The Origins of Dana White – Boxercise, Mobsters & Starting the UFC
Everything about Dana White plays perfectly into his role as UFC President.
Built like a Las Vegas casino bouncer, the powerfully bald 51-year-old has been the near-omnipresent face of the UFC since 2001.
White’s blustering persona – slathered across an endless stream of public and press appearances – contrasts sharply with the understated, rarely seen president’s of other sporting franchises.
You’ll never hear the President of the International Olympic Committee declare an industry peer a “fucking cokehead,” like White did of Oscar De La Hoya.
Or the President of the NBA, a man who resembles a nebbish, mid-tier practice CPA, answer “fuck that guy” when asked about a New York Times reporter, as did White.
Nor would you ever hear the President of FIFA, a debonaire European gentleman conversant in three languages, label another sporting organisation “an absolute fucking shit show,” as White did of boxing.
Nary does White traffic in the stultifyingly bland, mealy-mouthed corporate-speak of other sporting bureaucrats. A gnarled creature of the fight game, he speaks like a fight promoter, for whom word mincing conventions of public politeness ritually surrender to profanity, ad-hominem, and Trumpian bluster.
So frequently are profanity-laced diatribes dispensed from White that one can confidently declare they are a feature, not a bug, of the UFC patriarch. He is a man who uses the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ like most use ‘is’ and ‘the.’
He is, however, a likeable personality. Stern yet amiable, he is equal parts ornery potentate and charming father figure. For every scathing insult fired at members of the press, his own fighters or fans, he is similarly complementary when they earn his respect.
White's creation myth – from amateur boxer in Boston's working-class suburbs, to UFC president – is uniquely remarkable. It's full of twists, turns, fateful events, forks in the road as well as brushes with personal and professional ruin.
Let's start from the beginning...
Dana White's childhood in Boston
You can perhaps attribute White’s brash persona to his formative years in Boston's working-class suburbs.
"I came from a family with a single mom. My dad was an alcoholic, was never around, and when he did show up, was usually drunk," White recalled in a 2016 interview on In Depth with Graham Bensinger.
"One day [my dad showed] up drunk out of his mind and he's taking us to the movies. That was a fun ride."
A brawling bellhop with big dreams
White's first taste of brawling came while working a series of odd jobs as a teenager, including as a bouncer at an Irish pub.
“I actually got fired for fighting,” said White, laughing, in a 2018 interview with the Associated Press.
Working as a bellboy at the 5-star Boston Harbor Hotel, White and his co-workers employed a novel, perhaps insane form of dispute resolution to decide who would take home the generous front-desk tips.
“We would argue about tips all the time. So we used to go into the bellman’s closet and punch it out until we decided who was right and who was wrong.” recalled White.
Despite the generous pay, he felt destined to become more than a mere bellhop who beats his colleagues up in a closet.
"I was standing in the lobby one day and I'm like, 'what am I doing here? This isn't what I want," White told gargantuan self-help guru Tony Robbins in 2018.
"One of the things I was very lucky in my life with is I knew exactly what I wanted to do. From a young age I wanted to be in the fight business, and people thought I was crazy."
"Everybody [in the fight business] was set in their ways, they didn't think the fight business could change, and I believed it could. I had a lot of big ideas."
"Everyday when I woke up, I'd work towards that goal."
Learning the fight game as an amateur boxer
Chasing his dreams, White joined a boxing gym in south Boston.
“There was a time when the only fucking thing I cared about was boxing. That’s all I fucken wanted to do,” he revealed on the Joe Rogan Experience in 2014.
Under the tutelage of a local fighting hero, he learned the ins and outs of the boxing world from the ground up.
"There was a kid in Boston, his name was Peter Welch. He was a street-fighting and boxing legend in town. I literally sought this guy out," recalled White to Tony Robbins.
"I went to him and said 'I know this is crazy, you don't know me, I want to work with you, you don't have to pay me, I want to learn everything you can teach about the fight game.'"
"I worked under this guy for three years and I did everything, from boxing to corner work. I was a referee in fights, I managed guys – everything you could possibly do in the fight business."
As an amateur boxer, White chalked up a respectable 13-4 middleweight record. However, his passion for dancing around the ring vanished the day he saw a punch-drunk pugilist stagger around a heavy bag.
“There was this dude who was a local fighter in his early thirties...and he was fucked up. I looked at him and thought ‘fuck, what if that happens to me?’”
“The minute you start thinking like that, you’re not the real deal. I realised that I wasn’t and I was fucken like wow.”
By then, though, he had already eaten his fare share of punches.
“I got a CT scan on my head. It looks like a Dalmatian, I’ve got spots all over my brain. I wouldn’t take back one punch,” he told the Associated Press in 2018.
Throwing in the towel on his fighting career, White chose a gentler path.
“So then you start going, ‘how the fuck am I gonna make a living out of this?’ So me and this dude started teaching people how to box.”
White is adamant, contrary to internet rumour, that he did in fact teach boxing and not boxercise –an emasculatory hybrid of the Sweet Science and Jazzercise.
“We weren’t boxercise instructors. We taught boxing classes. It did really well,” he claims.
