One-on-One with UFC President Dana White
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.]
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.]
What was it like going to a job you had no passion for?
It sucked. I can't imagine people that have to get up every day and go to a job they hate just doing it for a paycheck. It's funny you ask me that question, because we were at some casino about a month ago.
I pull in and the valet goes, 'Can I talk to you for you minute?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' So we start talking, and he's like, 'I been doing this job.' You know, he's telling me about working valet, and you get caught in these jobs like valet and bellman because guys make a lot money and it's cash. You know, you get stuck in that job, this cash money job.
Even though it's good money, it's not what anybody wants to do for a living. It's not what anybody wants to get up and do every day.
I told the guy, 'Whatever your deal is, whatever it is out there that you want, leave here tonight. Quit your f------ job tonight and go do it. Because guess what? If it doesn't work out, you can come back and do this any time. You can do this when you're 40; you can do this when you're 50. Anybody can do this job.
Get the hell out of here. Go for it. Give it a shot. Worst thing that can happen is you fail and come back and do this, but at least you tried and gave it a shot.'
Whitey Bulger was basically the reason you got out of Boston, right?
Yeah, that's the reason I left. I had always planned on coming back to Vegas, I just didn't know when. I had a good thing going in Boston, at least I thought I did.
What was that?
We were training people, training fighters, we were training businessmen, we were training housewives. We were teaching anybody who wanted to learn how to box and I was making money. I was paying my bills and I enjoyed what I did.
I was having fun. So, yeah, I wasn't planning on leaving when I did. Then I got the phone call and I literally -- I had this pretty cool little place. I had a one-bedroom condo on a second floor with a huge deck, and I left everything there: furniture, television, stereos, bedroom set, everything I owned I left in that condo when I left.
I packed a suitcase with clothes and came out here. It was on a Sunday afternoon.
What was the call, 2,500 bucks?
Yes, 2,500 bucks. Yeah, well they had walked into a class. It was a guy named Kevin Weeks and he was one of his guys. Kevin Weeks was Whitey Bulger's right-hand man.
They walked into my class, 'You owe us 2,500 bucks.' 'For what?' They were just like, 'Figure it out. Get it.' I said, 'I don't have it. '
2,500 bucks was like asking me for 25,000. I don't have it. They said, Well, get it from your girlfriend. I said, She doesn't have it either. They said, Well, you're going to have to figure it out.
So I avoided them for a while. Maybe a month, month and a half. One day at my house I got a phone call. They said, You have until 1 tomorrow to come up with that money. I said, OK. Sounds good. Packed my stuff, bought a Delta plane ticket, and got the hell out of there.
You've been here ever since.
I've been in Vegas ever since, yeah.
I was telling a friend, I was saying one of my favorite things to do is picture other commissioners of sports doing some of the stuff you do. Looking for David Stern to have these Twitter battles and Roger Goodell to wear what you're wearing.
Right. Yeah, I'm pretty lucky in that this is the way it's always been, so it's not that shocking to people.
But you have a guy give you less than full effort or a guy pulls out of a fight -- remember Anderson in the Middle East -- you'll call that guy out.
Yeah. The thing with Abu Dhabi with Anderson is that I was the biggest supporter of Anderson, so I was the first guy saying he was the pound for pound best fighter in the world and greatest ever.
So when I see him put on a performance. It wasn't like he just put on a lackluster performance. It was insane. The stuff he was doing inside the octagon was weird and crazy and I was pissed. So you know when I'm pissed about something I'm going to let you know about it.
I also care so much about the sport and the brand and everything else, and I think that we were not represented well that night. I think that the fans, it's a big deal. It's a big deal for a fan to stay home on a Saturday night. We're all so busy and have all these other things going on in our lives.
For a guy to say, I'm going to stay home on a Saturday night and I'm going to spend money to watch this program, I want to deliver for those people every time.
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.
You sit down and have a real interview or spend a day with Ronda Rousey, she's a different breed, man. She's a Diaz brother trapped in a really pretty girl's body. I'm telling you, man. She's mean and nasty and she likes to fight and finish people.
She doesn't want to go in -- she never wants to go in and win in a decision. She wants to go in there and she wants to hurt you.
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 and he's going to pull something off that nobody ever has before. It's going to be unique, it's going to be interesting, it's going to be fun. He's a killer.
I think that Jon Jones is. Jon Jones is a finisher. Jon Jones goes in there and finishes people. He gets a bad rap because whatever it is about his personality. Some people don't like; some people love. But Jon Jones is a finisher, too.
I can tell you this: When Ronda Rousey comes into the picture in the UFC, there is going to be a lot of people that aren't really into women's fighting and are going to think that women's fighting doesn't belong in the UFC.
Once they see Ronda Rousey fight, I think they'll change their mind. Yeah. You could line up 100 women with judo gold medalists, you know, they could win gold medalists every year for the last ten years, it does not mean that they're a fighter, you know.
I don't mean to sound like I take shots at Gina when I say Gina is pretty and I wasn't chasing her around. But Gina Carano does not have the desire and the fire and the meanness and the nastiness that Ronda Rousey has. Believe me when tell you. Completely different.
