However, a chance meeting at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino changed their course. Long interested in learning submission fighting— precision chokes and joint locks that force an opponent to give in—the trio ran into then-UFC fighter John Lewis, who agreed to teach them Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the style that had been the dominant force in the league's early events. Finding the training addictive and the fledgling sport of mixedmartial arts fascinating, the three began brainstorming ways to promote it. Soon, White signed on to manage relatively unknown UFC fighters Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, both of whom had approached him after seeing his success managing boxers.
While White was mesmerized by the athleticism and conditioning of the UFC's athletes, his passion for the sport wasn't shared by government officials and television executives, who deemed it too fringe, too controversial, too free-for-all, and no-holds-barred. Unlike boxing, there had been no fatalities inUFC events (a stat that remains today), but all major state athletic commissions refused to sanction it, forcing events overseas or to remote sports locales like Mississippi and South Dakota. By 2000, the sport had been banned from pay-per-view by most cable companies. "I thought the UFC had the potential to be big," White says. "But at that point, it was completely dead. We went to fights and there would be maybe 1,500 people there."
With the UFC facing extinction, the organization's original owners, Semaphore Entertainment Group, put it up for sale. White persuaded the Fertitta brothers to buy the UFC, with White serving as the new president and having a 10% stake. A turnaround was born.
White's first priority was to get his events approved nationwide. To do that, he knew he had to clean up the UFC's image. The previous owners had banned groin shots, head butts, and other dirty techniques, but it wasn't enough. In an attempt to get sanctioned in Nevada and New Jersey, White and the state athletic commissions made additional rule changes that emphasized fighter safety and encouraged more action. Kicking a downed opponent in the head wasdisallowed, along with strikes to the spine and back of the head. Strict medical exams for the fighters were also mandated.
Restructuring the sport was meaningless, however, if no one could watch it, so White set up meetings with cable companies where he negotiated getting the UFC back on pay-per-view. He even brought a posse of fighters along to meetings to trumpet the UFC's appeal. "There are all these misconceptions not only about the sport, but about the people who compete in it," says White. "And the best way to squash that is to walk in the door with the fighters and introduce them to people so they can see how intelligent and well-spoken they are. Eighty-five percent of these guys graduated college. The fighters themselves have been some of our best salespeople."
White also changed the way the sport was marketed. The early UFC boasted: "There Are No Rules!" and pushed the fights as modern-day Thunderdome brawls. White abandoned that approach, playing up the fighters' athleticism and personalities. He changed the slogan to "As Real As It Gets," implying that the nature of the fights was as close to a real-life beatdown as the law would allow. In interviews, White decried boxing as "your father's combat sport," offering MMA as the more exciting alternative. "Dana had a vision to make this sport respectable to the average Joe," says MMA trainer Mark DellaGrotte. "You went from seeing T-shirts that had bloodstains and words like 'kill em' to lines like Affliction [a popular clothing line now closely associated with MMA] that are sold in Nordstrom."
Recognizing the sport's appeal to young males, White bought ads in Maxim and Sports Illustrated and arranged for fighters to appear on TV programs like Fox's The Best Damn Sports Show Period. But it was the 2004 deal with Spike TV that vaulted the UFC into the mainstream. During an all-night brainstorming session, White anted up $10 million to produce an entire season of The Ultimate Fighter. Now in its seventh season, the show about aspiring UFC fighters living and training together is the network's most successful program. "That was a landmark moment for the sport," say Scott Wapner, a CNBC business reporter. "It introduced the personalities of the fighters to the public and showed that they were legitimate athletes with a real skill." The series now gets two million viewers per week.