TORONTO — Last year, the UFC opened a new, 15-acre headquarters not far from the Las Vegas strip. More than 200 employees work on the sprawling campus. The company’s fighters have access to a state-of-the-art performance institute that houses their training and recovery. On around 60,000 square feet of land to the east, construction is currently underway to build a production facility and small arena that could hold more than 1,500.
But the most important space in the entire operation is no bigger than a conference room. It features none of the modern amenities you’ll find elsewhere around UFC’s facilities. Only a table, a few chairs, and a border of plain, white walls covered in dry erase marker.
One wall lists the top 15 ranked fighters in each of the organization’s 13 weight classes. Another has each fight UFC has booked, and the bouts its working on making. The wall beside that lists every fighter who’s won on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, in which inexperienced, up-and-coming fighters compete for UFC contracts. Another has UFC’s yearly schedule — where they’ve been, where they’re going, how many seats they’ve sold, and the revenue they’ve generated. And one has a list of all the fighters whose contracts are up.
“We sit in that room for f–––––– hours,” White says, “staring at the walls and making fights.”
When things go haywire in White’s world, as things so often do, that room is where he goes. He pulls in Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby, his two vice presidents and matchmakers, and Hunter Campbell, one of the UFC’s attorneys, to help in the decision-making process. On many nights, they’re in there until 11:00 p.m., arguing over what the promotion needs to do next. How to respond to its latest unexpected challenge. How to keep the divisions moving.
“We hit some roadblocks. But my job is to push these guys, to figure these things out,” White says. “Everything I’ve ever done has been done in that room. It’s the think tank. That room is the key to everything.”
White is, of course, the UFC’s President. It’s a role he’s filled since he and his childhood friends, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, bought the struggling company for $2 million in 2001. It’s one he maintained through the sport’s explosion in popularity and rapid expansion throughout the 2000s. And one he kept when the UFC was sold to a group led by talent agency WME-IMG for more than $4 billion in 2016. It’s a role that’s made White an extremely rich man.
A controversial man, too. Unfiltered, aggressive, and prepared to pick a fight with anyone in combat sports, from rival promoters to athletes on his own roster, White is MMA’s most contentious figure. To eager fans who have watched the sport grow into a massive, international enterprise over the last two decades, no one has done more for MMA. To disgruntled fighters who lament the lack of a commensurate increase in their wages and benefits over the same timeframe, no one has been more problematic.
It’s difficult to discuss White without mentioning these things. Just this week, he’s been publicly defending the UFC’s decision to book heavyweight Greg Hardy, a former NFL player charged and convicted of domestic violence (his charges were dismissed upon appeal when the victim failed to appear in court), on the same January card as flyweight Rachael Ostovich, who was recently hospitalized with a broken orbital bone suffered in an alleged attack by her husband.
The criticism over the booking has been fierce and unanimous. How could the UFC’s matchmakers be so tone deaf? But as the topic was predictably raised in every interview White conducted during a Thursday media blitz, he made a case that Hardy deserves a chance at rehabilitation, and that Ostovich, who White says he spoke to before the fight announcement, has no issue with the booking.
This is White’s function. He puts out fires, he controls the damage. It doesn’t matter to him that he’s sometimes the source of the blaze. He’s the public face of a company that profits off violence. Moral and ethical questions are at the centre of the very design. There will always be fires. One of professional sport’s most accessible, candid principals, White routinely takes the heat, makes his case, and moves on to the next one. It’s the job he does, on top of the job he’s supposed to be doing — making fights.
“On any given day, I’ll walk into work in the morning with a plan of what I’m going to do,” White says. “And a lot of the time my day will be shot to s––– by 9:30 and I’ll be working on something completely different that I didn’t expect to have happen.”
Say, for instance, a main event fighter is injured while training and can’t compete. Into the white-walled room, he goes, looking to brainstorm a solution. Or, say a fighter misses weight. It’s onto the phone to negotiate purse adjustments with managers. Or, let’s just cite something completely inconceivable here, such as the sport’s most recognizable star hurling a hand truck through the window of a bus carrying several UFC fighters. Oh, right:
White doesn’t have a definitive ranking, but he calls the week preceding that event — UFC 223 in Brooklyn, N.Y. — one of the most challenging he’s had. It began with Tony Ferguson, who was due to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title atop the card, blowing out his knee seven days prior to the fight. It continued with the above melee following the event’s media day, which forced the cancellation of three fights and landed Conor McGregor in jail. Then, about 36 hours from fight night, Ferguson’s fill-in — Max Holloway — was deemed medically unfit to compete, which launched a mad scramble to find a last-minute replacement.
“When your biggest star goes to jail,” White says, “that’s a problem. That’s a rough week.”
Of course, that’s not every fight week. But in many, there will be some sort of issue White and his team have to manage. For instance, this weekend’s main event in Toronto between Brian Ortega and Holloway, the featherweight champion, was booked once before. But Holloway was forced to pull out during fight week due to concussion-like symptoms. The bout was scrapped altogether when Ortega, not wanting to jeopardize his status as the No. 1 contender, refused to fight a replacement, much to White’s chagrin.
White says he sometimes reacts emotionally to the many twists and turns his best-laid plans will take. But less often than he once did.
“I’m numb to it, I really am,” he says. “It’s always something, man. And that’s just what you know about. There’s so much more s––– that goes on behind the scenes that I deal with — on a daily basis — that you don’t know about. You start to get very, very numb to it.”
And, paradoxically, there’s a benefit to the mayhem. To the utter unpredictability of the sport. Of course White would prefer for absolutely everything the UFC does to go smoothly. But when it doesn’t, it keeps the company name in the headlines. It keeps fight fans interested during the lulls between cards. It generates articles, videos, Tweets, Reddit threads, an endless cache of content. It keeps the fan base, the consumers who pay for the product, continually engaged.
“Oh, 100 per cent,” White says. “That’s the secret sauce.”
The UFC simply isn’t what it is without its constant havoc and uncertainty. It’s just like a fight. The chaos is the allure. At any moment, anything can happen. And as long as he’s in charge, White will be at the fulcrum of it all. He’s as much a central protagonist in all of this as any of his fighters. But does he ever want to get off the ride? Does he ever wish all the problems fell into someone else’s lap?
“No chance,” White says. “I’m 49 years old. What the f––– am I going to do? Sit home every day? Go on vacations? How many times can you go to f–––––– Fiji?
“But more than anything, I just love this s–––. I love the problems that get shot at me every day. I love figuring out this puzzle, putting all the pieces together. And then, the payoff is, Saturday night I’ll be sitting in those seats and watching the whole thing unfold. And then you take whatever happened that night and you go back and you sit in that f–––––– white room again — and you figure it out.”