How Dana White became the most powerful man in MMA

UFC president Dana White. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

There’s no real point of comparison for Dana White.

He is a fight promoter in the classic sense, Don King with a different hairstyle (or at least the absence thereof), but that label doesn’t really do him justice. He is a de facto commissioner, but rather than working to serve the interests of a group of team owners, he has been a business partner with those who own what is by far the dominant organization in his sport. He is a matchmaker who wields enormous power, given that he operates what feels like a monopoly in which his athletes aren’t unionized and, other than the megastars, wield precious little power.

He has, when necessary, acted as a publicist and a political lobbyist; as both an f-bomb-dropping, t-shirt-wearing bro and someone comfortable in corporate boardrooms, negotiating multi-million dollar deals with sponsors and television executives.

Not to mention the fact that he claims he once fled Boston because the gangster Whitey Bulger wanted to do him harm.

Along the way, White played an enormous role in inventing a major sport essentially out of thin air. That you don’t see every day. White and his original partners — the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, who were both much quieter and much more wealthy — fundamentally changed the global sports landscape.

The individual disciplines that combine to form mixed martial arts are as old as humankind (see Cain v. Abel). But when the original Ultimate Fighting Championship first appeared under the leadership of music and radio entrepreneur Bob Meyrowitz, it relied less on history and more on curiosity. What would happen if you put a sumo wrestler in with a boxer, or a karate master in with bar brawler, and let them duke it out to the finish?

“There are no rules” was the original marketing slogan.

What White and the Fertittas figured out quickly after they bought a failing company from Meyrowitz was that in order to grow, they actually needed rules. They had to find a way to retain the sport’s outsider culture while at the same time making it seem legitimate enough that nervous legislators in those jurisdictions where it was deemed illegal would agree to regulate it the way they regulated boxing. The whole spectre of what John McCain famously labeled “human cockfighting” was enough to make any politician queasy, but with the savvy hiring of the most square officials imaginable (Marc Ratner, the former chair of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and in Canada, Tom Wright, the former commissioner of the Canadian Football League) and the emergence of clean-cut athletes like Georges St-Pierre, UFC went legit, and prospered.

White always claimed that, one day, MMA would be as big and as mainstream as the NBA or the NFL. Skeptics — guilty as charged — certainly didn’t see that coming. There was a natural limit to how many people would be entertained watching other people beat on each other. And even within that subgroup, boxing’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, a boom-and-bust cycle that was driven to its peaks by stars who crossed into the mainstream sports conversation and laid low by the decline of those personalities. The UFC had never managed to create a star as big as Sugar Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson, let alone Muhammad Ali. How could it possibly survive when Ken Shamrock or Dan Severn or Randy Couture or Tito Ortiz or Chuck Liddell or St-Pierre or Ronda Rousey walked into the sunset?

It did, and it has continued to do so. The fighters come and go, but the brand has proven to be bigger than any of them.

You don’t have to love the UFC’s ascendance, but you have to acknowledge it.

And you don’t have to love Dana White, his personal style, his ruthlessness in business or his occasional bully tactics with the media, but you have to acknowledge what he has wrought.

He was right, and some of us were wrong.

In the debut episode of Open Invitation with Stephen Brunt, Sportsnet’s award-winning journalist sits down with UFC president Dana White, who went from scrub in Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s camp to the face of UFC.

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