Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) President Dana White is nothing if not aggressive. Under his stewardship since 2001, the promotion has grown from an underground fight league with very limited mainstream acceptance to an outfit that is now synonymous with mixed martial arts in the United States.
UFC closed 2006 with a high-profile pay-per-view bout, UFC 66. In March, the company extended a strategic partnership with Spike TV and expanded its lineup of television programming. And the sport continued to gain fans, particularly in the 18-34 male demographic coveted by advertisers.
According to White, also a co-owner of UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC, the success in 2006 was just the tip of the iceberg. He used "aggressive" several times to describe his organization's growth strategy during a Jan. 18 phone interview. What follows are his answers to a range of questions on the future of the UFC, its competitors, upcoming plans, his favorite fighters and more.
Although UFC popularized MMA in the United States, over the last couple of years, the MMA landscape has become a lot more crowded. At the start of 2007, it seems like there are basically three competitors to UFC: PRIDE FC (PRIDE), the International Fight League (IFL), and EliteXC, which will air fights on Showtime. Of these three leagues, who do you consider to be your biggest competitor?
I don't consider the other two [IFL, EliteXC] competition at all. IFL or the other one you said. I don't even know what it's called -- XFC, EFB, EFD -- whatever it is. PRIDE is who I consider the competitor.
In your opinion, does the presence of these other leagues help or hurt the UFC?
You know what ... since 2001, when we bought the company, every weekend there have been leagues popping up left and right and they stick around for awhile and then they disappear. And it's no different now than it was back in 2001. It's exactly the same.
There have been rumors floating around -- online especially -- that Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, is looking to purchase Dream Stage Entertainment, which owns PRIDE. Can you comment on these rumors?
Well, I think over the last month you've seen that we're out there acquiring a few different things and obviously, we're very aggressive and have been since we bought the company and I don't plan on slowing down now. I'm looking to acquire all the best fighters in the world and make the biggest, best matches I can make for the next few years.
So, I guess that's not a denial or a confirmation?
If PRIDE is for sale, I'm interested.
Suppose EliteXC matures to a certain level and maybe the acquisition of PRIDE doesn't go through or PRIDE somehow stays on its feet, would you be an advocate for a cooperative event in the future between UFC and, maybe not these leagues, but other leagues in general? For example, an event like PRIDE's 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix, where Chuck Liddell represented the UFC. Would you be an advocate for something like that?
If somebody was big enough, yeah. If somebody was big enough. I've never been opposed to that. I've actually been the one who's taken the steps to move forward and go ahead and do things like that. Nobody else ever has. I'm the only one that's ever done it. I'm talking about [league's] as big as UFC and PRIDE I'm not talking about one of these little, rinky-dink upstarts. These two companies [IFL and EliteXC] you keep talking about are rinky-dink upstarts. They don't even really exist.
Growing the UFC brand
The UFC is very popular among males 18-34, the demographic you specifically target. In order to compete against other leagues, you are going to have to continue to grow your fan base. Do you have specific plans to attract women and fans from other demographics?
Yeah, obviously, I'm going after other demographics. Women isn't one of them. One of the things we've always said is we know what this is for -- it's for males 18-34. And if women watch, that's just gravy for us -- that's beautiful. And our female fan base has grown incredibly. But to go out and market toward women would be very expensive and not make much sense. But, I'm going after Hispanic and urban [fans].
How about older demographics or older fans that may be more interested in boxing?
We have done that. I think we have tried to go after those people that are boxing fans. I haven't spent a ton of money trying to go after that market but we have definitely advertised toward them, too.
As you said, MMA is becoming more popular, even among women -- whether you market to them or not -- and because of that, women are also becoming participants in the sport. Do you have any plans to add female fighters to your promotion?
I don't. I'm not a huge fan of women fighting. Period. Not to say that I don't acknowledge that there are amazing female athletes out there in every sport. I just think right now we had a hard enough time getting over the stigma of the men.
Is that something you might incorporate in the longterm future once you feel like you are stable enough and you have enough of a presence?
Anything could happen. Who knows? But it's nothing I'm focusing on right now.
