UFC president Dana White talks about The Ultimate Fighter: Live
UFC president Dana White opens up about 'The Ultimate Fighter' past and present
White says 'TUF' has evolved beyond a fight show with 'Jersey Shore' elements
The ratings have waned on FX, but White insists the overall situation is improved
Dana White doesn't quit. It had been a long day, with preparations for UFC 146 winding down all of last Friday and then, in the late Las Vegas afternoon, the weigh-ins at the MGM Grand Garden Arena getting the show started. But that wasn't the end of a day's work for the UFC president. His presence also was required in the evening for the final regular episode of The Ultimate Fighter: Live, with two live fights set to determine who'll get to compete for a UFC contract after putting in time on the FX reality show.
Even after Michael Chiesa and Al Iaquinta had punched their tickets to this Friday's finale, even after White had sent them and all of the rest of the young fighters into the wilds of Las Vegas after being sequestered in a no-TV, no-Internet, no-contact-with-the-outside-world house for three months, even after the fight organization had taped some interviews with the FX crew to be used as teasers for Friday's fight telecast (9 p.m. ET, FX) -- even after all of that, White had the time, energy and enthusiasm to chat with a group of writers about The Ultimate Fighter franchise, past, present and future.
In a far-ranging interview, White talked about the realities of reality TV -- everything from risks to rewards, from fighting to being goofy, from telling a lie to keeping a secret. He started with nightmares, a word he used on the final TUF to encapsulate his experience.
You said there at the end that it was a nightmare. Was that a joke?
Dana White: Every season of The Ultimate Fighter is a nightmare. I'm not joking.
Was this more of a nightmare because it was live?
White: No, I actually really enjoyed the live. You guys were here tonight. It's fun, man. It's really fun live.
What's the next seven days like for [the fighters]? Because this has never happened. Do they go from the house to --
White: Yeah, so I went and talked to them all and I told them, "Chill out." You know, this is going to be interesting. We've never done this before. It's the untold part of The Ultimate Fighter: what happens when everybody leaves the place. It's mayhem. It's craziness. We're in Vegas. These guys have been locked up for five weeks, no, these guys have been locked up for 13 weeks, 12 weeks, whatever it is. And now we're setting them out into the wild. So I told them, "Chill out." They'll go stay at Palace Station tonight. "Do what you gotta do. Be cool. Have fun. But you're fighting next weekend." Everybody's fighting next weekend. And so we'll see what happens. So they go to Palace Station, then everybody moves into the Palms, as normal during fight week on a Monday.
What would have happened if one of the winners tonight had gotten a big cut on his head or whatever and had to be out next week?
White: No different than guys training and sparring in the week leading up to the fight. Obviously it's a little tougher when you're in there ... it's the catch-22 for The Ultimate Fighter: Live. You want an awesome semifinal, but not too awesome, though. You know what I mean?
Would you have had to pull somebody and put somebody in their place? "Sorry, man, you were in the finals, but that sucks for you"?
White: Yep. Then we wouldn't know who was the ultimate fighter. It's what's wrong with tournament style. It's why I don't like tournament style and why you don't do it anymore.
So that said, you're still planning on doing it live next season?
White: Yeah. Listen, you guys know as well as anybody, we've got a lot of work to do here. We've got a lot of work to do, we've got a lot of things that we need to figure out. But we will do the work and we will figure it out.
What would you say is the biggest reward of the live show?
White: Live. There's no putting it in the can. There's no keeping it a secret. You're families get to see you. Even though your families don't get to see you [in person], they get to see you [on TV] every Friday, know what I mean? They get to follow your progression there at home, not sit around wondering what the hell is going on. Live is the real deal. I love it. This is the most engaged I've been in a season of The Ultimate Fighter in a long time. I've been at every fight except one. It's awesome. I love the live aspect of it. We've just got to figure out a lot of other things.
What are those things? What are some of the things you'd like to fix?
White: Things we need to fix with FX.
Like what? Can you elaborate?
White: Like what night we're on.
That's the big one.
So what's the --
White: It's all a work in progress. We've been in this Fox deal for months. There's a lot of work to do here. You guys have heard me say, "These next two years are a lot more important than the last 10." It's a lot of work.
Do you know which night it'll be on next season?
White: I'm going to Fox on Tuesday, and I'm meeting with everybody: FX, Fox Sports, Fuel. I've got a lot of work to do between now and next season, whenever next season is -- live, taped, whatever it might be.
So that's not set in stone?
White: I don't think anything is ever set in stone. It's up to us and what we think is best for the Ultimate Fighter brand, the network, the UFC, everybody, and the fighters. The thing about us, we're not afraid to take chances. We're not afraid to try new things. We're not afraid to push the limits of what we can do with this sport and this brand. We are always testing the waters and trying new things.
