UFC boss tough, effective

UFC president Dana White , shown here with BJ Penn (left) and Kenney Florian, can be harsh at times, but his candor goes over big with fans. The man knows marketing, too, heading an empire Time magazine estimates is worth more than $1 billion.
UFC president Dana White , shown here with BJ Penn (left) and Kenney Florian, can be harsh at times, but his candor goes over big with fans. The man knows marketing, too, heading an empire Time magazine estimates is worth more than $1 billion.
Posted: August 07, 2009

Dana White is a lot of things. Depending on when you catch him, he is candid or careful, profane or profound. But he's never stupid.

Yesterday, the inimitable UFC president fielded questions at the Independence Visitor Center. It was part of a news conference for Saturday's event at the Wachovia Center - UFC 101: Declaration.

After making a long preamble about the growth of the company, White was asked by one reporter about the UFC's desire to hold an event in New York. White, who had just finished a lengthy monologue about his love for Philly's legendary boxing mecca, the Blue Horizon, didn't hesitate.

"Everyone always asks me about New York," White said. "I'm in Philly. This is a fight town."

The man knows his audience.

White is an interesting character. He has become the face of the UFC since being named president in 2001. He's equal parts businessman and brawler. One minute White will consummate one of the countless deals that have helped the UFC grow into a hugely successful international phenomenon, the next you'll see him on YouTube berating a reporter with a never-ending stream of swear words and crude insults. He's sort of like David Stern - if Stern had Mark Cuban's inability to self-censor and Chris Rock's affinity for cursing and putdowns.

I first met White in 2005. I was in Vegas to chronicle his improbable rise from low-level Boston boxer and promoter (and hotel doorman) to an executive in charge of a company that Time magazine estimated is worth well over a billion dollars. (The UFC is notoriously tight-lipped about its profits. Insiders say it will sell more than 15,000 tickets for Saturday's event. That should produce the biggest gate for a fight in Pennsylvania history - a total north of $3 million.)

After we went to the bank so he could pull out $64,000 in cash - half was owed to his UFC partners, the rest he called "walking-around money" - White spent the bulk of our first day together explaining how he has made the UFC so successful. He admitted he's a micromanager, a control freak who would make Andy Reid seem carefree by comparison. From picking the fight matchups to clearing the music used in pay-per-view promos, almost everything flows through White.

What I've learned about White over the years, though, is that he's at his best when serving as the UFC's walking megaphone - loudly heralding its virtues to anyone who will listen (and even those who would rather not). But what separates him from other sports executives - and what gives him instant credibility with MMA fans - is his congenital inability to play the expected PR game. On more than one occasion he has publicly questioned the toughness of various fighters and apologized to fans for bouts that weren't as exciting as the crowd anticipated.

White is beyond blunt. Yesterday, he was flanked by Anderson Silva, Forrest Griffin, BJ Penn, and Kenny Florian. The fighters will headline tomorrow's main events. They are also four of the most skilled MMA practitioners in the world. And yet White spent as much time busting their chops as he did building them up.

White called Silva's last two fights "unspectacular." He said Griffin is one of the best fighters in the world - then added he wins by outworking his opponents rather than by being the most talented. He told a story about how Florian used to be a "pudgy kid," and said that "the biggest enemy of BJ Penn is BJ Penn" because Penn has a reputation for coasting on talent and letting his weight balloon between fights.

White was right about all of that. But if the fighters were bothered by his brutal honesty, they didn't show it. They never do. They seem used to it now - or at least they understand that his singular approach has not only benefited the UFC, but also their individual careers.

When I asked Penn how he felt about White's essentially saying he was once a fat slacker, Penn just laughed it off.

"I think Dana looks great," he quipped.

Cringe.

During the news conference, Greg Sirb, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, "jokingly" told the fighters to bring their "A game" on Saturday, otherwise Philly would bring its "B game." That is, we'll boo.

What, no Santa reference? No nod to Rocky? No warnings to watch out for batteries and laser pointers? He didn't even mention our wonderful cheesesteaks. Or the Liberty Bell, which sits a cliché's throw from where Sirb delivered his short-but- not-so-sweet remarks.

How horribly half-hearted.

Yesterday, guys in Tapout gear mingled with colonial reenactment actors at the Independence Visitor Center. Odd juxtaposition to behold. . . . Silva, whom many consider the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter alive, has won his last nine fights. That's a UFC record. He's also heavily favored to beat Griffin, who is one of the most popular stars in the UFC. Someone asked Griffin, whose default position is dry wit and sarcasm, why he took the fight. "Well," Griffin said, "someone had to fight him. I'm big and stupid and I can take a punch." . . . Silva's entire camp wears the same outfit: Black Adidas track suits with white stripes. The jackets feature giant black and yellow patches on the back. It makes them look as if they're on their way to train at the Cobra Kai Dojo. I kept waiting for someone to scream, "Put him in a body bag, Johnny."


Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813

or gonzalez@phillynews.com.

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