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 can't monitor every fighter.
No. That's like saying, you know, when they say, 'So what are you going to do about steroids?' What are you going to do about guys who get busted for this and that?
First of all, we're the most regulated sport on the planet other than boxing. The government regulates us. The government drug tests and does all this other stuff, right? I have 475 fighters under contract from every country all over this planet. There is no way that I can monitor anything they're doing.
If you're a grown man and you're going to take steroids and the government is gonna be testing you, you're an idiot. We can't fix stupid, you know what I mean? You're stupid and you're taking a chance that you could get caught, tarnish your career, get fined, and not get paid for a year or however long they suspend you.
What more could I do to these guys? Take them out for a public stoning? We'll all get in it a circle and throw rocks at 'em? There is nothing else you can do to these guys.
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.
I always said for as outspoken as you are, or politically—
It's 2013, and I think that it's crazy. I think that it's actually insane that it's 2013 and the government can tell two people they don't love each other.
If this guy says he loves this guy and wants to marry him, what do you care? How does that affect or change your life whatsoever? And sometimes when I ask some people that I would consider weirdos that question, their answer just blows my mind that it's 2013 and something could come out of somebody's mouth like that, you know.
So I know this is a political -- you know, politically this is a big beef. I've gotten into personal arguments with people over this. I just did around Thanksgiving got into a huge argument over this whole thing.
Believe me, I could care else if one of our guys came out and said he was gay. Wouldn't change my opinion of him at all. I guarantee you we would probably get a lot more of the gay market tuning in to follow.
Look at Ellen. Look at anybody who has come out and admitted that they're gay. There is a pretty big support group in the gay community.
Could care less, man, and I think a lot of our fighters wouldn't either. Going to have some here or there that are going to say some stupid shit. And when they do, the gay community can't go crazy about it. It's going to happen. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions.
What if somebody said I'm not fighting him because he's gay?
Yeah, you are. You're going to fight him.
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. And it will affect his life in ever way, shape, and form. If you're not happy in your personal life, you're not going to perform well professionally.
You told me the story, and I can't remember the specifics. You met some celebrity or someone and they didn't give you the time day and it stuck with you. You said, 'When somebody shouts out to me in a crowd or someone says can I talk to you...
That story you are talking about was when I was a kid. It was at the library here in Vegas and it was the guy from like the Channel 13 news. I was a little kid and I ran up to him and I was like, 'Hey, could I get your autograph?' Could not have been a bigger d---.
Yeah, I was so blown away by that. That was like the first celebrity I had ever seen. He was such a d---. Yeah, you know, I said I would never treat people like that and never be like that.
Recently me and my wife were at Nickelodeon Awards and we were backstage with the Black Eyed Peas in their dressing room hanging out.
First of all, this thing is in L.A., so every guy on the planet wants to get their kids backstage with all the people that are back there. They had Bieber, Selena Gomez, all these people are back there. So my kids are back there and they're taking pictures with all these people and stuff.
There [are] no other kids backstage. No other kids. Just my kids, and I think I have Lorenzo's daughter with me, too. This was a few years ago. You name it, A-list, all the A-listers that the kids would love are backstage.
The biggest d---head back there was Justin Timberlake.
Don't say that.
Just such a complete jack off, yeah.
Blew your kids off?
Just couldn't have been a bigger d---.
He's a big UFC fan, I thought.
I don't know if he's a UFC fan or not, but I'm not a big Timberlake fan. Takes two seconds to say hi to a kid. Takes two seconds. I never run by anybody. If you're a fan of the UFC and you like it or your kids like it, why would I not want to talk to you? Why would I not?
There is a perception that the UFC leveled off in 2012.
Leveled off? Let me put it this way: Eight out of 12 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 12 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.
Things that I wouldn't have known. We had a case a few shows ago where we made a big mistake and there is usually what we call kills we have to do because a camera guy is there. We'll have a camera up in the stands.
You kill the seats around him so that people can see. We forget to do the kills, so I found out on Twitter. People were tweeting me a picture and saying, This is what I'm looking at. I call my people and we're like, S---, we forget to kill these seats.
We had to move an entire section that night into different seats to make it right. If there wasn't Twitter, we wouldn't have known that until Monday.
You don't have any tweets where you say, oh, I shouldn't have called that guy a d- bag?
If I call you a d-bag, you're probably a d-bag. No, I don't regret anything, you know.
The other thing that happens -- I don't know if you saw this thing last week. I'm so sick of this country. Everybody, this country is becoming so p----ified it's unbelievable. Everything. Everything, man. Everything offends somebody. Get thicker skin.
This country is turning into just a bunch of sissies, man. It's unbelievable. Never seen anything like it.
This homeless thing that I did, did you see this thing on Fox?
David Stern doesn't do that.
Yeah, good for him. They asked me to do it, I did it. The guy is a comedian. Rob Riggle, they wanted me to play a homeless guy, okay? So I got these people talking about homeless, and anybody who watches this and who wants to do their homework on it, I dare you. Go ahead. Go out and do your homework.
