When a sports franchise sells, generally it doesn’t lose its franchise player in the transaction.
But the UFC lost its franchise player and most valuable member when it was sold for $4 billion Sunday to a group headed by the powerful talent agency WME/IMG.
Not Dana White.
As president, White is the public face of the UFC, the man who believed so passionately in the sport of mixed martial arts that he convinced his billionaire friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to invest $2 million in it in 2001.
More than 15 years later, that $2 million turned into $4 billion, making the UFC one of the most valuable sports properties on Earth.
White will remain on to run the company. He told Yahoo Sports he expects it to “go to another level” in the next three years. And he said he’s going to be guiding it along the way.
“This is me. This is who I am,” he said. “The UFC is my passion and my baby. I’m in and excited for the future.”
He should be excited. He made $360 million for the sale of his nine percent share on Sunday. And because of his presence, much of the UFC will retain the same look and feel as it has had the past few years.
But without UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, the brilliant visionary whose role in the company’s success has been so underrated for the past decade, it’s going to be vastly harder.
In 2008, White for weeks tantalized the MMA media with the prospect of a “big announcement.” It set off all sorts of wild speculation, but when Yahoo Sports broke the news that Fertitta was resigning his role in the casino to work full time with the UFC, it was largely met with a yawn.
But Fertitta is the most significant reason this company has ascended to the heights it has. It has created massive global stars such as Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. It has become a pay-per-view juggernaut.
It has filled arenas around the world. Its digital streaming service, UFC Fight Pass, has been called the Netflix of MMA and it is sort of an unofficial history of the sport.
UFC 200 on Saturday was the fifth event in the past year to sell 1 million or more on pay-per-view. By way of comparison, boxing has had zero shows sell that many in the past 12 months.
It has a national television contract with Fox, media that covers it around the world and a passionate and expanding fan base in the young demographic that advertisers love.
Lorenzo Fertitta and White worked perfectly together. White was a long-time fight guy. He used to hang out in boxing gyms in Las Vegas and Boston, where he trained fighters, refereed a bit and ultimately got into managing them.
He knew what made fighters tick because he was one of them, a tough guy who wasn’t good enough to make it in the ring himself but who understood innately how a fighter thought and felt.
He was a brilliant recruiter and was able to bring in talent from around the world. He had a great sense for who had the talent not only to win, but to become a star.
Fertitta was the guy who could see around the corner, who thought in the long view, who knew how to promote a fight.
White and the Fertitta brothers were long-time boxing fans when they bought the UFC in 2001, and they love that sport to this day.
When they purchased the UFC, they essentially took what they thought was right about boxing and kept it. What they felt was wrong, they eliminated and built a nearly dead sport from the ground up.
It was Lorenzo Fertitta who understood how a series of matches needed to be put together to reach a climax in which the public was clamoring for two of the company’s stars to meet.
When most promoters are worried about the next show, Fertitta was always looking a year, two years, ahead. It’s why Rousey and McGregor became such iconic stars.
They had the fighting skill and the charisma it took, and Fertitta put them in a position where they could succeed.
He fixed problems and managed White, a powerful, dominant force-of-nature personality whose passion and intensity is his best attribute and his biggest failing.
White would literally say and do anything to get what he felt he needed for the UFC, and sometimes it got him into trouble. That was when Fertitta was there to bring him into line and make sense of things.
When a reporter would suggest that some rival promoter was a competitor to the UFC, White would always laugh. No matter who it was over the years, from Pride to the International Fight League to Affliction to Strikeforce and many others, White would sneer and insist they were no threat.
He’d say “we live this 24/7/365 and none of the rest of them do.” That was why he was so convinced that none of those groups would be serious long-term competitors.
He was right, and the UFC purchased them all, swallowing them up and several others to make a mega-promotion that became the major leagues of mixed martial arts. The UFC is to MMA what Kleenex is to tissues.
But with Fertitta out of the picture – the sale is expected to close before UFC 202 on Aug. 20 – White no longer has that edge.
The new ownership isn’t expected to take a major role in day-to-day operations. That is going to be up to White.
White is an extremely smart man who understands the business like no one else now that Lorenzo Fertitta is out.
But without his long-time best friend, the major piece of the formula for success is no longer there.
The show, as they say, must go on and in short order, White will be on to promoting UFC 201 at the end of the month. He’ll talk about how excited he is to see Robbie Lawler and Tyron Woodley go at it for the welterweight title, and all the talk of the sale and private equity firms and the rest will fade into the background.
White’s big announcement in 2008 was indeed big, even though no one truly understood it at the time.
Without Lorenzo Fertitta, it’s not going to be business as usual.
With his departure goes the heart of the UFC.
It’s a void that may never be filled.