Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole interviews Dana White ahead of Saturday's UFC 279 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The UFC president talks Nate Diaz's rise in the UFC and why facing rising star Khamzat Chimaev in what will likely be the Stockton fighter's final UFC fight isn't a foregone conclusion despite the incredible odds he's facing.
KEVIN IOLE: What's up, folks. I am Kevin Iole. Kind of a bittersweet day today, Queen Elizabeth II has passed away as we record this. And we send our best wishes to everybody affected by this. I am joined now by Dana White. The good news is UFC 279 is just a couple of days away.
Dana, just before we started recording, I mentioned that the queen had passed. And you said that you hadn't met her but you had met someone in the royal family.
DANA WHITE: Yeah, her husband. You know, I used to work at the Boston Harbor Hotel. And there's a picture on the internet. I don't know where the hell it came from. I think it came from the hotel, of me standing beside him when he arrived--
KEVIN IOLE: Prince Philip.
DANA WHITE: --at the hotel. Yeah. And, yeah, now, what a life she lived, though. Incredible.
KEVIN IOLE: What a life you've lived, to meet those kind of people, right? That's just pretty amazing. Well, let's talk about UFC 279, the good stuff, Nate Diaz in what may be his final fight headlining against Khamzat Chimaev, minus 1,200 for Chimaev as a favorite. Let's start there. Were you surprised to see the number that was put up?
DANA WHITE: You see the numbers every Tuesday on the contender series? I mean, I've been beating people over the head for the last few weeks. There's like 6 to 1 favorites that are losing on the contender series. There is no 6 or 12 to 1 favorite in MMA, man. Anything is possible.
Julianna Pena just showed it. Many, many other people in the past have shown it. Nate Diaz was a huge underdog against Conor McGregor when they fought. The list goes on and on. Nate Diaz is a veteran. He's been around for a long time, fought all the best in the world. And if this thing gets out of the second round, it's a very interesting fight.
KEVIN IOLE: You know, before we get specifically into the fight. I want to ask you this, because this is something that I think the UFC and your matchmakers deserve a lot of credit for. And maybe people don't realize, but, you know, in the main event, what has Diaz lost, three of his last four. In the co-main event you've got Tony Ferguson, who lost four in a row. Kevin Holland is on the card. He had lost a couple before winning his last two.
And yet these guys are remaining stars and remaining big names and being able to be on top of the card. What is the secret to that, to keep somebody relevant even as they're losing fights?
DANA WHITE: Well, the secret is they're fighting all the best in the world. It's not like you lost to some random unknown guy or some unranked guy. I mean, you're fighting the likes of Jorge Masvidal. You know, Dustin Poirier, Oliveira, Chandler. I mean, you know, they fight the best in the world. We were just talking about this the other day in a matchmaking meeting.
I can't remember what her loss record is, but Michelle Waterson, you know, is in the same position.
She's lost like, I don't know, five of her last six or something like that. She's ranked number 11.
She's fought all the best women in the world. So it's tough to-- you know, when you're fighting the absolute best, you know, and that's what people want to see. This weekend, first of all, highest embedded series of the year this week. Our social media, everything we post is off the charts. We posted the commercial for Chimaez-Diaz. And it did two million views. The commercial, right?
The gate, I told you a few days ago, the gate was going to hit 5 million. The gate's at 5.5 million and it's going to be another sellout. And the list goes on and on. People want to see a fight with two bad-ass dudes that want to fight. And that's what you're getting on Saturday night.
KEVIN IOLE: The growth of Diaz is amazing as a star. Like I was going back and looking at some of his old fights. And there was a couple of where he got booed in the fights. Marcus Davis fight, I remember, in Boston, where the crowd roundly booed Diaz several times during that fight. And now as--
DANA WHITE: Well, Davis is from Boston.
KEVIN IOLE: I get it. From Maine, but, yeah, I get it. OK.
DANA WHITE: Yeah.
