There is undeniable genius in the character created by Dana White.
As frontman for the UFC’s shadowy owners, as the de facto commissioner of a now pretty much mainstream sport, he is mixed martial arts’ arbiter, its voice of authority.
But those other commissioners wear suits and ties. They — Bud Selig the notable exception — are lawyers. They are hired guns by definition.
White, with his shaved head and his T-shirts has nothing to button down. He is loud and he is profane and he is passionate about fighting, in so many ways a mirror of the folks who come to his shows.
He is also a shill, which is part of the gig, in the grand tradition of the carnival barkers who run boxing—and in their most recent incarnation essentially ran it into the ground. He is selling hard, pushing the product, 24 hours a day.
What distinguishes him, though, is the way he takes on the voice of the fan. White is a company man, but if one of the company’s fights stinks, he’s the first to say so. He throws cash at those who come up with the most crowd-pleasing performances, while drumming out of the business (the kind of thing you can actually do when you’ve created a de facto monopoly) those who aren’t sufficiently willing to risk life and limb for the sake of entertainment.
If you dropped 50 bucks on a pay-per-view and felt ripped off at the end, White is right there with you. If there’s a bad decision, as there most certainly was on Saturday night, he’ll attack the judges and the local athletic commission. If there’s a match the paying customers want to see, he’ll make it. (There are no fights that should have been but never were—Pacquiao-Mayweather, Bowe-Lewis—in the UFC.)
But now, for the first time really, that fan-boy persona has bitten White in the behind.
On Saturday night, looking battered and sounding distant and confused after his controversial decision win over Johny Hendricks, Georges-St-Pierre said that he needed to take some time away from the sport to deal with unspecified personal problems. (Gossip sites have since suggested what those problems might be, but that’s really beside the point.) Most of all, the UFC’s longest reigning champion seemed like a fighter who didn’t really want to fight anymore.
White reacted angrily, peeved that there would be no immediate rematch (because of course that’s what the customers would demand….), dismissive of whatever St-Pierre’s issues might be, and apparently oblivious to the fact that a great champion, one of those most responsible for lifting the UFC’s image out of its no-holds-barred past and propelling it toward legitimacy, had just taken a terrible beating, during which, the fighter said, he “lost memory” a couple of times.
Never mind all of that, White said. St-Pierre owed it to the fans, owed it to the belt, and owed it to the company to grant Hendricks an immediate rematch.
It’s a nasty, brutal business. Everyone understands that. Any kind of fighting as spectacle boils down to hurting and being hurt. Earlier this month, a brave boxer was beaten into a coma live on HBO. Though St-Pierre more than anyone else could make MMA seem like an exhibition of skill and science, one look at his face on Saturday was evidence of that true bottom line.
And the fighters are meat. They’re fodder. They’re product and they’re disposable. GSP has made plenty of money—though here’s betting not a fair amount proportionate to the revenue he has generated and value he has created for UFC—but he’ll pass into the sunset just like they all do, and another will take his place. The truth is, a good portion of the audience has probably tired of seeing him win one dominating, technical decision after another, and got a charge out of watching Hendricks expose him as mortal, the way some people used to cheer against Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard.
But if, in the wake of that, the face and boss of the sport stands up and says, no, we need—we deserve—a few more ounces of GSP’s blood, because you have to give the people what they want, it’s bound to draw unfavourable comparisons.
White’s pose, going far beyond the tonsorial, has always been that he’s the anti-Don King.
But Saturday, they sure seemed like kith and kin.