Fox has UFC on the hook for six more years and, says White, “we’re probably going to be on there for the next 16 years,” so none of this is going to change any time soon. It may seem illogical for Fox to keep whipping the horse, but the fact is that the UFC deal is a small gamble for them. If the UFC somehow rises to the occasion, Fox controls an entire sport; if it continues its decline, Fox still has a well of cheap live programming that can at least hit target demographic numbers. There is no losing scenario for Fox in this deal, and that’s how you know the UFC is in over its head.
As deep and abiding as the UFC’s problems are, fixing them is hardly impossible. It’s unclear, though, if White is the man to do it. “The reality is,” he says, “we are one of the major sports. We’re on a network that carries the NFL, we’re on a network that carries Major League Baseball.” That’s true, but the man often doesn’t act as if he knows it.
Imagine if the combined id of every dickish sports commissioner were given free reign, and you’ve conjured Dana White. There is no slight too small to set him off, no common courtesy too sacred for him to ignore. A run of his greatest hits would include him calling veteran MMA reporter Loretta Hunt a “dumb bitch,” denying media credentials to major outlets for inscrutable reasons, and blindly defending employees who mirror his own at-times repulsive behavior. How, for instance, does he square the company’s attempts to expand business in Brazil with his decision to push middleweight Chael Sonnen—infamous for borderline racist invective against Brazilians—as one of the faces of the company?
“Hey, this is the fight business. And to ask somebody like me? I’m the wrong guy to ask that,” says White. “I think everybody in this country are a bunch of pussies anyway. I’m tired of all the politically correct bullshit.
“Welcome to the real world. Sometimes people say mean things.”
White is plenty likable—it would be pretty great if David Stern responded to critics by saying, “People are fucking stupid and say dumb shit”— and as responsible as anyone else for the fact that the UFC has increased in value from the $2 million his childhood friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta paid for it in 2001 to a presently unknown but presumably enormous sum. (The company is privately held, but last fall, Lorenzo Fertitta claimed UFC was worth more than Manchester United or the New York Yankees.) And for what it’s worth, the president of Fox Sports professes not to mind having White around. “Look, there are colorful characters in any sport,” says Shanks. “And they’re people. People say dumb things all the time. How many times do politicians have to apologize for silly things, or awful things, that they say?”
The man who leads his tribe out of the desert, though, isn’t necessarily the one to lead them to the promised land. You wouldn’t be out of line, for instance, in seeing a connection between White comfortably calling Americans “a bunch of pussies” and his company’s inability to attract a stable of big-ticket advertisers.
For those who’d prefer their cage fighting to be controlled by someone more high-minded, there is always the prospect—which White completely, emphatically denies—that the Fertittas might look to cash out of what increasingly looks like a bubble economy in sports. Of course, there is no guarantee that a sale would mark the end of White’s tenure as president, or that a buyer wouldn’t share White’s collection of obnoxious rich guy quirks. So the promotion’s many problems are likely to continue, unless something drastic happens.
The UFC’s path mirrors the history of combat sports on television, which in Japan as well as America has played out as a recursive loop. Boxing, kickboxing, or MMA gets hot. Network executives notice, and in collaboration with promoters, they run so much of it that it starts to bleed together in a great blur of static that sounds like “Henderson title Fuel bro Penn fights Fox, I have other things to do on a Saturday.” For all the technique, grace, and style that make fighting, at its best, a beautiful and satisfying sport—and this Saturday’s card should be an excellent showcase of all that and more—it carries a limited and fragile appeal. The UFC, as White likes to say, isn’t going anywhere. That’s true, but not only in the way he means it.