Former street tough Dana White rescued the Ultimate Fighting Championship and transformed the mixed martial arts organization into the hottest sport in America. Get out of his way because he's not stopping now. And besides, you just might get hurt.
Most corporate titans don't look like this. It's hard to picture Donald Trump rolling into a shareholder meeting sporting a fresh shiner from one of his employees. And you definitely won't see Warren Buffett tossing up 300 pounds on the bench press. Thirty-eight-year-old Ultimate Fighting Championship(UFC) president Dana White may now have the boardroom cred of other business bigwigs, but with his round-shouldered build and two faint but permanent red lines along the edges of his nose (courtesy of a sparring partner), he mostly resembles just another fighter. And that's perfectly fine with him.
Indeed, White's tenure as the guiding force behind the rise of the UFC as the newest "fastest-growing sport in America" is best described as a knock-down, drag-out brawl in which he's now the undisputed champion. Nearly worthless and tainted by controversy less than a decade ago (the sport was not sanctioned by most states), White has helped elevate mixed martial arts (MMA) into the mainstream and transformed the UFC, the first MMA organization, into the biggest—and most surprising—success story in sports.
Acquired in 2001 for $2 million by White and other investors, the UFC now fills arenas in North America and Europe, produces a hit cable series (Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter) and has smashed the all-time pay-per-view record. In 2006, the UFC generated more than $200 million in pay-per-view revenue, outperforming boxing and pro wrestling. Last year, Time magazine estimated the UFC's value to be over $1 billion.
What was once a fringe, dark-alley sport—infamously described as "human cockfighting" by Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee—is now as Middle American as it gets. In February, the UFC secured a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with beer giant Anheuser-Busch that in May placed the Bud Light logo on the floor of the sport's unique Octagon fighting ring. And don't be surprised if White lands a major-network television deal soon, perhaps even before you read this article.
A former working-class tough in South Boston who bolted town to elude extortion from the Mob, White may not yet be among the pantheon of sports' most powerful commissioners and executives. But he's right outside their door and he's got a couple of badasses with him. In fact, Dana White just may be the next most powerful guy in sports.
It's been an unlikely journey for the unlikely sports mogul. At 18, after living in numerous cities, White, an amateur boxer and lifelong martial arts aficionado, settled in "Southie," where he didn't mind proving himself regularly in bar and street fights. He worked as a bouncer and later as a bellman at the Boston Harbor Hotel. While the hotel job paid the bills, it also stood in the way of White's true passion: boxing.
"He's always been very tough," says Joe Cavallaro, a former boxer and friend of White's from the hotel, and now the owner of MMA promotion World Championship Fighting. "I think Dana could have fought pro. He was thin back then, but with big, big arms and big shoulders. He's got a real nice jab, and there's nothing you're gonna do to outgut him."
In time, White ran an inner-city boxing gym and started a boxaerobics enterprise akinto what Tae Bo would become in the late 1990s. This caught the attention of the Irish mob, which pressured him to offer them a cut of the action. White chose instead to return to Las Vegas, where he had spent several of his high school years. There, he opened boxing gyms and began managing fighters. He also became reacquainted with former classmate and multimillionaire Lorenzo Fertitta, a casino owner who was serving on the Nevada state boxing commission. The two, along with Fertitta's brother, Frank, discussed starting their own boxing promotion company.