What are some of the obstacles you face as you try to gain sanctioning in states where MMA is not currently sanctioned?
I think the big problem is a lot of these other states are states that big shows wouldn't go to anyway. But my goal is [comprehensive sanctioning] -- these smaller shows are happening in these states and it needs to be sanctioned. One of the biggest reasons is fighter safety. When they fight these rinky-dink, little shows all over the place, they don't have to go through the same medical testing, drug testing, everything else that we do in all the major states. But it needs to happen. That's the commission's job.
What are you doing to overcome these obstacles and to gain the sanctioning you need? Are you working with local and state governments? What's the process that you go through for that?
That's the reason we brought Marc Ratner on board from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. We hired him -- that's what he does all day, talks to all these different states and continually works to get proper sanctioning.
Recently you announced that UFC will be more accessible to Spanish-speaking people through television programming on Fox Sports en Espanol. You have also opened a London office. What countries are UFC actively trying to gain a foothold in?
The three we are focusing on right now are Mexico, Canada and the UK. We are going to do four or five fights this year in the UK. And then we are going to start creeping out into Europe doing fights all throughout Europe.
Any fights scheduled for Mexico or Canada in the near future?
Yeah, we're working on those deals as we speak.
So, in 2007 we could see both?
Are you experiencing any cultural challenges in introducing the UFC to some of these other countries?
Not cultural challenges but obviously I'd say business challenges. When you try to do business in another country there's a big learning curve there.
Would you change fight rules to accommodate local values, customs, or laws?
No, that I won't do. I will not do that. I want the unified rules throughout the world. The same game of soccer that they play in Japan, England, and Brazil is the same game we play here. To be a real sport that's the way it has to be.
The last time you held a pay-per-view event on the East Coast was UFC 53 on June 4, 2005, which was held in Atlantic City, N.J. When will you be coming back to the East Coast?
Soon. We're going to Columbus, Ohio. We're doing Columbus in March. Then we're doing Texas. We're really starting to travel around now, not only to the East Coast but places we've never been before.
And why haven't you been back to Atlantic City for over a year and a half? Has that just been a scheduling thing or what's been the issue there?
There's been no issue or specific reason other than [that] we've just been doing a lot of shows out here [on the West Coast].
Between UFC Fight Nights and UFC pay-per-view events, you have over 20 events planned for this year. Are you worried at all about diluting your product with so many events?
I don't know. Are there too many football games on? Are there too many baseball games going on every day? I think as long as you put on good fights people are going to want to tune in and see them.
As you seek to expand your brand, do you see mistakes in other leagues -- for example, the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, or even other MMA leagues -- that you would like to avoid?
I think that the NFL is a monster -- it's amazing what they've done with it. The NBA, Major League Baseball -- I think they all do very well. The one thing I think, if we can emulate any of those three I'd be thrilled. Those are three of the biggest sports in the United States.
One of the things that we want to avoid that I think happens is that the players got too big. The players don't talk to the fans. The players don't go out of their way to sign autographs and to do the things that I think would make [these sports] even bigger than [they are] today.
And that's one of the things that we're going to make sure doesn't happen here in the UFC -- where the guys just become untouchable. You show up at a [Los Angeles] Lakers game, you'll never meet Kobe Bryant. But when you show up to a UFC event, odds are pretty damn good that you're not only going to meet Liddell, but he's going to sign what you need signed and take a picture with you.
How are you going to keep the fighter humble or how are you going to keep them beholden to the fans?
I'm very tight with all the guys that fight here. And we have a lot of meetings -- we get together with the fighters before they go on pay-per-view. The great thing about this sport is that we really don't have to keep too tight of a leash on these guys on being humble and being good people and being good to the fans because this sport is martial arts-based. All these guys come from martial arts which, as anybody knows, you learn a lot of respect and discipline.
So, we're very lucky in the fact that we deal with a lot of good guys as it is. Believe me, there's some idiots in this sport too just like any other sport, but overall [we have] very good guys.
Do you see or could you name one or two good practices that stand out to you in other sports leagues that you would like to emulate or that you already do emulate?
