White plays it fast and furious

When all is said and done, Ultimate Fighting Championship boss enjoys nothing more than a good scrap - and he wants you to share the love

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2014, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 June, 2014, 9:58pm

If Dana White was a super hero, you might imagine his alter-ego would be called Mr Hype and you might also think the one thing that would rob him of his powers would be silence. It is every fight promoter's worst nightmare, and the one thing they fear above all others.

The very nature of the fight game means you have to get people to react. Positive or negative, it doesn't really matter as long as they feel something. And that is why White is standing on the podium now in a state of apparent disbelief.

The president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has made his way to Hong Kong for the first time - to promote his organisation's next event in Macau on August 23 - and the media gathered before him have run out of questions.

Oh, for sure you'll find that the fans want to tell me how to run this thing, and what to do and what to say. They feel very much a part of the UFC and I love it
Dana White

"Ask me anything," White pleads, but his powers seem to already be diminishing and the press conference is brought to what, by UFC standards, can only be considered an early close.

Back in the United States, of course, this would never be the case. Over there everyone wants a piece of the UFC, and they want a piece of White. Check out any mixed martial arts message board or tune in to any UFC event and the reaction you find to the man is pretty much equal parts love and hate. But, again, that's what the game is all about and the UFC has come to China in the hope the nation will soon feel the same way.

"Oh, for sure you'll find that the fans want to tell me how to run this thing, and what to do and what to say," says White. "And that's the kind of the relationship I have always had with the fans. They feel very much a part of the UFC and I love it. At the end of the day, I'm a fight promoter and that's all part of the game."

And it's a game that has gone global. White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta picked up the UFC franchise in 2001 for around US$2 million and its worth is now estimated to be in the billions. The sport's high- octane action has been brilliantly marketed and packaged to a generation of sports fans looking for something to call their very own - and mixed martial arts fits the bill.

"I grew up in Las Vegas so I grew up around fights and I knew people wanted something fresh," says White.

"So here's what I thought. I came from boxing. Boxing had the same old story: 'I came from the mean streets of such and such and if it wasn't for boxing I'd be dead or in jail.' That was every guy's story in boxing.

"When I started to meet some of these [MMA] athletes I found most of them were college educated. They might have come from middle-class families, had wives and children, whatever. But the thing was that everyone had a different story."

So the UFC used all the modern means of media they could find to spread the message. To this day, the organisation holds total control of all programming and events, while maintaining an almost blanket-like coverage across the likes of Facebook (15 million followers) and Twitter. It has also helped that the sport's very nature lends itself to the gaming consoles that are the fixation of so many people's lives.

"I hear this all the time - that people become fans of the UFC after playing our video game," says White. "They learn the moves from the game, they learn the fighters' names. It's been a huge marketing tool for us too."

But the rest of the world is not really our concern today, as White joins us, post-press conference, for a chat. His business - like almost all businesses everywhere - has its eyes on China and if the numbers are to be believed, the UFC message is already taking hold on the mainland.

"Martial arts started here," says White.

"It's such a no-brainer. There are a lot of people here and that means a lot of opportunity for fans and a lot of opportunity for talent. I don't look at problems here - I look at opportunities."

UFC claims that since hosting its first event in Macau at the end of 2012 it has around 25 million mainland followers, while the first season of its reality show The Ultimate Fighter China found an audience of around 10 million for each of its 12 episodes. There's another TUF series in the works and on August 23 the organisation returns to the CotaiArena for the third time, with a card that boasts a middleweight match-up between Vietnam-born, US-raised Cung Le and Britain's Michael "The Count" Bisping.

UFC's first two events in Macau have been sellouts and showcased just why it appears to be no idle boast that the sport is the fastest growing in the world.

On the first card in November 2012, Le's knockout of Rich Franklin in the first round was voted by many to be the punch of the year, while those in the crowd at the event back in March can no doubt still feel the Kim Dong- hyun elbow that brought John Hathaway to the canvas in their bones.

That fight is already being heralded as the knockout of this year.

"We know in China we have to build things piece by piece," says White. "There's a lot of work to be done, but there's also a lot of potential."

White is a firm believer in the universal attraction that we - as humans - have to the fight game. Growing up in Vegas meant it was part of the very fabric of his world.

I was a huge Bruce Lee fan growing up and I was a huge boxing fan growing up, and a fan of all kinds of fighting
Dana White

"I was a huge Bruce Lee fan growing up and I was a huge boxing fan growing up, and a fan of all kinds of fighting," he recalls.

"The first thing I remember about fights was when I was a little kid and there was ABC'S Wide World of Sports and they used to have all the big fights on.

"I remember all my uncles and all their friends watching and there'd be all this energy and all this buzz when these guys were watching the fights. That's what really got me in as a fight fan."

It is also what led him into the life of a promoter - he says he saw the almost unlimited potential such sports had, as long as you provided the public with the right product.

"You have to entertain people," says White. "And you have to give them what they want. That's what gets people talking and that's what this game is all about. If we wanted to have a conversation now about cricket - me and you, right now - I can guarantee you it's going to be pretty one-sided.

"But if you want to talk about fighting, anywhere you go in the world, then everyone is an expert. Everybody has an opinion and that stirs up controversy.

"Part of the fun is sitting around with your friends talking about how the fight's going to go. The whole world can get in on the conversation."