LOS ANGELES – Just over 10 years ago, when Dana White became president and part owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport of mixed martial arts was banned from all of television – even pay-per-view.
“Porn was allowed on pay-per-view,” he said. “We were not allowed on pay-per-view.”
Only two media outlets attended a news conference of the first fight he promoted. One was a Spanish-language television station that promptly left when it discovered none of the fighters spoke the language.
Wednesday, Dana White stood on the big stage set up here in the middle of LA Live, across the street from the Staples Center. The event was catered. There were dozens of media and dozens and dozens more fans pressed around fences to catch a glimpse of White, heavyweight champion Cain Velazquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos. They fight Saturday night in Anaheim.
Most significantly, the man who preceded White on the stage was Randy Freer, an executive with Fox Sports, which will broadcast Saturday’s fight live on network television, a first for the UFC.
It represents an impossible climb for White, one built on maniacal work ethic, faith in his business sense despite dropping out of college during his first semester, and the soaring growth of MMA.
[ Related: Velasquez-dos Santos fight breakdown ]
Saturday will be such a momentous occasion, such an obvious milestone that you’d expect White to be beaming around downtown LA.
Instead he looked haggard, terrible, a sleep-deprived mess.
“I’m sick. I haven’t slept in four days, I’m a basket case,” White said. “I’m more of a control freak this week than I ever have been. This hasn’t been a good week. Ask me Monday [how I feel]. If I haven’t dropped dead before Saturday and I get to Monday it’ll be awesome.”
Here comes the latest of Dana White’s coming-out parties and he’s so focused on everything that might go wrong that he can’t even begin to fathom how to enjoy the moment.
Disasters lurk. What if Velazquez or Dos Santos delivers a quick knock out, not unexpected considering the punching power of each? This isn’t a fight card, like usual UFC shows. This is one fight. That’s it: a one-hour program with one fight.
“If the fight goes 10 seconds, we’ve got it covered,” White said.
That was as confident as he sounded the entire news conference. White’s typical demeanor is classic promoter – a lot of hype, a lot of bravado. He didn’t hold back on either when describing the potential fireworks of a Velazquez-Dos Santos fight or in praising the character and back-story of his fighters.
[ Related: White on what Fox viewers can expect ]
He was still Dana White.
The magnitude of the moment, though, was obvious. White is desperate for the UFC to put a great product out there, to score a sizeable rating, to deliver under the big spotlight of broadcast television.
Only he can’t guarantee any of it.
He’s still a bootstrap story who could only dream of such a thing back in 2001, when he had to lobby the government just to get the sport – then dubbed “human cockfighting” – on pay-per-view. His first PPV show, UFC 33, had an estimated 75,000 buys, a comically small number by today’s standards.
White did the work to get the sport to this point. It’s not just a job, it’s his life. “This is all I do. I live, I sleep, I breath, I eat this.”
The UFC caught a big break seven years ago when they put a reality show on Spike – “The Ultimate Fighter.” The season finale featured a wildly exciting fight between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin that sprung the sport forward.
Through the years White had opportunities to sign network TV deals. Both the now-defunct Elite XC (featuring Kimbo Slice) and Strikeforce (which is now owned by the UFC) had deals with CBS.
As tempting as a network deal was, White was adamant that he wanted to maintain control of the production. “The networks would come in and walk through our production and say, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do this. We’re not going to do that,’” White said.
Maybe it was not playing loud music between fights inside the venue, changing the way fighters enter the Octagon or a battle over the announcers.
So White always said no. Then along came Fox, who was willing to not only sign a seven-year deal full of cross promotions, but agreed to have the production fit White’s vision. He vows it will look like a normal UFC show – Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan, for instance, will still call the action.
The delay in getting a network deal, White said, was actually a blessing. It allowed the sport to grow to its current level of popularity. “It was this progression, this growth,” he said. “Everything has worked out perfectly.”
Only White sits here in the run-up to the big night and has no control over what is to come. An injury could be crushing. A quick fight would cause a scramble. A boring fight might turn off new viewers.
Really, it could be anything. This is the fight game; you can’t rule anything out. One of Kimbo Slice's CBS appearances had to be juggled when his opponent got injured just hours before the fight. The last-second fill-in wound up knocking out Slice in 14 seconds, all but ending his MMA allure. It was a disaster.
A decade ago a night like Saturday was an unimaginable promised land for Dana White – from banned by pay-per-view to the nation’s highest-rated network that broadcasts Super Bowls and World Series.
The night of his wildest dreams is coming and Dana White can only see the potential nightmares.
“I don’t know,” White said. “I just want to get through Saturday man, I just want to get this behind me."