Yeah, I think one of the things that makes us more of a sport sport than a fighting league is -- like I said earlier -- the sportsmanship. When two teams play each other, yeah you might have some teams that are rivals and they really don't like each other that much. That happens in fighting, too. But most of the time, these guys that go out to fight each other are like two teams playing. I mean, that's really what it's like. They go out before the fight, they can hang out at the press conference and the weigh-in and shake hands and say hello to each other. Then they go in and fight as hard as they can fight and they fight to win. As soon as that fight's over, they're shaking hands and showing each other respect again. I think that's one of the great things about the UFC and about the sport.
Are there any plans for taking Zuffa -- the parent company of UFC -- public?
Never. Never, ever, ever. At least not while I'm here. Because I don't want to deal with [the hassles]. I have enough [hassles] to deal with every day, running this company. I don't need a bunch of idiots out in Wall Street -- who have no idea what they're talking about and don't know anything about this business -- telling me how to run it.
You currently have a very strong relationship with Spike TV. Shows such as The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and events like the UFC Fight Nights have brought MMA to the mainstream audience over the last few years. What are your plans for expanding coverage of UFC on TV?
Well, right now, I think we have nine different television shows on Spike TV that all do great ratings. We're obviously talking to a lot of different networks right now and again, I don't have any deals done yet, so I don't like to talk about deals before they're done. But we're in deep, deep talks with HBO right now.
That was actually my next question. So the rumors of those negotiations are actually true?
Can you give us your opinion -- is this a deal that's going to get done very shortly?
Absolutely. We're very aggressive. We really don't take no for an answer. And I think you're going to see UFC programming popping up on all the majors [major networks].
So that's premium cable. How about partnerships with basic sports cable networks such as ESPN or with broadcast TV?
We're talking to everybody, man. We're talking to everybody.
Would you be able to tell me what the number of pay-per-view buys was for UFC 66?
We don't give out our pay-per-view numbers, but we were very pleased with the numbers, very pleased.
People were talking "Mike Tyson-type" numbers. Would you say you got somewhere in the neighborhood of those numbers?
Last year you held two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter reality show -- season three and season four. And season four didn't do quite as well as the show had done in the past, according to reported ratings. Why do you think that is?
We know exactly why it was. We expected it because we went up against football. It was football and that's when all the big shows launched on TV. There's a lot of competition out there. If you have satellite or even basic cable, there's a lot to watch, a lot of things to choose from, and we know we do better running and airing after January. We expected it. Considering the competition we had out there for television -- for eyeballs -- we're very thrilled with the numbers we did last season.
Will this mean that you'll only be running one season per year from now on?
No. I start filming Sunday. We'll knock out season five. Then I think there's a few weeks off and we start doing season six.
So season six will be in 2007 as well?
Are the state athletic commissions in charge of drug testing the fighters?
Are they the ones that mandate how many fighters get tested and which fighters to test?
OK. I had read that you drug test all your title match fighters and randomly sample the other fighters. So, that's not really your policy?
I don't drug test anybody. They [the state athletic commissions] do. What we do is when we do The Ultimate Fighter, when we bring these guys in, every one of them gets drug tested for steroids. We do that on our own. But as far as the fights, the athletic commission does that.
Do you know what drugs the state athletic commissions are testing for with the fights?
Steroids, any type of anabolic steroids, or any type of growth hormone that they can detect. Also, for diuretics. All kinds of stuff. [Stuff] that I couldn't even pronounce to you.
Have they told you why they don't just test all the fighters at each event?
I have no clue. That's up to them. But imagine if every baseball player that played in every baseball game got tested for steroids. Imagine if every football player that plays in every football game every Sunday and Monday night got tested for steroids.
Are athletic commissions also in charge of the health precautions for fighters?
Yes. They oversee everything. They oversee making sure they have all the proper medical testing done like EKG's, CAT scans, etc. All the drug testing. They appoint all the judges and referees. They get the money from us before the fight goes off. They pay the fighters. They oversee everything. That's why sanctioning is so important.
Because fights can be bloody at times in the UFC, is there anything that they're doing to prevent transmission of disease? Are fighters tested for any diseases?