However a photo showing a motion-blurred White wearing a hands-free headset, before a group of women in the throes of working out, presumably between shopping and picking up the kids from school, seem to confirm the rumour.
Friends from the neighbourhood pay Dana White a fateful visit
So successful was his boxing class that it soon drew the attention of unsavoury characters from Boston's underworld.
"I was teaching a boxing class and this guy walks in and says 'I need to talk to you,'" recalled White.
"They ask 'Do you know who I am?' I say no. And they say, 'well, you owe us some money.'"
The shakedown came from none other than Kevin Weeks, the right-hand man of notorious Irish-American mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, leader of Boston's Winter Hill Gang. White said he didn't have the $2,500 asked of him, to which Weeks stressed the urgency of finding it.
A follow-up call from Weeks, months later, led White to a fateful decision.
"I got a call and they said you have till tomorrow to give us our money. And I said 'or what?' He said 'well you'll find out.'"
"So I hung up the phone, picked it back up and called Delta, and got a one-way ticket to Vegas."
"I left my couch, my stereo, my TV – I left everything."
Another twist of fate in Las Vegas
On the lam in Vegas, White continued his boxing classes, before making a fateful reacquaintance with an old school friend, Lorenzo Fertitta.
”I show up at a wedding and Lorenzo Fertitta approaches me and he’s like ‘What’s up, how you been?’” recalls White.
Lorenzo, who co-owned several Vegas casinos with his brother Frank, was was quickly making a name for himself in Sin City.
“We started talking and he’s like ‘I heard you’re boxing’ and he says ‘I just got into the Nevada State Athletic Commission, let’s get together, I’d like to train.’ So that Monday him and his brother Frank show up and started training with me. We’ve been together ever since.”
How Dana White branched out into the fledgling world of MMA
While White and the Fertitta brothers initially dreamed of becoming boxing promoters, their plans changed when they started training Jiu-Jitsu.
"We started taking Jiu-Jitsu and were blown away by it. We started training three or four days per week."
"Through that we started to meet some of the [MMA] fighters. We were blown away by the fighters. These guys were smart, they were incredible athletes. And then we went to our first UFC event."
Soon enough, White began managing a stable of UFC fighters, most notably Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.
Acquiring the UFC and becoming President
Representing his fighters in a year-long contract dispute with the UFC, White met with Bob Meyrowitz – co-creator and then owner of the UFC – and discovered the fledgling organisation was in dire straights.
"We got into a huge battle over Tito Ortiz's contract and one day on the phone it all erupted. [Meyrowitz] said 'this thing's in trouble, I don't know if I have enough money to put on one more show.'"
"I'd been to a [UFC] event, and I was looking around and thinking, 'Imagine if they did this, and imagine if they did that. This thing could actually be really big.' [So] I called [the Fertittas] and I said, 'I think the UFC's in trouble. And I think we can buy it."
The brothers jumped at the chance. In January 2001, they purchased the UFC for $2 million, installing White as president
How Dana White revived a depleted, dying UFC
White and the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC at a time when MMA was still very much a pariah. Outlawed in most states, senator John McCain had denounced it as "human cockfighting."
“We bought a company that wasn’t allowed on pay-per-view,” White told Stanford MBA students in 2013. “Porn is on pay-per-view.”
For the bargain price of $2 million, White soon realised they had purchased far less than anticipated. The UFC had been completely stripped down, its most valuable assets sold by its previous owner to keep the franchise alive.
“You know what we got for two million bucks? The letters U-F-C and an old wooden octagon,” White recalled in a 2016 interview on In Depth with Graham Bensinger.
"It was at the end of its rope. We didn’t even own UFC.com. UFC.com used to be 'user-friendly computers.'”
"[The previous owner had] sold everything off – the DVD rights, all the old library, the video game rights, the merchandise rights. If there was anything worth a penny connected to the UFC, he sold it."
"I spent the first three years yelling 'fuck you' over the phone and telling people I was going to sue them."
Despite the Fertitta brothers investing $44 million into the UFC, failure loomed.
"The lowest point was when Lorenzo called me and said 'I can't keep funding this thing. I need you to get out there and see what you can get for this thing."
"He called me back that night and I said 'I don't know man, [I can sell it for] six, maybe eight million.' He called me the next day and said, 'Let's do it, let's keep [he UFC] going.'"
It was a wise decision. In 2016, the Fertitta brothers and White – 10% owner of the franchise – sold the UFC to William Morris Endeavor for $4.025 billion.
It's now worth over $7 billion.
How the UFC survived – and thrived
For White, his relationship with the Fertitta brothers was key to the UFC's success.
"The one thing that made this thing successful has been the relationship between me and the Fertittas. When things were going bad, and you're $44 million in the whole, there's gonna be some finger pointing. Never once did they do that," said White to Tony Robbins.
"You see it happen all the time...great bands break up, businesses fall apart because guys start fighting and arguing. It never happens with us."
"One of the big reasons is I could care less about money. I love this sport, I love this brand and I love what I'm doing. I get up every day and treat it like I own 100 percent of it."
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