your life and it becomes something you remember from growing up. That's what we're doing by putting this on television. How old are you?
SI.com: I'm 32.
White: I'm 42, and when I was growing up there were huge, massive fights: [Muhammad] Ali fights, Larry Holmes fights, the heavyweight champion of the world used to fight on free TV. And back then, you only had channel 3, channel 5, channel 8 and channel 13. So the entire population either had to watch that or watch one of the three other channels. You grow up with it. And like you said, some people are just not going to be into it. But take football. Football is incredibly violent. But we all grew up with it, so it's no big deal. Boxing is incredibly violent, but we grew up with it so we don't think about it. The UFC is actually ... in the 18-year history of this thing, there's never been a death or a serious injury. In 18 years. You see where I'm going with this? You'll have this entire generation that will grow up with it and won't just be terrified of it like some people are now.
SI.com: How much of this Fox thing for you is about trying to create something similar to the boxing you grew up with?
White: No doubt about it, that's definitely it. That's 100 percent why I've gone toward this model, and how I know this model works. Not only here, but all around the world. That's one of my things about combat sports. Think about the biggest sports in the United States. You've got basketball, football, and baseball. Those are really the big three. Now, if you take the most famous athletes from any of those sports ... think about the rest of the world. Does anybody in the rest of the world give a [expletive] about any of those guys? Are they known worldwide and famous all over the world, so that if they went into England or these other countries, they'd be mobbed?
No. So who was? When we talk about worldwide, it's Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee. As human beings, I don't care what country you come from or what language you speak, fighting's in our DNA. We get it, we like it, and we're infatuated by who the toughest man in the world is. Manny Pacquiao, this little hundred-and-something-pound guy from the Philippines, is known around the world. Fighting is, as human beings, what we're really into.
SI.com: Did you always think the UFC would get here, to this point?
White: Yes, and when you watch the first interviews I did after we first bought the UFC and I was saying this kind of stuff, people thought I was crazy. I don't think people think I'm so crazy now.
SI.com: Now that you're just a few days away, does it feel like you thought it would feel?
White: It feels good and I'm excited, yeah, but I'm nervous, man. I'm excited and I'm nervous, and I don't like to be nervous.
SI.com: For those people who have watched your pay-per-views and your Spike TV shows for years, will this show look and feel different from what they're used to seeing?
White: I think this is definitely going to feel like a Fox Sports product, and you're going to feel like you're watching a Fox Sports event, but the walk-ins, all that, all the things that have made the UFC what it is, those are all going to stay the same.
SI.com: And what about your undercard fighters on this one, like Clay Guida and Ben Henderson? That's a good fight to stick on Facebook.
White: We'll turn that around quick and get it on television.
SI.com: On Spike TV or on one of the Fox properties?
White: First of all, those fights will be beamed all over the world, but here in the United States we'll get them on TV quick.
SI.com: Lastly, when this is over, the day or the week after, how much of an immediate impact do you think this one show, this one fight really makes?
White: I think it raises the bar. Every year, we have taken this thing to another level. This is a great kickoff to taking things to the next level with this thing on Fox.
SI.com: But do you think you'll wake up on Monday morning and it will feel like the UFC is at a new level?
White: I do. You know what I think's going to happen on Monday morning? I think Monday morning all the water-cooler talk is going to be about this fight weekend. They're going to be talking about the UFC on Fox and the Manny Pacquiao fight. That's what I think.
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