Doing this thing live, it seems that one of the things that happens is that the fights become even more emphasized. Some past seasons, all of the hijinks in the house were a big deal. There's still some of that, but it wasn't --
White: It wasn't the focus. The focus was the fights. This is a live sporting event every Friday night, where you get to see what they did all week ... it's kind of like a 24/7 but you get a fight at the end. They actually fight at the end of the show. Every show is like that. I love the format. I think it's great. It's just dialing this thing in and figuring out all the things to make the show as great as we can.
Do you think the way the fighters responded to the format had something to do with there not being that kind of controversial character this season?
White: Well, it's not about controversial characters. This is what I think the difference is, too, this season -- and you guys have never been here before, so you wouldn't understand this, but guys in previous seasons would tell you: While you're here doing this, the reason you have such great "reality" is, it doesn't feel [expletive] real. You're walking around, and after Day 2 they're used to the cameras. This stuff isn't airing live. You know it's not happening. It doesn't feel real to these guys. When you fight on television every Friday night, live, it's just a different feeling. It's a completely different feeling than when we taped the show. It's weird.
How would you characterize the ratings? It seems like there's a positive and a negative. The positive is it's a whole new audience; the Spike audience had seen the show. The negative: [Ratings] are a little lower. So how do you view them?
White: Well, it's always a positive when you have new viewers watching. Friday nights are a bad night for us. We know that. We would never go out and air a show that we really cared about on Friday night. It's the position we're in. It's the position FX is in. And this isn't FX saying, "We want this thing on Friday nights." The UFC deal happened like that. [Snaps fingers.] I mean, we did the deal in [expletive] September, you know what I mean? FX, their s--- is already laid out: their shows, new programming, the schedule. The Ultimate Fighter got dropped on them. They weren't, like, "Oh, s---, let's go out and acquire The Ultimate Fighter." That got dropped on FX.
So for being in the position that we're all in, FX has been fantastic. They love the brand as much as we do, and they want to do what's best for everybody. This thing just got sprung on Fox as a whole. So there are some things that just need to be worked out. You know, the fans, the media, everybody is [expletive] harsh, starts wanting to hammer everybody and go, "Oh, it's [expletive] Friday night, and this sucks and that sucks." It's all a work in progress. It's not black and white, It's not as simple as it seems. "Oh, FX, they're [expletive] stupid. Why would they throw it on Friday night?" Because that's the night they had. It's the only night they had.
They sell all that s---, you know? This isn't Spike, you know what I mean? On Spike, we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted to. What, are we gonna bump Manswers? [expletive] 1,000 Ways to Die? You know what I mean? C'mon. It was awesome. I'm not knocking them. It sounds like I'm making fun of them. I'm not. But they're not FX, you know what I mean? You got [expletive] Sons of Anarchy. You've got all these shows that are nominated, award-winning shows. You don't just bump Sons of Anarchy over here. We had a lot more freedom over at Spike than we do at FX. But we'll figure it out.
Would you ever consider doing another, not a comeback season, but a season featuring guys who've been in the UFC who are familiar names?
White: I loved it. You know what I loved the most about that season? The winner actually became the champion, won the world title against Georges St-Pierre.
Would you ever do it again?
White: Of course. Yeah. Enough time has gone by where there's enough guys out there where you could do that kind of show.
The next one, maybe?
White: I don't know. Is that what you want? Are you asking me to do it?
Well, people have asked me what I thought about it, and I've said the comeback show would rejuvenate the brand. A lot of people really responded to that.
White: Would rejuvenate the Ultimate Fighter brand?
White: It always makes me laugh. Seriously. Seriously, think about this: "rejuvenating the Ultimate Fighter brand" and "it's stale" and all this. Do you like fights? It's a [expletive] fight show. It's a fight show. This isn't [expletive] Jersey Shore. It's not the same [expletive] crew hanging out and partying, and he's mad at him, and she's mad at her. It's a [expletive] fight show. We're looking for the new talent, and the show has proven itself throughout the years. How many champions have come from The Ultimate Fighter? How many top contenders? How many of the sport's biggest stars have come from The Ultimate Fighter? It is what it is. The [expletive] show is a fight show.
To "recharge the brand" and all this s---? You know, people were asking me, "Do you think this new format works?" Somebody asked me this the other day. And seriously, guys, sometimes I have a hard time not [expletive] going off when I get these kinds of [expletive] questions. "So this new format on The Ultimate Fighter: What do you think of it? Do you think it works?" Uh, it's [expletive] fights. It better work. I mean, that's what we do. That's the business I'm in. If people are tired of seeing fights, I'm [expletive].
Yeah, but as we were saying before about the show going live: It is about the fights. The old format, well, you just said, "This isn't Jersey Shore. But there were seasons where, with all the nonsense going on in the house, it was like Jersey Shore with a fight at the end.
White: Right, the two meshed together. So you had all the crazy, goofy stuff, and --
So there has been an evolution.