KEVIN IOLE: But I guess what I was going to get at is now Nate's almost like this beloved figure, right? And you know, he's become this huge star that you can, hey, how many other guys have you had headlining fights, if anybody, in a non-title fight but Nate Diaz, right? I mean, it's just amazing what he's become. Where do you think--
DANA WHITE: But at the time when he fought Diaz, he was living and training in Boston.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.
DANA WHITE: Yeah.
KEVIN IOLE: But just the growth of Diaz, like into this star. What do you think the trick was? Was it his attitude? Was it how he fought, who he fought? I think like part of it, you know, like, I think of the Benson Henderson thing, when he does the double bird during the fight. Like he's fighting a tough guy in the middle of the fight. And he flips it off to the crowd.
I think that, it was like sort of an appealing thing to a lot of people. Like this guy doesn't care about anything. He's going to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it.
DANA WHITE: Yeah, I think that's it. You know, his whole anti-the company, anti-everything, you know, willingness to fight anybody. The list goes on and on. I mean, the Diaz brothers are so intriguing. I was talking to this guy yesterday, old guy. He's got to be in his 70s.
And I mentioned the fight this weekend. He's like, oh, yeah, I love the Diaz brothers. I couldn't even believe this guy knew who the Diaz brothers were.
But, yeah, I mean, everybody loves him.
KEVIN IOLE: And it's just amazing. You know, and the thing about Nate, I think, you know, as you look at Khamzat fighting him, like Nate is a difficult guy to finish, right? Nate is not a guy that is getting finished. I mean, how many times has he been finished in his career? Two by knockout and one by submission in--
DANA WHITE: But he's never really been knocked out.
KEVIN IOLE: Right, and stopped, you know, in 33 fights, right? So--
DANA WHITE: Right.
KEVIN IOLE: --a very low percentage of the time, he's getting finished. I mean, so the guy is incredibly tough. To me--
DANA WHITE: Incredibly tough.
KEVIN IOLE: I wrote a column today, and I said, is there pressure building on Chimaev, because normally, and I think about that press conference with Gerald Meerschaert. And you were at the press conference. And he was trash talking everybody, not just Meerschaert, but everybody on the dais. He was loud.
Now yesterday he was speaking in a whisper. He was not as outspoken. I'm wondering, hey, is the pressure of being the headliner of a UFC pay-per-view and fighting Nate Diaz in such a significant fight starting to wear on him?
DANA WHITE: Listen, if he didn't feel the pressure against Gilbert Burns, I don't know if there's pressure for this one. I think that what you've seen over time is Chimaev grow as a fighter. I mean, when we saw him on Fight Island, nobody knew who the hell he was.
KEVIN IOLE: Right.
DANA WHITE: He came out of nowhere. I mean, the guy has blown up. He's incredibly famous now. You know, and I highly doubt he's feeling any un-normal type of pressure that any of these kids feel when they go in, you know, on a weekend like this. And Diaz, the whole narrative behind Diaz is he's got nothing to lose. But that's not true. That's not true in this sport.
KEVIN IOLE: How is that not true? You got, and in his final fight he has nothing to lose?
DANA WHITE: Well, because we all have something to lose when you're in this sport, you know what I mean? It's one on one in front of the whole world. There's nothing like it. And losing is never good in this sport. You want to win.
And obviously there's a lot more upside for Nate in many, many ways, and for Khamzat and everybody else this weekend if you win.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, there's no doubt about that. Clarify something. So Nate, you know, he had a great interview with ESPN, Brett Okamoto did, I thought, a fabulous job interviewing him the other day. One of the things he said, though, kind of stuck out to me. He said the UFC pushed me to take this fight. They're trying to act like I wanted this fight.
And I did not want the fight, in no way, shape, or form. Now, I think I told you this before, but Zach Rosenfield, his manager, said to me, when the fight was made, this is important to note, he said. We weren't offered this fight. We asked for this fight. So what is the truth? Did the Diaz side ask for the fight, or did you offer the fight to them first?
DANA WHITE: We offered them lots of fights. We offered them lots of fights. Everybody kept saying, how come the Diaz fight, blah-blah-blah. How do you want me to answer? I think we talked about this before.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.
