Across a couple of decades, Dana White helped build the UFC from a fledgling, banned-on-pay-per-view-sideshow into a mainstream $4 billion global behemoth.
Then he built a house.
“My dream home,” White calls it.
White grew up working class in a tiny town outside of Bangor, Maine. Now that, against long odds, he had a self-made fortune to spend, a guy who unapologetically likes to go big, was determined to think of everything — an indoor, Boston Celtics-themed basketball court, a golf course view, an arcade and a movie theater with first-run shows.
What he didn’t plan for was a pandemic that would cause him to try to run the entire UFC from there.
Namely, it lacked reliable cellphone coverage, the kind that guaranteed that a call wouldn’t be dropped whether he was, say, dialing a fighter in Dagestan or lobbying a governor two states over that he could — and would — safely stage a fight card even when no other sports organization was trying anything.
This was back in March and April, when the world was locked down and almost no one in sports was trying to forge ahead.
“They weren’t willing to take the bullets,” White theorized.
White was. Always. And there were plenty of them — politicians, officials, media and so on forging intense opposition.
“Listen,” White said last April, “there’s people I care about what they think of me — my employees, my family, my friends. The rest of the people I don’t give a [expletive] what you think of me.”
Saturday’s UFC 256 will be the company’s 42nd show during the pandemic (“Contender Series” television cards included). The UFC says it has administered over 26,300 tests to 1,470 athletes, trainers, staff and other personnel, including 164 fighters from 40 countries. It reports 210 positives, a rate of just 0.8 percent. There have been no outbreaks inside the UFC.
While there have been some canceled fights and last-minute substitutions, overall the problems, let alone the positive cases, have been relatively minimal, especially compared to other sports. Protocols were tightened through trial and error.
White credits his tireless staff and his fighters, many of whom already live disciplined lives and train in near isolation, for making something work that so many said couldn’t.
White plows ahead in face of pandemic
Last spring, as he was locked out of his Las Vegas office, yet still trying to keep his company going, White found a single chair out back by the pool where his spotty cellphone always worked.
So this became the makeshift office. White would take nearly every important call in that one chair, brainstorming solutions with staff, pleading his case with government officials and troubling shooting problems that no one could have imagined before the coronavirus became a household term.
“Whether it was 117 degrees or 40 degrees, there I was,” White said.
White is not a classically trained businessman. He dropped out of his first semester at the University of Massachusetts in Boston to become a boxing trainer. Maybe that was the key.
He has long run his business, at least partially, like a demolition company. Whatever obstacle is in the way, he removes it, essentially by any means at his disposal. And while he might sometimes use the precise placement of surgical charges to smartly drop it in one swoop, he isn’t afraid (and perhaps even prefers) to go old school wrecking-ball and just slam into the problem over and over and over until it crumbles.
To White, 51, that was what the pandemic represented. An obstacle. He didn’t want to stop holding fight cards. He didn’t want to shut down the UFC. He didn’t want to furlough the men and women — both staff and fighters — who count on him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the virus, it’s that he just wanted to know what would be required to push forward.
How long should fighters quarantine? How much distance between the judges who sit cageside? What legal protections do you have against a state government if you operate on tribal land? Can a fighter from Brazil get into the United States if they first stop in Canada? Or vice versa?
Just come up with an answer. Just give him a standard. Then his company would figure it out, one wrecking ball swing/backyard cellphone call at a time.
Nothing was off the table.
What about securing an island in the Persian Gulf?
What if White was wrong?
What he couldn’t understand was why other sports were doing the opposite. The NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, NASCAR, PGA and so on shut down.
He kept hearing about these rich leagues — far richer than the UFC — and rich team owners — far richer than him — running sports that seemed comparatively simple — golf? — furloughing staff, cutting pay and acting like there was nothing they could do.
“Everyone was just so willing to not try,” White said. “They were content with shutting down and not trying to figure out how to beat this thing and win.”
It was incomprehensible to White. It ran completely against his hard-wiring. Did they just fear the backlash?
Not that White liked it. He was called reckless, irresponsible, disgraceful ... even greedy.
By trying to keep his staff and pool of male and female fighters (and all the people they employ) making money he was a villain? Yet if he just slashed salaries, laid people off and splashed around in his pool, he’d be a hero?
“I could do this forever,” he said back in April about quarantine life when you’re rich. “But this isn’t what we should be doing. We have to be responsible but we need to get out and figure this out. How do we protect the people who need to be protected, but get the rest of the people out there in the world back to normal? Let’s do what we do.”
He got even more criticism for saying that.
White said his late March/early April days often consisted of solving a set of problems and thinking they had made progress only to have new problems or third-party reversals arise a couple hours later that made the days work completely worthless.
It was there in that backyard, poolside chair that White hit his rock bottom. One night he took a call from UFC attorney Hunter Campbell, a close White confidant, who relayed a new set of hurdles that seemed impossible to clear. White hung up and leaned back in his chair.
“I sat there for a second and said, ‘What are you doing?’” White said. “‘Everyone else is shutting down. Is this the right thing to do?’”
For once White considered that he was wrong and everyone else was right. Maybe he should just cut staff, kick back for a few months and let someone else get torched.
How long did that feeling last?
“About 3.5 seconds,” White said.
‘This is the No. 1 accomplishment of my career’
White was correct all along. There was a way to safely and successfully do this.
Events have been staged mostly from the UFC’s Apex in Las Vegas, but there were three breakthrough May cards in an empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida, and nine during two stints on “Fight Island” in the United Arab Emirates. The company says it required 1,700 commercial and 34 charter flights to pull it all off.
It wasn’t easy or cheap. The UFC says it has spent $17 million already on COVID-related expenses. It lost about $100 million in gate receipts by not allowing fans — White won’t even do partial audiences even though plenty of venues now allow it — “full house or nothing,” he said. “To me, one-quarter or one-half, it’s not the same.”
Other parts of the business have boomed.
Ratings on ESPN are up 16 percent this year, per the UFC. E-commerce is up 166 percent, FightPass is up 41 percent and global sponsorship is up 16 percent.
Most pridefully he notes that he retained, at full pay, all 385 UFC employees and honored the contracts of all the company’s fighters. White has announced that the promotion needs to trim as many as 60 athletes from what White calls a “bloated” roster, but that isn’t uncommon.
“This is the No. 1 accomplishment of my career because this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” White said. “When people have left before they were able to get another job and do other things. This time they couldn’t. If we had furloughed them or broken contracts, people would be hurting.”
White is headed on a family vacation next week, his first break in what he calls “the hardest year of my life.”
He’ll do it big, of course. He, his wife and their three children will spend 10 days on a 210-foot yacht in the Caribbean. For a guy who is used to dinners out, staging cards all over the globe and playing cards in Vegas a few nights a week, a guy who didn’t stop moving for two decades, this has been a year of mostly boredom – work and home, work and home.
“I need to break up the monotony,” White said. “And I know I get to do more stuff than most people.”
Not that he is complaining. This year has reconfirmed his belief in himself, his company, his employees, his fighters and the spirit of solving problems.
“There is no right side of this or wrong side of this,” White said. “It’s a virus … I said I would do whatever it took to put on events safely. We did.
“There is always a solution to everything,” he said. “Quitting is not a solution. As Americans that is not who we are or what we do.”
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