White: It's true. You're right. And the question might be: Do we need that goofy stuff back? Is that what people like, too? That's the question. You've got a segment of the population that's going to watch it because they love the reality and, OK, the fights are OK. Then you've got the guys who are, like [expletive] this, this is stupid s---, I want to see the fights and see who the best guy is. So there is a happy medium in there.
The reality is, when you get the goofy guys, it is what it is. We picked this guy and he's a [expletive] idiot. What are we gonna do? He's in the show. But then you get guys who have serious emotional problems and a lot of other things, but are real fighters, like Chris Leben, which I think is fascinating to watch. When you have a guy like Chris Leben, who is so self-destructive and can fly off the handle, yet is a very tough, good fighter that people like to watch. So that's what I'm saying: We've got to figure this thing out, what is the right combination.
But I do love live. Live works. The thing that I love about live, and if you're a fight fan, a sports fan or you like to bet: The sports books have this on. All of the sports books have this now. You go in to the sports book for The Ultimate Fighter, and you get to sit there and watch the reality of what's going on that week, and then you can make your decision and go up and bet on the fight. It's pretty cool.
And I'm talking about a small segment of lunatic, gambling ... me. That's how I was when I was a fight fan. It was all about studying everything that's going on leading up to the fight -- who's what, what did he weigh in at and what do you think duh duh duh duh, and then you make your bet on the fight. And then you watch the fight, and it's so much fun.
Have you found the promotion to be tricky, because in the past -- say, in the Kimbo [Slice] season -- you knew what happened, you could package things and you could promote at the end of the show, "This is what you're going to see next week," teased? You can't really do that because it's all happening --
White: But what you can do is what he and I were talking about. Yes, there's no packaged, canned crazy stuff. What we would do back then, what we were going to show you is going to happen next week, is if, you know, one guy pissed on the other guy's fruit. These are the things that are going to happen. Something explosive happened. The reality thing that we were talking about. What you get here is, you learn about these fighters, you see what goes on in training, what's happening. And then I pick the fights live, right there. You know what's going to happen next week: These two are going to fight. And if you're interested in fights and the competition, then you should be interested.
Can you explain, uh, Urijah [Faber], I don't know if you heard what he said about the whole Ivan Menjivar thing. What exactly happened there? [Editor's note: After bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz injured a knee and had to withdraw from his July 7 title defense against Faber, his opposing coach on The Ultimate Fighter: Live, the UFC announced that it would name Faber's new opponent on TUF. The opponent for the interim title bout ended up being Renen Barão, but ...]
White: I lied to him.
At the end of the show [two Fridays ago] you apologized to him, but no one knew what you meant.
White: Because I lied to him. This show, even though it's not taped, we want to break some s--- on the show, you know what I mean? And with you [expletives], it's tough to do. You guys are out looking for the next big you know. And so what we did was ... I said to him the last time I saw him in here, "I'll let you know who you're going to fight. I'll let you know when I find out." So I was avoiding him. He [expletive] calls me, I didn't think we was calling about the fight, and he asks me who he was fighting. Oh [expletive]. I know if I tell him, he's going to tell his camp, his camp's going to tell this guy and that guy, and that's how it's going to get out. So I said, "You're fighting Ivan Menjivar." He said, "OK, cool."
So then we had Menjuvar, Barão, [Michael] McDonald and [Brad] Pickett all thinking they were flying to Las Vegas. They all thought they were. Menjivar thought his tickets were being booked and he was coming to Las Vegas. And the Menjivar thing never got out, so Urijah is busting my balls about it and everything else. He never did tell. He didn't tell anybody.
So when you brought out Barão ...
White: [Faber] had no idea.
He didn't see Barão in the back?
White: He had no idea. This whole complex is mostly us. Down there is our warehouse for our merchandise. Barão was down there. Then once the fights started they brought him through the back. He came in here and he sat in my office until we brought him out. So when Barao was announced, [Faber] had no idea. That's why I looked at him and said, "Sorry, bro."
Did you watch Dominick Cruz's body language? It was almost hard to watch him, how crushed he was. Have you talked to him about, mentally, how he's doing through all of this?
White: This kid, this was going to be the biggest purse of his entire career. Biggest purse, biggest fight, off the biggest stage ever. I mean, that kid couldn't have been kicked in the nuts harder. I think he's handled it like a man, staying in here. He's competed hard to get his team and himself the win. And by the way, Faber won tonight, Faber gets the car, the bike, everything. Cruz gets nothing.
In the past, both coaches got cars, no?
White: Yeah. Not now. Could things be worse for this [expletive] kid? All he had to do was win one fight tonight, and [the coaching winner] would have been decided in the finale. The kid who won the finale, the coach would win. Tonight, Cruz lost everything. He lost the car, the [expletive] bike, everything. His big-money fight. And one of these guys is going to end up with an [interim belt]. Seriously, it's like getting dragged out into the parking lot and beat with sticks. It couldn't be worse for the kid.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.
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