DANA WHITE: For me to say, you know, listen, his manager told you what the deal was. For me to say anything about what the Diaz brothers are thinking, or what was this or what was that, he wanted a fight. He wanted to fight Francis.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, that. Yeah.
DANA WHITE: It's all part of the process, when you deal with the Diaz brothers, and other guys here, too, you know what I mean? What matters is the fight's happening this weekend. It's a big deal. And that's it. That's all I care about.
KEVIN IOLE: You have a lot of your ex-fighters now going into promotion. Of course, Khabib has had a successful promotion. And his company seems to be doing good. And Nate says he's getting into promotion. He told me it was going to be jujitsu fights, boxing matches, MMA, kind of a mixture of all the martial arts going in.
What do you think is going to be the biggest thing that surprises him as he gets, if in fact this gets off the ground and he gets into this?
DANA WHITE: That it's not as easy as it looks. And, you know, when you would show up at the UFC events, you realize how smooth everything ran and how professionally it's run, and how hard it is to pull that off.
KEVIN IOLE: Has Khabib made any comments--
DANA WHITE: And can't wait till he starts dealing with fighters, if he's going to be the guy that's actually going to deal with them.
KEVIN IOLE: I have a feeling that he's going to just look to let somebody else do that and show up at the fights and enjoy the fights. That's my guess.
DANA WHITE: I'm with you.
KEVIN IOLE: Has Khabib made any comment about that to you, by the way? Like has he come back and said, Dana, I did not understand how much went on that I wasn't aware of?
DANA WHITE: Well, he and I really haven't had the opportunity to sit down and talk about that yet. But I promise you he will, when we do talk.
KEVIN IOLE: OK, all right. Well, let's move on. The Tony Ferguson fight, to me, is a fascinating fight, you know. And like Ferguson's been one of the OGs of this sport and put on some incredible fights. But as I mentioned before, he has a series of losses.
You're putting him maybe down a notch in terms of opposition, in my mind, in Li Jingliang, you know. Not quite as dangerous as the Justin Gaethjes, and guys like that, right? You know, I'm not dogging Jingliang, saying I just don't think he's quite as dangerous as say a Justin Gaethje or Charles Oliveira, right?
DANA WHITE: Well, he's up a weight class. He's up a weight class. And you're still talking about a guy that's ranked in the top 15.
KEVIN IOLE: So my question to start is, like, what do you think the pressure is on Tony Ferguson, because now he's getting a chance, almost like a reset. You moved divisions, you're not fighting a guy that's a top five contender like what he's been fighting before, you know. You're getting a little bit of a break, relatively speaking, right? So there's a lot of pressure on Ferguson in this fight, don't you believe?
DANA WHITE: No, I disagree. I actually think that moving up a weight class in this sport is a very, very big deal. And Li is very [MUTED] exciting and very talented, and very well-rounded. I actually think that this fight is going to be an absolute knockdown, drag them out war. And it's going to be fun.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah. And then you go--
DANA WHITE: And again, I don't know if Tony or Li are feeling any more pressure than they normally do on any normal fight weekend.
KEVIN IOLE: So if Tony, let's just say for the sake of argument, Tony loses the fight, and he's got five in a row. Do you have any hesitation about if he wants to continue to fight? You know, I know you get a point with Chuck Liddell and Donald Cerrone and certain fighters that you have that conversation with. Is Tony at that point, or is he in that conversation?
DANA WHITE: I'd have to see the fight first. It's like saying, you know, he just lost his last fight. Are you thinking about whatever? He looked incredible in that fight, right up until he got knocked out. He got hit with a kick that anybody in the sport could get hit with.
KEVIN IOLE: Correct.
DANA WHITE: And he looked incredible right up until that point.
KEVIN IOLE: The last fight I believe you put on this card, I believe it was the last one, or the next to last one, was one that I think is really kind of a sleeper fight in this card, Kevin Holland against Daniel Rodriguez.
DANA WHITE: I agree.
KEVIN IOLE: That was one you put on late. And I think there's a lot of good storylines about both of them. But let's talk about D-Rod for a second first. For people who have not seen Daniel Rodriguez fight, what can they expect out of him? What kind of fighter is he?
