From brink of disaster to 20th anniversary, Dana White has been UFC's driving force

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports


LAS VEGAS – On a typically scorching Las Vegas summer day in 1995, a small group of reporters surrounded Mike Tyson at the old Golden Gloves Gym near downtown. That March, the former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion had been released from an Indiana prison after serving three years on a rape conviction.


Now, he was preparing to face the unknown Peter McNeeley in his return to boxing, a match that would become one of the most financially successful events in the sport's history.

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As Tyson spoke, Jimmy LeBlanc, an Olympic hopeful, was hitting the mitts with his trainer in a far corner of the gym. The trainer was encouraging LeBlanc enthusiastically, motivating him to push harder.

It was difficult to take an eye off of the man because he was so into his job.

The trainer was determined to make it in some capacity in the fight racket. Seeing how much of himself he put into his work, no one with sense would have bet against him somehow making it.

Now, nearly 20 years later, that man is 44 and the president of a multi-billion dollar company. He's fulfilled, and far exceeded, the potential those who knew him then saw in him.

Dana White has turned the UFC into one of the great business and sports success stories of the 21st century.

White planned since he was a teenager to be in the fight business. For years, he thought it would be in boxing. It turned out, though, that he would make his name in mixed martial arts. Along with his partners, he took a dying sport, repackaged it and helped create a multi-billion dollar industry.

As the UFC prepares to host its 20th anniversary show on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, with pay-per-view superstar Georges St-Pierre defending his welterweight title against Johny Hendricks in the main event of UFC 167, little has changed about White.

He still loves the fight game, he still has incredible enthusiasm for his job and, despite the extraordinary success in his 12-plus years as the president of the UFC, he still thinks he can do better.

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"There are guys who have done well as boxing promoters because they're smart and they understand business," Tyson told Yahoo Sports. "Dana White is smart and he understands the business, but he also loves the fights. He's into it, and when you hear him talk about it, he gets you into it, too."

For all of the UFC's success now, though, it took a series of unlikely coincidences for it all to come together.


White partnered with Las Vegas casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to buy the UFC for $2 million in January 2001.

White went to Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas with Lorenzo Fertitta, and the two had been friends. They lost touch after school, though.

A chance meeting at a mutual friend's wedding led to a reunion and, ultimately, a business partnership with Fertitta.

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"Without getting weird on all you guys, when I sit back and I look at all the things that happened to get to sitting in this chair now [in front of a large media contingent], it just freaks me out, man," White said during a sit-down with reporters after the UFC 167 pre-fight news conference.

White's now-wife but then-girlfriend was unable to go with him to his friend's wedding, so White thought he would skip it. He didn't think it would be much fun to sit at a table of strangers by himself.

But then he had pangs of conscience: The man drove him to school every day. White knew he should go, so he changed his mind and went. And the course of sports history changed dramatically when White got up from his table and got into line at the buffet.

It was there that he saw his old school buddy, Lorenzo Fertitta. The two had a long talk and agreed to someday do business together.

"I'm not saying if I didn't go to that wedding that I never would have bumped into Lorenzo, but if I didn't go to that wedding, I probably would not have bumped into Lorenzo," White said.

That chance encounter was key, because while White long had a great passion for boxing and a vision for how it should be packaged, he didn't have the financial wherewithal to make it happen.

The Fertitta brothers, though, did. They were the sons of a highly respected casino operator and had become among the most wealthy people in the world because of the success of Station Casinos.

They not only had the money, but the business acumen and connections to get to places that White could never go.

White and Fertitta talked at the wedding, and they agreed that they would get into the fight business together somehow. Before they learned the UFC was for sale, though, fate nearly intervened.

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White was offered what he called "a huge position, with equity, a car, a house. A huge deal." It was a deal almost too good for White to pass up. He mentioned it to Lorenzo Fertitta, seeking his advice.

He didn't get the response he expected.

