The U.F.C. Is Coming Back. Dana White Never Wanted It to Stop.

Written by on May 8, 2020

When Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje step into the octagon Saturday night time in Jacksonville, Fla., their interim light-weight title bout would be the climax of U.F.C. 249, the most important sporting occasion to happen in the USA in nearly two months. It’ll even be a triumph for Dana White, the bellicose president of the Final Preventing Championship. If it had been as much as White, he by no means would have stopped staging blended martial arts fights, coronavirus pandemic be damned.

For 20 years, White has insisted that his sport would turn out to be the world’s greatest. This weekend, he’ll get a highlight commensurate together with his ambitions, for one night time, not less than, and maybe longer if the U.F.C.’s plans for not less than three extra occasions in Might proceed with out vital setbacks.

But when U.F.C. 249 demonstrates White’s unquenchable need to rule the sports activities world, it has additionally emphasised among the liabilities of his hard-charging model and some doable cracks within the U.F.C.’s enterprise mannequin.

White’s makes an attempt to maintain fights going through the pandemic have drawn rebukes from highly effective politicians and from his most necessary company companions, Disney and ESPN. The scrutiny, partially, mirrored larger expectations of respectability from a company that was lengthy considered a lowbrow curiosity.

For many of White’s tenure as president, the group was owned by Las Vegas on line casino moguls and answerable to just about no person. Based in 1993, the U.F.C. was purchased in 2001 for $2 million by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, brothers who owned Station Casinos and had been childhood pals of White, whom they instantly put in cost. They bought the U.F.C. in 2016 for round $Four billion, capping a metamorphosis for which White deserves a lot of the credit score.

The U.F.C.’s new main proprietor, Endeavor, is a live-events conglomerate that has aimed to turn out to be a public firm however has seen its enterprise devastated by the pandemic. Endeavor executives have made it clear that they contemplate White one of many U.F.C.’s main belongings, however the president’s unyielding management over fighters has been challenged in a long-running lawsuit that might shift substantial income to the athletes and undermine a few of White’s grand plans.

“He lives for the folks in his face telling him he can’t do it, he can’t win, it gained’t occur,” Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, mentioned of White. “That simply fuels him, it’s like diesel in his veins.”

White declined to talk to The New York Instances for this text.

PictureWhite is flanked by the Fertitta brothers — Frank, left, and Lorenzo,  second from right — who helped him build the U.F.C. into a juggernaut.
Credit score…Claire Greenway/Getty Photos

Within the early days, after White persuaded the Fertitta brothers to buy the U.F.C. and set up him as president, there have been scores of adversaries. Many states and nations considered the U.F.C. as excessively violent and refused to approve its bouts, and community tv turned up its nostril, too.

There have been additionally competing blended martial arts organizations, fighters and managers whom White perceived as grasping, and a information media that celebrated boxing because the candy science but largely regarded down upon White’s sport as unsophisticated brawling.

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White is a boxing fan, and earlier than discovering blended martial arts, he taught boxing courses in Boston and Las Vegas. But when he took over the U.F.C., he regarded not towards boxing however to skilled wrestling for a framework.

Boxers have extra freedom and energy to dictate monetary phrases than blended martial arts fighters, largely due to the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, enacted in 2000. The Ali Act requires promoters to share monetary info and bans lengthy contracts that tended to underpay rising stars, amongst different rules.

The U.F.C. largely indicators fighters to long-term contracts — beneath which they’re paid solely after they compete — then dictates when, the place and in opposition to whom they’ll compete. The corporate employed lobbyists in Washington to struggle any extension of the Ali Act to blended martial arts.

One of many nice contradictions of the U.F.C. is that earlier than White grew to become president he labored as a supervisor and as soon as held a fighter, Tito Ortiz, out of an occasion, the kind of insubordination he now rages in opposition to.

“Dana White the promoter would name Dana White the supervisor a scumbag,” mentioned Josh Gross, a blended martial arts reporter for The Athletic, whose reporting has so angered the U.F.C. that Gross has not acquired a credential to cowl a U.F.C. occasion for 15 years, one thing nearly unthinkable within the different main American sports activities.

White, who owned 9 % of the U.F.C. when it was bought in 2016, netted over $300 million from the deal. The Las Vegas mansion he shares together with his spouse and kids has a basketball court docket, a private fitness center, an arcade room and an unlimited out of doors pool. 4 years after reaping a private windfall to rival any star prizefighter’s, why is he working 14-hour days scouring the globe for struggle areas as an alternative of floating in his pool?

“As a result of that’s him,” Shapiro mentioned. “He doesn’t know anything. He wouldn’t be happy, he wouldn’t be content material, if he wasn’t making and selling fights.”

Underneath Endeavor, the U.F.C.’s development has been fueled most clearly by its long-term tv settlement with ESPN, a deal that was signed in 2018. ESPN pays the U.F.C. $300 million yearly to indicate 30 occasions on its cable channels and streaming service. ESPN additionally paid an undisclosed sum for the unique rights to promote 10 pay-per-view occasions, like U.F.C. 249, every year.

Whereas giving the U.F.C. the next monetary flooring for every of its occasions, Endeavor and ESPN have additionally introduced the U.F.C. with substantial challenges. Earlier than the pandemic, Endeavor carried $4.6 billion in debt. It canceled an preliminary public providing final 12 months.

