UFC boss faces biggest promotional test
Dana White was supposed to spend this week promoting his Ultimate Fighting Championship 106 card at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. It was to star his biggest box office draw, heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
Instead White flew Tuesday to Bismarck, N.D., showed up at the local hospital and found Lesnar, in heavy post-op sedation, while family and friends fretted about the future.
Lesnar had surgery to help solve a bacterial infection in his intestinal tract that helped cause the postponement of Saturday's fight against Shane Carwin and left his long-term future in doubt.
"The family was worried big time, they were freaking out," White, the UFC president, said Wednesday. "Brock was in big pain, he was hurting.
"We don't know if he'll ever fight again."
White cautioned that things could still go either way. He could fight. He could not. No one knows at this point. Lesnar was resting Wednesday at his home in Alexandria, Minn. and was scheduled to visit the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. early next week for a battery of tests.
"He had a hole in his intestine," White said. "The (stuff) was leaking into his stomach. That's what was causing him so much pain. That and he had abscesses.
"The doctor told him he hasn't been right for a year. His immune system has been trying to fight this thing and that's why he was susceptible to getting sick."
That likely explains Lesnar's original diagnosis of mono. He had been weakened to the point that he was unable to train for the Carwin fight for much of October. That prompted the original delay in the fight. Then last week, the intestinal problem flamed up and Lesnar was hospitalized.
"We'll find out more next week," White said. "We're going to send him to the Mayo Clinic for a couple of days. I don't know what to say. It's looking better now than last week, but what that means, I don't know."
White said no decision would be made on setting up an interim heavyweight championship until he knew how long Lesnar might be out.
For White, the Lesnar illness is just the latest bit of unfortunate news for his promotion. After a record-setting summer highlighted by a reported 1.6 million pay per view buys for UFC 100 on July 11, which Lesnar headlined, there's been a rash of injuries, illnesses and bad luck.
Lesnar is just one of three champions who have been forced to sit out for an extended period. Middleweight Anderson Silva is recovering from elbow surgery but will fight in February and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre is still coming back from a groin injury.
In addition, light heavyweight draw Rampage Jackson bailed on a highly anticipated December fight with Rashad Evans to play "B.A. Baracus" in the "A-Team" remake. Jackson said he's retired, although who knows how long that will last. Veteran heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is recovering from a staph infection. And popular former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson is unlikely to re-sign with the UFC, and could be heading for rival Strikeforce.
"This sounds crass but when you're dealing with humans as your product, crap happens," White said. "It's no different in football or baseball. I always say, the only guarantee when my big toe hits the floor in the morning is that something bad is about to happen."
White is rightfully hailed as a skilled fight promoter. He's been the front man as the UFC has gone from bleeding millions to being worth an estimated $1 billion.
He's in the midst of proving it like never before. There's no better example than Saturday's UFC 106, which had its Lesnar-Carwin main event postponed and then its other top fight, Tito Ortiz vs. Mark Coleman, get switched due to a Coleman injury.
Ortiz is now returning to the Octagon against Forrest Griffin, a rematch of a hotly contested 2006 match won by Ortiz on a split decision.
Likewise, headline fights were dropped from both December and January pay-per-view cards. And the current season of Spike TV's the Ultimate Fighter, taped last summer, is promoting a fight between coaches (Evans and Jackson) that won't happen any time soon.
"It's about the fights, though," White said. "The one thing no one can ever say is that we don't deliver good fights. People always look at a card and say it's not going to be any good. Then it ends up being the best card of the year. Just because Brock Lesnar is not in the main event doesn't mean there won't be great fights.
"If you're a fight fan you want great fights. We deliver great fights."
This all true, however there is no denying the impact of losing star fighters for extended periods. That's especially the case with a crossover sensation like Lesnar.
White, however, points to the television ratings from last Saturday's UFC 105, which was shown on basic cable's Spike TV and performed better in the young men demographics than the Nov. 7 Strikeforce card on CBS.
Although the Strikeforce card, featuring its big heavyweight draw, Fedor Emelianenko, produced far greater overall numbers, White says he won the male 18-34 demo by 49 percent.
"And we had to go up against a big boxing match (Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto) and college football, which we also beat in the demo," White said.
This is White at his best, somehow spinning one of the most challenging recent stretches for the company into a positive.
Long-term, the UFC will be fine. White will have Silva and St. Pierre return in 2010. He said Lyoto Machida will give a rematch for his light heavyweight belt to Mauricio Shogun Rua on May 1 in Montreal. Machida won a close decision last month in Los Angeles.
And with Brock Lesnar, who knows? If he does return, he'll likely be more popular than ever.
"If he's done what he's done at less than 100 percent, then imagine how he'll be if he is 100 percent," White noted.
At this point, White said he was just pleased that the health scare doesn't seem to be worsening and there's hope that with proper treatment, Lesnar should be able to live a healthy life.
As for Lesnar's future as a fighter, even for Dana White, that's a secondary concern.