LAS VEGAS – Dana White offered a cocksure laugh borne from battles past; proof that the business of cage fighting can be as cutthroat and unforgiving as the sport itself.
"It's about how much pain are you willing to take," the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship said last week.
As mixed martial arts has boomed into a colossal business, no one has been smarter or tougher than White. In just seven years he turned a fledgling fight promotion into an estimated billion-dollar company.
He's done it by building up the UFC and tearing down virtually everyone else. This month he's at his best, attempting to inflict on Affliction plenty of pain.
Affliction, the T-shirt company that surged in popularity thanks in part to UFC fighters donning its unique, if garish, designs, is making its foray into fight promotion July 19 in Anaheim, Calif. It doled out an estimated $4 million to put together a top-notch lineup, including a headline fight featuring Fedor Emelianenko, considered the best heavyweight in the world, against two-time former UFC champion Tim Sylvia.
"It's a dream card," promoter Tom Atencio said.
Only if it turns a profit – or at least breaks even. Otherwise, it's a nightmare.
"I'm not in the business to lose money," Atencio said.
White, however, is in the business of trying to curb, if not crush, all would-be challengers. So White took one look at that Affliction card that had fans buzzing and decided to cut its legs out.
On the same night Affliction is hoping fans will pay $39.99 to watch its show, White will air his own tremendous card on basic cable's Spike TV. The headliner is UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and a major draw.
It's unheard of in the fight game to put a star of that caliber in a "free" fight. It proves White believes sometimes the best offense is a great defense.
The interest in the Affliction card remains significant. However, if White can peel away just 10 or 20 percent of its would-be customers he could cause the promotion to take a financial bath and perhaps never be heard from again.
"We're competitors, so let's compete," said White, smiling. "The guy sells T-shirts for a (expletive) living, and now he wants to be a promoter? A T-shirt guy doesn't know what he doesn't know about this business yet.
"He's going to find out, though."
Atencio laughs softly at White's bravado. He says he's been around MMA for 15 years, enough time to learn how to promote a fight.
"I think it's flattering," Atencio said. "He obviously views us as a threat. Do I blame him? No. He's doing what he feels he needs to do to protect his company. I think people will buy our event and TiVo his. It's not hurting us."
Others think staying on top may be more difficult than White envisions.
"Remind Dana that being hungry and running a business is a whole lot different than being hunted and running a business," said Mark Cuban, the self-made billionaire whose HDNet television channel shows MMA programming and has produced a few cards.
With a shaved head, a blue-collar attitude and a love of profanity that could make a sailor blush, White, 38, is the pioneering force behind the growth of MMA in America.
The New England native dropped out of UMass Boston. After years as a boxing trainer and MMA agent, in 2001 he teamed up with casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to purchase the fledgling UFC for $2 million. Today it's worth an estimated $1 billion.
His goal now is to get the UFC as big as possible as soon as possible, taking it worldwide while turning it into a brand synonymous with the sport the way NASCAR is with stock car racing. If he can, the UFC may be unstoppable.
That's why Affliction, and threats like it, must be attacked.
This is personal, too, White said. He soured on Atencio and Affliction last year and banned his fighters from wearing the T-shirts as they walked to the octagon. White wouldn't say specifically why. He was direct, though.
"I don't like him," White said of Atencio. "If I liked him, I'd probably lay off him. The guy has an attitude problem, and I'm going to fix it for him."
This is probably not how they teach corporate communication at Wharton. Not that White cares.
"I don't know where that comes from," Atencio said. "That's fine. I don't live with him. I don't go home with him. What does it hurt me?"
At this point, nothing infuriates White more than talk of competition. He sees the daily growth, solidifying strength and vast possibilities for the UFC and scoffs at almost everyone else as minor league. He has a point. Even if Affliction put on a great and financially successful card, it wouldn't be anywhere near the UFC in terms of cash, talent or market share.
"I know where we're at," Atencio said. "When (you) say 'MMA,' the lay person has no idea what you're talking about. If you say 'UFC,' 50 percent of the people say, 'Oh, yeah.' "
And yet White keeps getting asked about other promotions and keeps working himself into a rant.
"Every month it’s the new thing," White said. " 'Ooooh, the IFL is going to take over the UFC,' and all this (expletive). They had $800 million, and they had a network television deal. Their stock is at two cents, and they are gone …"
(The International Fight League canceled its August promotion "in light of the company's current financial condition." For once, White actually oversold his competition. IFL stock is trading at one cent per share.)
" … 'CBS is coming in! CBS is coming! Oh my God!' You saw the CBS fight. Kimbo Slice wouldn't win 'The Ultimate Fighter.' And I'm not being a wise ass, that's the truth.
"The last guy he fought (James Thompson), they got him from the (expletive) morgue. That's where they got that guy. He's been knocked out his last five fights. And he was beating Kimbo's ass before his ear exploded. Which is insane too. How could that fight even happen with his ear looking like that? Nobody knows how to drain an ear? … "
(CBS will broadcast its second EliteXC card on July 26, which is expected to be a more professional production than the heavily panned first show. Industry rumors, though, speak to a shakeup in EliteXC management. And for the record, Thompson actually was knocked out in only three of his previous four fights prior to taking on Slice.)
" … 'Oh my God, Mark Cuban is coming.' Where did Mark Cuban go? Where's Mark Cuban? You know where he is, he's smart; he stuck his big toe in this thing and said, 'Oh, you are going to lose a lot of money in this. I'm out.' "
("Just let him know that HDNet Fights is far from out and HDNet is more committed to MMA than ever before," Cuban said. "In fact, we continue to expand our lineup of fights and shows, with 'Inside MMA' continuing to be the best show in the business. In fact, Dana must be concerned with HDNet; he's still afraid to provide clips to 'Inside MMA.' We know exactly what we are doing. … ")
And now it's Affliction, headed by what White divisively refers to as "T-shirt guy."
"It's so (expletive) annoying," White said.
"Our card speaks for itself," Atencio said. "It's stacked from top to bottom. I'm real confident if we put on a good event we can (move forward)."
White scoffs at that, of course. He predicts Affliction won't make enough money to survive, just like so many others. He predicts this will all go away soon and the media will annoy him with another pretender to the UFC power.
Like most things in the business of MMA, Dana White may be correct and no one can stop the UFC at this point.
Just in case, Anderson Silva is headed to basic cable.