Yeah, they're blood tested for everything -- HIV, hepatitis, anything that can be transmitted through blood.
How is fighter pay determined? I know the commissions reveal what the fighters are paid. Do you have a specific formula that you use to determine fighter pay?
We determine how popular we think the guy is and obviously how many seats he can sell, and how many pay-per-views he can sell.
Do you have an average figure for what a fighter would make in a pay-per-view event?
An average figure? I've got some guys that make lots and lots of money and I've got some guys that make decent money.
Do fighters have any sort of benefits or retirement packages?
No, not with the UFC. What they do with their money, how they invest and put their money away is up to them.
So you're not diverting pay for them like a lot of companies do?
No, there aren't a lot of companies out there -- a lot of small companies -- that start up that have those kinds of plans for their employees. It would be even harder to do for fighters. You mean like a 401K?
No, we don't do that.
Or health insurance?
I'm sure health insurance would be cheap for a company full of ultimate fighters. [laughing]
UFC fighters & upcoming fights
Who do you think is the best overall fighter in the UFC?
I think the best fighter in the UFC right now is Liddell. I think he's the biggest star in the world right now in MMA.
Personally speaking, who is your favorite fighter the guy you are happiest to have fighting in your promotion?
There's a lot of them. To narrow that down to one -- Liddell, Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre. I get along really well with Tito Ortiz now. There are a lot of guys.
Is it that you click with them personally or is there something about these people that they all share in common that you admire? What is it that you like about them?
It's a lot of everything. They're good people. They're great fighters. Some of them I consider family. Some of them are very close friends. I have guys that fight for us that I can't stand, too. I don't like them much and we don't get along, but that doesn't mean we can't do business. There are all kinds in the UFC. Ninety-five percent of them are really good people and I have great relationships with all of them.
Would you like to name any of the fighters you don't get along with?
It's pretty apparent that Tito Ortiz and I had problems for a long time really bad problems that were very public and we worked it out and we have a great relationship now. There are other guys in the UFC that I don't have the best of relationships with, but I wouldn't talk about it publicly.
In UFC 66, you announced the signings of Mirko Filipovic, one of the top heavyweight fighters (from PRIDE) and Quentin Jackson, the only fighter Liddell has fought and never beaten (from WFA). Do you have any other big-name fighter signings that you are working on?
Yeah, our goal is -- like I said a million times -- we're very aggressive guys and we're always looking to get the best fighters in the world into the UFC. And I think over the next year, you're going to see pretty much the "who's who" from across the world fighting in the UFC.
Do you have any specific names that you could give us for the next six months?
No, like I said, I'm working on deals right now and when you go talking about [stuff] that isn't done yet, it makes it harder to do.
Do you have a wish list you could reveal of non-UFC fighters?
Nah. [laughing] I wouldn't lay that out either. It's too much business information. I don't want other people knowing what I'm going after and what I want.
Just last week, former UFC light heavyweight and former heavyweight champion Randy Couture came out of retirement and it was announced that his first fight back at UFC 68 will be a title bout against heavyweight Tim Sylvia. Why did you give Couture an immediate title fight, considering he last fought in the UFC in the light heavyweight division and considering that he has been out of fighting for close to a year?
Because he's the only two-time heavyweight champion in UFC history and he's the only man to move down a weight class and take a belt in that division, too. And when he retired to me he's still the No. 2 light heavyweight in the world. And he told me he wants to kick Sylvia's [butt]. That's enough right there for me to say, "Sure, we'll give it a shot."
And he might have been out for almost a year but he hasn't stopped training. He's been training the whole time. He's in phenomenal shape. I mean, Ortiz was gone for almost a year and a half when he came back.
Brandon Vera is a rising UFC heavyweight who defeated Frank Mir in his last bout and appeared poised for a heavyweight title fight with Sylvia. However, Vera is reported to only have one fight left on his contract and UFC is reported to have a policy that it does not give title fights to fighters who are not signed to multi-fight contracts. Given that, what is the current status of your negotiations to re-sign Brandon Vera to another contract?
We don't have any policies like that. There's a lot of different situations on how we would do a title shot. But, Vera does have one fight left on his contract and I don't know if we will come to terms with him or not.
