DANA WHITE TELLS MATHEW SCOTT WHY ASIA IS THE SPIRITUAL HEARTLAND OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS.
You don’t need to explain the clarity of hindsight to Dana White.
These days, when it comes to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, everyone seems to be an expert. They’ll tell you White’s decision, alongside partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, to purchase the UFC in 2001 made perfect sense, that the organisation’s potential was obvious, that the real surprise is there weren’t more suitors lining up with bids back then, and that the UFC’s astonishing growth was bound to happen.
But White knows the reality.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he says. “When I told some people what our plans were back then, they thought we were crazy. The price we paid – US$2 million – is a lot of money no matter how you look at things. And, really, what we bought were just those three letters – U F C – because it came with nothing else.
“They had sold off everything to try to keep it alive. We even had to go and buy back the merchandising rights and the video library. We had nothing – but we had potential and we had belief.”
That the UFC’s rise (and rise) has provided one of the world sport’s great success stories of the past decade stands as testament to White’s vision and to the dedication of his team as they struggled, initially, to bring the organisation to its feet.
“We knew we were on to a good thing but those first few years, man, things were tough sometimes,” says White.
“But what really kept us going was that we knew the UFC was just what the world was looking for.”
AS HUMAN BEINGS WE ARE FASCINATED BY WHO THE TOUGHEST GUY IN THE WORLD IS – THAT’S THE NAME OF THE GAME.
How right they were. It’s a reflection of the UFC’s worth (now estimated in the billions) and its reach that White finds himself today seated in a side room at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel, here to drum up support for the organisation’s third card in Macau, set down for August 23.
The showman in White has just been witnessed up on the press conference podium, where his booming voice turned the microphone instantly redundant and where he seemed to come at the gathered media at a million miles an hour as he cajoled them into asking “anything you want.”
Right now, though, the businessman in White has taken over as our talk returns to that word – potential – and how a guy who grew up in Las Vegas hit the jackpot.
“I grew up in Vegas and was surrounded by the fight game there,” says White. “I knew people wanted something fresh. So here’s what I thought. I came from boxing. Boxing had the same old story: ‘I came from the mean streets of such and such and if it wasn’t for boxing I’d be dead or in jail.’ That was every guy’s story in boxing.”
White had been dabbling in a little mixed martial arts on the side and the athletes he was meeting in the gyms, and on fight nights, were telling him different stories entirely.
“Take a look at a guy like Chuck Liddell,” says White. “He has the mohawk he has Chinese writing down one side of his head. He looks like an axe murderer. Well he graduated from California Poly with a degree in accounting with honors. What the fuck? How does that make sense? But these were the guys we found ourselves dealing with at the UFC. When it came to the fighting we just thought, if we do this differently, if we package things differently, then this thing could be big.”
And that’s the thing about the UFC – it presents its audience with the complete sporting package, as fans who packed Macau’s Cotai Arena in November 2012, and this past March can attest. Meet-and-greets with fighters and fans help the sport form a connection with its public, and then there’s the performance which on those cards most certainly rose to the occasion.
First, in 2012, we had the Vietnam-born, US-raised powerhouse Cung Le’s first-round demolition job on Rich Franklin – thought by most to the UFC’s knockout of the year – and then this past March we had Korea’s Kim Dong-hyun dismantling John Hathaway with an elbow that must still haunt the British fighter’s nights. Both Le and Kim are back on August 23 – facing off against Michael Bisping and Tyron Woodley, respectively.
An influx of Asian fighters has helped the UFC cause in this region – the organisation now claims its fights are beamed into around 450 million households out this way – and Macau is helping warm the Chinese market to its many and varied charms.
The first of the The Ultimate Fighter China reality television series wrapped up in March and another is being planned, along with other UFC events for Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines.
“The thing that we like to do when we bring the UFC around the world is that we like to go to destinations,” says White.
“I grew up in Las Vegas and I am blown away with what they have done over in Macau and with the facilities they have there and the things they are planning, it’s going to give Vegas and other places a run for their money as possibly the fight capital of the world.
“And they’re not just doing UFC over there, they’re doing boxing, they’re doing Muay Thai – I mean, these guys are getting into the fight business. The rest of the world needs to look out and Asia is obviously the place where everyone – in every business – wants to be.”
Our region – as the spiritual home of martial arts – was always going to play a major role in the UFC’s expansion plans, and that’s why the organisation has established training camps and recruitment drives across Asia.
“Basically the UFC is the evolution of martial arts,” says White.
“You have to have a little piece of everything to be a complete fighter. The reality is we’re all human beings and fighting is in our DNA. This is a very rich, cultured place when you talk about martial arts. People get it here, they like it, they started it. But everywhere we have gone all over the world, once you plant the seed this thing just grows like crazy.”
White acknowledges the rise of the gaming industry has helped spread the message – the UFC’s own games are used to introduce fans to fighters and to educate people in terms of the sport’s many and varied moves – but is a firm believer that at its most very base level, mix martial arts taps into a most basic of human desires.
“Think about the famous people in the world,” he says. “Let’s look at soccer, because outside the United States it’s so big. If you think about the big soccer players that are famous, really famous, sure they are famous but are they that famous that they can’t go anywhere without getting recognized? Not really.
“Now think about Mike Tyson. Where can he go? Nowhere. If you fly to some remote island in the middle of nowhere, everyone is going to know who Mike Tyson is. Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee – they would be the same. Bruce Lee died in the early 1970s and globally everybody knows who he is. As human beings we are fascinated by who the toughest guy in the world is – that’s the name of the game.”