And I'm going to say 15 years, but it's probably been more than 15 years. And what that means is, just so you know we've owned the UFC for 13 years, and the UFC didn't start making money until 2006, right? We bought it in 2001 and didn't start making money until 2006, okay?
You can go back 15 years, which is when I was broke and had no money, and before that I had been donating to the Las Vegas Mission for over 15 years. Even when I was broke and didn't have a dime.
So I've been donating to the homeless forever. That doesn't include what I've given people on the streets. What have you done? Have you been donating to them for over 15 years? Shut your face and mind your business, you know what I mean?
Did you vote?
Are you political?
Not a very political guy, but this country is in a big mess right now. We're in big trouble. We need to do something. Things need to be fixed.
With the economy? Culturally?
Economy. Economy, man. Economy, cultural, a lot of things. This country has never been weaker than it is right now. This country is weak right now.
What's the best story you never told?
The best story I never told publically to the media? I was just talking about it yesterday. Probably the best story I've never told. In 1995 or '96, I lived with Mark Wahlberg for about four months. We were training for a movie. He was going to play a boxer. t was a boxer named Vinnie Curto. The Vinnie Curto Story was the movie. De Niro was in it, Wahlberg, Tom Sizemore. Tons of big names at that time.
So in 1995 you leave Boston.
So 1995, 1996 I'm living here in Vegas. I move to L.A. for four months to live with Wahlberg. Live at his house and train him getting ready for boxing movie called the Vinnie Curto Story. Wahlberg was playing Vinnie Curto; Robert De Niro was playing Angelo Dundee...
So I'm out there training him and everything. I'm training him for this boxing movie. It's cool. We're out in L.A.
Actually, Wahlberg had just finished Boogie Nights. So I went to the Premier of Boogie Nights with him in New York, in L.A. We went through this whole thing.
It was a really cool, fun time training every day, boxing. So one day we're at set and Robert De Niro comes in. De Niro is there because Angelo Dundee, they flew Dundee in. We're in a room way smaller than this. Tiny little room, right? And Angelo Dundee is talking and Robert De Niro is filming him with a camcorder because he wants to get all of his mannerisms and see the way he talks and everything else.
So you're De Niro and I'm me. We're all standing up. So they get done with this whole thing with Dundee and we leave. I think we went and ate or something. Me and Mark went and ate and came back and Mark grabs me and pulls me aside and says, 'Dana, you got to stop staring at Bobby. You're freaking him out.'
I'm like, 'Mark it's f---ing Robert De Niro, man. I'm in a room with DiNiro and I guess I was staring at him the whole time.' He's like, I'm telling you man, if you don't stop staring at him you're not going to be able to go back in the room. You're totally freaking him out. So I said, 'Okay, I'll stop staring at De Niro.'
But I got in the room, and holy f---, Robert DiNiro. So I think that's the story I never told.
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.
I'm just putting this out there, I'm saying this, that I'm an attention whore and I'm out trying to get the spotlight and trying to become famous. I hear people say so much stupid s---.
If people knew how many things I turn down that I don't do. You're never going to see me in a movie, okay? You know how many movie roles I been offered? A zillion. I been offered a zillion.
You'll never see me in a movie.
The things I turn down around here, what you have to understand is there is a lot of promotion and things that need to be done, whether it's promoting the show on radio, television, this newspaper, this interview, da, da, da.
The fighters don't want to do anything.
You've been at this for 13 years and you're a 365-day guy.
For people who think that I'm more famous than most of the fighters, believe me, you take me out in public, the fighters are who the people love and the people want to talk to and who the people want to see. If you bump into me, not cool.
And that's what's cool about being me, too. In the position that I'm in, when I go places with these fighters, these fighters get mobbed, man. Mobbed. When people see me out, Hey, UFC guy. I wave to 'em and that's it.
Nobody is mobbing me. I live my life like anybody else. I'm out in public all the time, you know what I mean? You don't see me surrounded by an entourage.
My life is completely normal, man. Your life can be as weird as you want to make it or it an be as normal as you want it to be. A lot of these people you see with the entourages and all the people and the security around them, they want their life to be weird. They want to be noticed.
I think it was Philip Seymour Hoffman who once said, You're only as famous as you want to be.
Yeah. It's totally true. It's so phony and fake and not real. It's just crazy. I don't buy into that s---. I walk around Las Vegas and every other major city all over the world like anybody else.
If you want to act like a weirdo and surround yourself with security and run through places and come in the back entrance and all that s---, you can play those games and do stuff if you want to.
But I don't care who you are. If you're the biggest star in the world and you wanted to be normal, you could be normal. Your life is abnormal because that's exactly the way you want it to be. That's the perception you want create.
Your kids are probably at the age, too where...
I'll tell you what, my family has really... My family is complete adjusted to it. They're used to it and they're totally cool with it. Or we could sit there and have dinner and have five security guys around the table telling people to back off and we could act like complete weirdos. That's weird. That's weird.