"Lorenzo looked at me and said, 'What the [expletive] are you talking about? I thought we were going to do something together,' " White said.

White passed on the gig, and three weeks later, he found out the UFC was for sale. They closed on the deal in January 2001.

Now, the UFC is worth billions, but they didn't find success immediately. Less than four years into their ownership, they were more than $40 million in the hole and considering selling the company.

They spoke briefly about selling the UFC to Dan Lambert, the founder of the American Top Team.

They opted to hang onto it, though, and see if they could gain any traction from the reality series "The Ultimate Fighter." The series turned out to be a hit, though midway through the filming, Albie Hecht was fired as president of Spike.

That was the person who agreed to air this new venture. White wasn't sure if new management would fulfill Hecht's commitment or if the show would ever be broadcast.

Fertitta had agreed to pay for all costs of the production himself just to get it on television, believing it would serve as a sort of "Trojan horse" to convert reality TV viewers into fight fans.

Fertitta was desperate because things weren't clicking and he was puzzled by the lack of response.

"We loved this sport and we were thinking, 'Is there something wrong with us?' " Fertitta said. "We had trouble understanding why it wasn't taking off, because we loved it so much."

The show managed to get on the air, and it turned out exactly as Fertitta had hoped. The reality portion of the show enthralled viewers, and the fights at the end kept them coming back.

Despite the success, though, they didn't have a contract for a second season and there was no guarantee it would be back on the air. It wasn't until the finale between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar turned out to be an epic match that the company was saved.

Less than an hour after Griffin was victorious in one of the great fights in UFC history, Spike officials hurriedly met in the alley behind the arena on the UNLV campus with White and the Fertittas to hammer out a new deal on the back of a napkin.

That new television deal allowed the UFC to stem the tide and turn things around.

The UFC finally became profitable in 2007, and it landed a network television deal with Fox in 2011.

White's vision was finally fulfilled.

He never changed his focus from his boxing days. He believed there were many who felt as he did and loved the fights, but he felt they weren't presented properly. Too much emphasis was placed on winning records, and that led managers and promoters to push their fighters into lopsided, safety-first bouts that weren't compelling.

In those early days before the UFC, White was trying to find his niche and telling everyone about his vision. He was training fighters. He was refereeing matches alongside Mitch Halpern, who would go on to become arguably the best referee in boxing before his untimely death in 2000 at 33.

White simply loved the fight game and wanted to make his living as part of it, one way or another.

"I didn't get into the fight business for the [expletive] money," said White, who grew up humbly. "Money was never my motivation. I didn't have a pot to piss in, but I didn't care because I was in the fight business. I've been in this business since I was 19 years old and it was never once because of the money."

Former world champion boxer Ishe Smith grew up in Las Vegas, where he went to Durango High School at the same time as future UFC star Gray Maynard and current Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

Smith got to know White in those days and remembers him now as an "exceptional trainer" who clearly loved boxing.

"I've known Dana for many years, and he's always been a hard worker and a no b.s. kind of guy," Smith told Yahoo Sports. "I fought his fighter, Jimmy LeBlanc, and Dana and I became friends. I was trying to make the 1996 Olympic team and Dana was so supportive of me. I beat his guy, and instead of Dana hating, or getting angry like a lot of guys would have, he was supportive of me and wished me the best.

"He always had a great passion for the fight game. Jimmy was a well-trained guy. He fought me, he fought [former world champion Fernando] Vargas, and while some guys are better than others, it was clear that Dana had taught Jimmy real well. … He's a fight guy, and so the fact that he is doing well in the fight game is no surprise to me."

The UFC is successful beyond what few could have imagined in the late 1990s, when it was booted off cable and was a rogue sport that had attracted negative attention from powerful politicians.

White, though, isn't content. While everyone is making a big deal about the 20th anniversary, White already is looking down the road.

"If you knew some of the [expletive] we are working on, it would blow your [expletive] mind," White said. "We're still going to take this thing to a whole different level."

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