LAS VEGAS – A chuckling Dana White recalled how the future of mixed martial arts took a dramatic turn in the wake of a chance encounter at a Las Vegas hotel bar in 1999.
White, now UFC president, was working on the periphery of the boxing business and paid little attention to mixed martial arts.
"I was a complete boxing freak," he said Wednesday. "I was out of my mind for boxing."
White had been training his childhood friends, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, in boxing as a way for the Las Vegas casino executives to stay in shape. White and Frank, 44, now chairman of Station Casinos, stopped by the Hard Rock Hotel one night for a drink.
White saw John Lewis, a UFC fighter and a fourth-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. White introduced Lewis to Frank.
"I told Frank, 'You know, that's that Ultimate Fighter guy and I've always wanted to learn submission fighting,'" White said. "And Frank said, 'Yeah, me, too.' And so I talked John into setting up a jiu-jitsu lesson for us. We told Lorenzo about it later and he wanted to try it as well. As soon as we rolled that first day, we were addicted."
The men were amazed by what Lewis was able to do on the ground. They began to take regular lessons from Lewis and occasionally would grapple with each other.
"They really didn't understand the sport," Lewis said. "Lorenzo was on the (Nevada) athletic commission at the time, and he really wasn't thinking of the UFC. …
"Everything was new to them, but they were in great shape and they really tried to soak everything up. They had a great desire to learn this."
Lorenzo, 38 and president of Station Casinos, said he was shocked by Lewis' skills. White called the Fertittas' education in jiu-jitsu "the gateway to us purchasing the UFC."
"That first time in the gym, we spent two hours and it completely changed the way I looked at martial arts, the UFC, mixed martial arts, everything," Lorenzo said. "I was completely intrigued by jiu-jitsu. The level of strategy was amazing. Every move had a counter.
"It reminded me of that line from 'The Matrix,' where he said, 'Take the pill and you'll see the world differently."
Soon, the Fertittas began to consider purchasing the UFC. White took the brothers to UFC 27 in Louisiana on Sept. 22, 2000, where they watched a poorly organized, poorly promoted event.
Yet they became convinced that with good marketing and some business savvy, the sport had the potential to explode.
The fight game transcends international boundaries, Lorenzo said. Unlike other sports that require fans to have working knowledge of the rules to follow along, a fight is a fight.
"I can put an MMA fight into any country, with any culture, and it will translate," he said. "It will sell in Russia. It will sell in Iceland. It will sell in Finland, in Germany, in Brazil. This sport is just in its infancy, and I think you really haven't seen a thing of how big it will ultimately become."
But were it not for that chance encounter in the bar, the UFC wouldn't be on the cover of the current issue of Sports Illustrated. It wouldn't have had a chance to shed its tag as a fringe sport and become an attraction that brings sellout crowds to arenas around the world.
White said getting new fans to understand the ground game is the biggest challenge MMA promoters face.
"In boxing, you punch a guy in the face and that's pretty easy to understand, but the ground game isn't easy and a lot of people find it boring at first," White said. "But Frank and Lorenzo got a first-class education in it, and that just got them enthused about the UFC."
Enthused and consumed. When the Fertittas were finalizing the deal to purchase the UFC in 2000, their attorneys suggested they write a way to settle disputes into their shareholder's agreement.
Neither saw the need for a formal pact. But the attorneys insisted the clause was a must, so the brothers came up with a unique plan: If they were to disagree on an issue, they would resolve the dispute in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu match, with White acting as the referee.
"Learning jiu-jitsu was really something that had a tremendous impact on all three of us in so many ways," Lorenzo said. "Looking back on it, at the time it was an insignificant thing and seemed like a fun thing to do, but it really changed our lives in a pretty dramatic way."
The drama continues Saturday night – UFC 71 – at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell defends his belt against Rampage Jackson in the featured bout.