Dana White: how the UFC's president became its biggest liability

Karim Zidan
The Guardian


After 18 years at the helm of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White has no intentions of parting ways anytime soon.

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The UFC president revealed on Monday that he has signed a new seven-year contract with parent company Endeavor to stay on as president of the leading MMA organization. He shared the news during an an interview posted on the promotion’s YouTube channel.

“Ari Emanuel and I just signed a new seven-year deal, too,” White told Megan Olivi. “So we’re here for seven years, ESPN is here for seven years. And the incredible things that we’re gonna work on, I just can’t even tell you how pumped I am for all of this stuff.”

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White’s new contract appears to coincide with the UFC extending its distribution deal with ESPN, which now expires in 2025 instead of 2023. UFC pay-per-views will also be exclusively featured on the ESPN+ platform, which means that only subscribers to the streaming service will be able to purchase UFC PPVs in the United States. While the financial figures from the extended contract were not revealed, White explained that he “couldn’t be more excited to work with ESPN for the next seven years”.

The UFC’s head honcho has been with the promotion since 2001, when White’s longtime friends Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the MMA organization from Semaphore Entertainment Group. He was immediately positioned as the face of the UFC and has been synonymous with UFC branding ever since. While White had the opportunity to exit the UFC when the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to WME-IMG (since renamed Endeavor) in 2016 for more than $4bn, he chose to stay on as president and help Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel during the transition period.

“I have the vision for where the sport is gonna go and what we’re gonna do and the different types of fights,” White said with regards to his relationship with Emanuel and the UFC’s latest ownership. “And what Ari does, Ari is the guy that can pick up the phone and get anybody on the phone. And Ari can raise money like this.”

While White proved to have a pivotal influence on the UFC and its fanbase during its surge in popularity in 2005, he has been less influential in modern times. When the UFC was struggling to cement itself as a legitimate sport and attraction for American sports fans, Dana White’s brash personality and unpolished, aggressive approach was the perfect complement to the violent combat sport. The hot-tempered White embodied the UFC and rose to become one of its most popular celebrities – the personification of the fight business.

However, he has grown to be a controversial and problematic figure for many involved in the sport. Over the past few years, White has been involved in a public disputes with notable fighters, including UFC champions such as Tyron Woodley. He has also insulted reporters and defended the inclusion of convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy on UFC fight cards.

Now 49 years old, White continues to rule over the UFC with an iron fist. He defended the UFC’s current pay scale amidst complaints from struggling fighters by saying, “If you’re not that big pay-per-view star, shut up and fight.” The UFC president has also been accused of bully tactics by former UFC champion Demetrious Johnson, who claimed that White threatened to eliminate the entire flyweight division if Johnson did not defend his title against TJ Dillashaw in 2017, as well as by former UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub, who feuded with White on social media in 2018.

Another concern surrounding White’s continued tenure with the UFC is his ongoing relationship with incumbent US president Donald Trump. White is a vocal supporter of the current administration and even praised Trump’s business savvy during a speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016. His defense of Trump’s actions over the past two years can be viewed as an extension of the UFC’s continued support of the president. Since the 2016 RNC, White has visited Trump in the White House along with interim champion Colby Covington – a welterweight fighter who sports Make American Great Again hats – and allowed the UFC to produce a propaganda documentary that presents Trump as a magnanimous business mogul. As the president of an organization with a significant percentage of Latin Americans and Muslim fighters (segments that Trump has repeatedly insulted), White’s continuous support for Trump sends a powerful message about the UFC’s stance on minority rights.

While Dana White has proven himself as an indispensable asset during the UFC’s darkest days, he has become its biggest liability in recent times. His controversial comments and unfiltered approach, once endearing to the sport’s hardcore fanbase, are now arguably a barrier to the UFC’s legitimacy as a mainstream entity. Given that White will continue to operate as the face of the UFC for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any of the promotion’s glaring problems will be addressed anytime soon.


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