So you don't have that multi-fight contract policy?
Does giving Couture the immediate title shot mean anything -- should we read into that regarding Vera and his position in the UFC or what you think your ability is to re-sign him?
No, not all. I've got Vera under contract until September.
OK. So, Couture was the No. 1 heavyweight contender when he came back?
Yeah. Vera hasn't beat anybody even close to the caliber that Couture has beaten or faced.
In the summer of 2006, you brought Wanderlei Silva -- the PRIDE 205 pound champion -- into the Octagon during a pay-per-view event and said that he would soon be fighting Liddell. Since then, no fight has occurred between the two. Are there still any plans for a Silva-Liddell fight?
Absolutely. It's a fight all the fans want to see. I'd love to see the fight. So, as soon as I get into a position where I can make that fight, I'd make it in a second.
What happened between that announcement and now? It seemed like it was almost a certainty at that point.
Because I trusted them again -- that they were going to step up to the plate and do the right thing and they didn't. Like they hadn't many times before that. Yeah, I'm talking about PRIDE.
Not Silva in particular?
No, no, no. Silva's a warrior. He'd fight anybody.
Besides TUF, what are your other systems in place for discovering new talent?
We have our fingers on the pulse of everything that goes on in the world of MMA. We know who all the top talent is, who's coming up, who's out there already, and we are constantly going after them every day.
Do you think you can compete with boxing and football and basketball for the best athletes in this country?
Yeah, I do. I think there's enough money in this sport now that gifted athletes are going to want to fight in the UFC.
You once managed Ortiz and Liddell. What is your relationship with them now?
I have great relationships with them. Liddell is somebody that I consider pretty much part of my family. And Ortiz, we've had a real bad history over the last couple of years, but we're in a good place right now. We get along really well and we respect each other.
Do you think there will be a third match between the two?
You never know. I'd have to say no right now, but you never know.
Ortiz asked to be given a boxing match against you when he re-signed with the UFC. Is your boxing match with Ortiz still going to happen?
Yes. We're going to do it in March.
I heard previously that you were going to do it for charity. Is that still the plan?
Yeah, probably. Yeah, we're going to give the money to charity.
Do you have any more specifics on that bout? Can fans watch that bout?
It'll air on the Web site [ufc.com], and it'll re-air with a whole show built around it on Spike TV.
In December, Zuffa announced the acquisition of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), as an entity that will hold its own events. How will Zuffa utilize WEC with respect to UFC?
We won't. The WEC will go out and acquire its own talent and build its own show and its own programming on the Versus network. And they are going to be competitors.
So, even as president of UFC, you have no input into their operations?
Yeah, I do. I'm the president of Zuffa.
Will there be plans to use WEC as a farm system?
No, it's not going to be a farm system. It's not going to be anything like that. It's going to be their own brand -- their own company with their own fighters. And they're looking to compete with us and go head-to-head.
I had a question about Sylvia's last couple of fights. A lot of fans booed because of inactivity and they found the fights not very compelling, even boring. Would you consider rule changes to prevent those sorts of fights from happening in the future?
No. I think that I wouldn't disagree. I think Tim's had a couple of fights that people weren't crazy about and now it's up to Tim to work on his game and get in there and try to finish people. I think that's one of the reasons Couture came back. He wants to fight Sylvia and be the only man to win the heavyweight title three times. He sees some holes in Sylvia's game. He thinks Sylvia fights to squeak by and win, not to really finish people and he doesn't think Sylvia has the heart to beat him.
So, this is Tim's chance to prove everybody wrong and beat one of the greatest fighters ever and kind of change that stigma that he has right now with the fans.
Looking back to 2006
What is your assessment of how things went for UFC in 2006 -- in the Octagon, financially, as far as exposure and acceptance, and expansion of your brand?
It was an amazing year for us. We exceeded a lot of the goals that we had set for ourselves. It was an incredible year, but you ain't seen nothing yet. Wait 'til you see 2007. We're going to blow everybody's mind again in 2007.
Pramit Mohapatra covers mixed martial arts for Baltimoresun.com.