DANA WHITE: Yeah, no, listen, both of these guys are exciting, dynamic. Both go in there for the finish. I just saw an interview with Rodriguez. And the other thing, too, stepping in, short notice, catchweight fight. I don't know. It's interesting.
But for all the people out there, if you don't know Kevin Holland or you don't know Daniel Rodriguez, believe me when I tell you, folks, you are in for an incredible fight. Daniel's like 16 and 2. And what fascinated me the most was watching the interview that he just did, the confidence that he has going into this fight. And he's pumped for this fight. And he knows that taking out somebody like Kevin Holland is a game-changer for him.
So this card is awesome. I mean, this card is awesome. This is going to be a fun night on Saturday.
KEVIN IOLE: The reason I like the Rodriguez/Holland fight is because, you know, Holland dropped back down after he had the great year with the five wins. He was fighting at 85, dropped back down to 170. And he's had back-to-back wins now, Alex Oliveira and Tim Means, and I thought looked great in the Tim Means fight, right? I thought he was fantastic in that fight.
And he looks like the guy that maybe we thought when he won the five fights in the one year, and that people were saying, hey, maybe he's going to be a big star in this sport. Do you-- you know, he did the opposite of what Tony Ferguson is doing. Tony Ferguson is going up. He went down. That, to me, seems a very smart decision by Kevin Holland.
DANA WHITE: Right, and also tough to do. But the one thing, what we saw from Kevin Holland was he had a big hole in his game, his wrestling.
KEVIN IOLE: Right.
DANA WHITE: He needed to take some time off, really focus on his wrestling. He's done that and be interesting to see what happens with him now and in the near future. But this kid is all action, all excitement, takes risks, isn't afraid to get himself into bad positions, which is part of the reason he's so fun to watch.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, I mean, you know, he's a guy that I think-- would you agree, like, because he stepped in on short notice on a couple of fights and won them that one year when he won the five in a row, that maybe, you know, the hype got a little too high on him, and he wasn't a finished product yet, and now we're starting to see maybe what the finished product really is?
DANA WHITE: Well, I think you don't know that that big of a hole is in your game until you start climbing up the ladder and facing the best in the world. You know, once you start fighting some of these guys that are the best in the world, start realizing, you know, where there might be some holes in your game. But this kid is incredibly talented. Now he's more well rounded than he was.
Let's not forget, he knocked out Jacare from the bottom, which is insane, you know.
KEVIN IOLE: And that was one of the best finishes of the year. Yeah, that was tremendous.
DANA WHITE: 100%. This fight is going to be an absolute war.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, I love that one. Hey, let's, I got a couple more minutes with you, just go over a couple other things. Ciryl Gane's performance. Yeah, I didn't hear you speak about that publicly. I thought that was an incredible fight. I texted you right after the fight ended. But I just wanted you to share your thoughts with the public on the Gane-Tuivas fight, and maybe where you go with Ciryl after that great win.
DANA WHITE: Yeah, he looked incredible. The one thing that we found out, listen, we always do, Ciryl was very tactical, moves like a middleweight, you know, all the things that we already know about him. We found out about his chin and his heart on Saturday night, man. He took some big shots, ate them, got hurt once, got back up on his feet, and handled his business, man. That fight was incredible, especially for two heavyweights, man.
It was awesome. So, yeah, I think coming out of that fight, that's the thing that we learned. We already knew a lot of things about Ciryl as far as talent and everything else. But chin and heart is what we found out on Saturday.
KEVIN IOLE: You know, Dana, I've covered fights in boxing and MMA, for kickboxing, for a long time. And the one thing you don't see that Ciryl did on Saturday was he got badly hurt and got dropped. He pops up and immediately was the aggressor, right? There was no clear my head for a few seconds, move around.
He immediately threw the kick at Tai and went after him. And to me, I mean, that said a lot just in that one sequence, what he did.