Constructed primarily round reside occasions in sports activities, leisure and trend, Endeavor has laid off, furloughed or minimize the pay of one-third of its 7,500 worldwide employees up to now month and canceled a scheduled $300 million dividend cost from the U.F.C. Notably, although, no workers on the U.F.C. have been affected, some extent White has made repeatedly.

U.F.C. 249 was initially scheduled to be held in New York, earlier than the pandemic shut down sports activities throughout the nation. White brewed up a plan to carry the occasion on tribal land in California to evade stay-at-home orders, an effort that backfired after California state officials contacted Disney, the father or mother firm of ESPN, to specific considerations. ESPN then advised White that it could not telecast them, forcing the postponement of U.F.C. 249.

U.F.C. and Endeavor officers insist their dedication to stage fights through the pandemic is just not as a result of monetary pressures.

“We aren’t placing fights on to fulfill any contracts or due to any explicit monetary state of affairs at Endeavor,” Shapiro mentioned, including that Endeavor had sufficient cash to pay its debt service obligations and contracts for this 12 months and past, in addition to entry to capital to remain solvent.

Credit score…Eraldo Peres/Related Press

Although stay-at-home orders are slowly lifting in some states, most nonetheless aren’t permitting leisure occasions that contain the variety of folks that the U.F.C. usually must stage fights. However in an uncommon exception, workers {of professional} sports activities organizations are deemed important staff in Florida, and the state’s boxing fee has authorised the U.F.C.’s fights.

Assembly authorized and security requirements for a typical struggle, nonetheless, is much totally different from making ready to deal with a virus spread through person-to-person contact. And although spectators is not going to be admitted to Saturday’s bouts, the U.F.C. has not gone to nice lengths to reassure the general public about how precisely it’s going to shield 24 fighters, in addition to the mandatory manufacturing employees, from the coronavirus.

“We don’t want it determined within the court docket of public opinion,” Shapiro mentioned. White has boasted of a 30-page doc outlining well being and security precautions that was introduced to state officers in Florida, however the doc has not been made obtainable publicly.

Quickly after the U.F.C. canceled its plans for fights on tribal land, the highest govt on the firm’s greatest competitor mentioned he was shocked that White was prepared to take such dangers.

“On the finish of the day, if someone will get sick, someone dies in your watch, it isn’t going to be one thing that they need to reside with,” mentioned Scott Coker, the president of Bellator M.M.A., which has canceled its occasions for Might and early June.

White has mentioned that any fighter who feels uncomfortable doesn’t should compete through the pandemic, however such a call may have extreme monetary penalties.

U.F.C. fighters don’t obtain common salaries; they’re paid solely after they enter the octagon. And since White controls when they’ll compete sooner or later, in addition to fight-night bonuses, fighters may worry they’re risking their careers by talking up if they don’t consider it’s protected to compete.

A number of fighters have criticized White in private phrases through the years, normally close to the tip of their careers. The previous heavyweight fighter Mark Hunt, who unsuccessfully sued the U.F.C. in a dispute over a $2.5 million purse, referred to as White a “thieving little grub” in a video final month. White has been referred to as a bully by each the previous featherweight champion Cristiane Justino, often known as Cyborg, and the previous heavyweight Brendan Schaub, who has mentioned White “motivates by worry.”

Six years in the past, a handful of fighters filed a class-action lawsuit in opposition to the U.F.C.; it’s slowly winding its approach by way of the federal court docket system. The fighters are searching for shorter contracts and the next proportion of the U.F.C.’s income, amongst different issues.

At a listening to within the case final 12 months, an Endeavor monetary presentation was entered into the file. It revealed that potential traders most often requested about fighter compensation, a price that might skyrocket if the U.F.C. loses the lawsuit.

Credit score…John Locher/Related Press
Credit score…Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press, through Related Press

Simply days after the U.F.C. was bought to Endeavor, White appeared on the Republican Nationwide Conference to talk in help of the celebration’s presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, a call that was opposed inside his personal firm.

“I mentioned, ‘It is a unhealthy concept, we don’t need to get entangled in politics,’” mentioned Lawrence Epstein, the chief working officer of the U.F.C. “We would like everybody to be a U.F.C. fan.”

The primary U.F.C. occasion beneath White was held on the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic Metropolis in 2001, when the game was nonetheless banned in lots of states. White wished to indicate loyalty to his outdated good friend, regardless of the penalties. “He’s somebody who will reside by his personal code,” Epstein mentioned.

A sports activities govt within the mould of a standard league commissioner wouldn’t have spoken at a political conference or compelled a tv accomplice into the embarrassing place of basically pulling the plug on an occasion days earlier than it was scheduled to start.

For higher or for worse, Dana White is just not that govt. He by no means has been and by no means will likely be.

However to the individuals who matter, he’s important to the U.F.C.’s future.

“Unequivocally, we might by no means have purchased the U.F.C. if Dana hadn’t agreed upfront to stay round,” Shapiro mentioned. He wouldn’t focus on whether or not White had just lately signed a contract extension, however mentioned he anticipated him “to proceed being the president of the U.F.C. for the lengthy future.”

The U.F.C. isn’t but as large because the N.H.L., not to mention the N.B.A. or N.F.L., however give White a while. He’s positive he’ll get there.


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