There are leaders and there are bosses. Dana White, the thick-necked 41-year-old president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), is the latter. Less than a decade ago, he helped pull together a $2-million (U.S.) deal for the then-floundering mixed martial arts organization. He has run it with an iron fist and a potty mouth ever since. UFC-estimated to be worth $1 billion (U.S.)-has a hit reality TV show, fight nights that set pay-per-view records, branded gyms and video game sales galore. Michael Grange talks to White about bossing around champs like Brock Lesnar, hiring former Canadian Football League commish Tom Wright to run UFC Canada-and why Canucks can't get enough of his sport.
How do you keep a handle on employees who punch people in the face for a living? You know what? I don't run fucking Microsoft, and I'm not the CEO of a plastics company. I run a fight company, and I deal with the baddest dudes in the world, period. I've been in the fight game since I was 19. No one is going to shock me. I've had fighters tell me they were going to kick my ass. Believe me, it's happened many times.
Why is the UFC so popular in Canada? I don't think anybody shows up to a UFC event because they're looking for violence and death and destruction. It's a big misconception about the sport. It's no different than football, soccer or anything else: two of the best fighters in the world going against each other. Why shouldn't we be in Canada? Canada is one of the biggest markets in the world for UFC, especially pound for pound. Why? I don't know.
Tom Wright is considered a smooth boardroom type. Is he the right representative for you in Canada? He'd be a good representative for me anywhere. I don't expect people to have my style. I can't see Tom Wright walking into any job interview and leaving without a job. The first night I met him, I thought, "This guy is smooth, he's smart, he's a very likeable guy." I knew the minute we left the room he was the guy.
What phase is your business in? Are you trying to get into more markets, or are you focusing on licensing, video games, branded gyms and all that stuff? It's all of the above. There is not enough time in the day to do all of the things we want to do. When you sit down and start talking about all the possibilities, it hurts your brain. People think I'm a nutbar when I say it's going to be the biggest sport in the world. Believe me, it's going to be.
What were you doing at the Microsoft CEO summit? What message do you, a former boxer, have for guys who've been to Harvard Business School? I just went in there and walked through my story. I told them who I was, where I came from, where we are now and where we're going, and I basically gave them my philosophies on the business and why I think UFC is going to be the biggest sports franchise on Earth. They invited me back again next year, so it must have gone well.
Twenty years ago when you were knocking it around in South Boston, did you see yourself as the CEO of anything? I saw myself in the fight business. You're never going to see me running some plastics company after this. This is who I am, and this is what I do, and that's one of many reasons why it works. I think about this 24/7.
Would you let your kids grow up to be UFC fighters? They've been training since they were 3-they've been doing muay thai for a couple of years, and now they're into jiu-jitsu. It's the one thing a father needs to teach his kid-how to fight. I don't want them to fight, but guess what? I don't want them to play football either; I think football is a zillion times more dangerous than fighting. But who am I to tell my kids they can't do something?