DANA WHITE: 100%. You know, getting dropped like that, didn't make him gun-shy. Didn't make him veer from his game plan. You know, he stayed aggressive and kept doing what he was doing, and eventually won the fight. I mean, the kicks to the body were unbelievable.
KEVIN IOLE: Oh, yeah, that is tough. Siks, so he's out several months with a broken hand? So where does that leave you with your heavy-weight division, Francis. I talked to Eric Nicksick the other day. Eric Nicksick says Francis is probably better to fight in early 2023. So where does that leave the heavyweight division right now? Is anything going to happen?
DANA WHITE: We're rolling into the end of the year here. Let some guys heal up and we're not in a bad spot. Everything's good, you know. Listen, injuries are going to happen. These type of things are part of the sport. And we'll work through it.
KEVIN IOLE: What are the odds that we see Jones-Miocic for an interim title bout in December, say?
DANA WHITE: I don't know.
KEVIN IOLE: Have you guys talked about that?
DANA WHITE: No.
KEVIN IOLE: Is that I'll fight that's--
DANA WHITE: Yeah, we've been talking about a lot of things. But talking and getting it done are two different things.
KEVIN IOLE: Right, and what's-- fill me in on Stipe, right, because he's always kind of a-- you know, everybody talks about Jon. What's Jon going to do, right? Stipe hasn't fought since he lost to Francis, kind of almost fell off the face of the earth. It's been, what, 16 months I think since we've seen him.
What is going on with him? Why hasn't he fought subsequently?
DANA WHITE: Well, if you look at what Stipe has accomplished in his career, and he's the number two guy in the world, plus he's got a job, you know, that he loves, in his hometown. You know, he's a fireman. And the guy's made a lot of money. He's got a good life. He just had some kids.
He's doing his thing, you know. He's at that point in his career where he's like bring me something big and I'll jump back in the gym and work for you. You know, he's probably a couple of fights from retiring. So, yeah.
KEVIN IOLE: It just strikes me, and maybe I'm wrong on this, but Jon Jones is something big, right? If you offered him Jon Jones, I mean, come on.
DANA WHITE: 100%.
KEVIN IOLE: So that just makes me--
DANA WHITE: I love how easy you guys take this, as always. Oh, well, like the Jon Jones fight. Get that [MUTED] done.
KEVIN IOLE: I didn't say it's easy. I was asking a question.
DANA WHITE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, trust me. When it's time for me to make Jon Jones versus Stipe, Jon Jones versus Francis, Jon Jones versus anybody, nobody will be [MUTED] happier or more excited to announce it, let you know it's happening, than me.
KEVIN IOLE: Hey, one or two other questions. You know, Jon will be on a very long layoff, right? And I know you have said repeatedly that you're a believer in ring rust.
DANA WHITE: Big believer.
KEVIN IOLE: And I've been thinking about that. And like look at Nate Diaz, right? Three years off, bingo, he comes in, beats Anthony Pettis, gets on this late resurgence that he's on in his late career. So to me, I think, you know, if I say, hey, who's the better athlete, who's the better fighter, Nate Diaz or Jon Jones, of course, it's got to be Jon Jones.
So if Nate Diaz can overcome that lengthy layoff, would you agree that Jon Jones would be able to handle that better than most other people?
DANA WHITE: I think Jon Jones handles a lot of things better than most people. Jon Jones is an absolute freak of nature.
KEVIN IOLE: Right.
DANA WHITE: He's literally a genetic freak. So, yeah, possibly.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, no doubt. All right, we will end it right there. Dana, I appreciate your time as always. UFC 279 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. You said the gate is at 5.5 million. Are we going to get to like 20,000 on Tennis? What are you looking at there?
DANA WHITE: Yeah, no, it's going to be a sellout. It's going to be another sellout, it's like our 24th or 25th straight sellout. Yeah, exciting.
KEVIN IOLE: Going to be fun.
DANA WHITE: Going to be rocking on Saturday night.
KEVIN IOLE: Rocking at T-Mobile. Well, I will be there ringside. I will see you later today at the press conference. Dana, thank you so much.
DANA WHITE: Have a good day, buddy.