UFC president Dana White insisted to Yahoo Sports in December that he was “not a political guy.” This came shortly after he’d appeared on TMZ and said he planned to vote for Donald Trump for president.
But White became a political guy on Tuesday, speaking to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland only days after completing a $4 billion sale of his company.
White extolled Trump’s virtues to the masses at Quicken Loans Arena, literally shouting his support of a man he said is a long-time friend.
“I think that sense of loyalty and commitment will translate into how he will run this country,” White said Tuesday of Trump. “And let’s be honest, we need someone who believes in this country. We need someone who is proud of this country, who will fight for this country. Let me tell you something: I have been in the fight business my whole life. I know fighters.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump is a fighter. And I know Donald Trump will fight for this country. Thank you.”
It was a brief speech that was entirely positive, and which didn’t bash presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or her party.
It was basically a guy standing up for a friend.
It had to be a little awkward for him in several ways. For a year, from the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2009, the biggest enemies in White’s eyes were those who put together Affliction MMA.
When Affliction scheduled its first event, putting legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko in the main event of its pay-per-view card, White counter-programmed against it. He put a UFC Fight Night card featuring Anderson Silva, one of his biggest stars at the time, on Spike TV opposite the Affliction show in an obvious effort to ruin it.
He battled it vigorously at every turn until on July 24, 2009, a week before its scheduled third show, Affliction MMA folded. The owners announced that they’d return to the clothing business and once again sponsor the UFC, which they’d been doing prior to their two-fight foray as promoters.
One of Affliction MMA’s major shareholders was Trump.
But none of that seemed to matter to White on Tuesday, who gave delegates and a live national television audience his full-throated support of Trump.
“Donald championed the UFC before it was popular, before it grew into the successful business that it is now,” White said. “I will always be grateful to him for standing with us in those early days. So tonight, I’m standing with Donald Trump.”
White is a comfortable and charismatic public speaker, but he literally shouted much of the time Tuesday as if he were struggling to be heard.
It’s a trait he has developed on television, when the music in the arena is blaring moments before a pay-per-view event is about to begin and White is talking about the show with UFC TV analyst Joe Rogan.
His speech was largely innocuous, though White normally has a tendency to speak extraordinarily bluntly. Have no doubt that there were plenty of people in the arena and at Zuffa headquarters biting their nails, praying silently that White didn’t go off script.
But he didn’t.
It’s odd for White to backtrack on anything he says, which is why it was a bit strange in December when he seemed desperate to explain himself for saying on TMZ that he planned to vote for Trump.
Yahoo Sports contacted him after his short appearance on TMZ became public, and he took the opportunity to walk back his previous comment.
He said then, “I’m not a political guy at all, not a little bit. I don’t support all the things [Trump] believes in, just like I don’t support every thing that any of the other candidates believe. There are things that some Democrats say I agree with and some things that I disagree with. And it’s the same with the Republicans.”
White said nothing about supporting Democrats on Tuesday. He likely would have been shouted down by the rabid anti-Clinton audience if he had.
But White’s new boss, WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel, is a noted Democrat. Emanuel’s brother, Rahm, is the Democratic mayor of Chicago and was President Obama’s first chief of staff.
All in all, though, White managed to get out of there without any gaffes and without offending anyone or any group of people.
White said Trump supported his ideas for the UFC in 2001 when few businessmen thought it had a chance to succeed. In 2011, when the UFC signed a network television deal with Fox, Trump reached out to him, White said.
“There was a big write-up about it in the New York Times,” White said. “Donald took that paper and wrote on the front of it, ‘Congratulations, Dana! I always knew you would do it.’ And just for the record, Donald has nothing to do with my business. His interest in me and my business is personal.
“You can really tell a person’s true character when they are happy for somebody else’s success.”
Given what could have happened, White’s day Tuesday went off without much of a hitch. Very few get the opportunity to speak at a national political convention, particularly someone like White, who was an admitted street kid growing up in Boston and Las Vegas.
He’s survived his share of controversies, and despite a piece Tuesday in the Daily Beast that lambasted him for his caustic and often profane style on social media, he largely avoided controversy this time.
For White, and for his team, that was the biggest win of the day.