White went from being forced out of Boston by the mob and working as a bellman to turning the UFC into a global sports empire worth an estimated $7bn
Dana White is mostly known for being the long-time boss of the UFC, but his fascinating backstory shows the efforts he’s gone to turn the promotion into a multi-billion-dollar company.
Last year marked White’s 20th as president in the UFC and the promotion is continuing to break records.
He claimed the UFC’s fanbase grew by a whopping 40 per cent despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic causing frequent problems for their events.
The promotion will host their first pay-per-view card of the year next weekend in UFC 270, with White stating the event’s estimated $5million gate will be a record for the biggest gate in California.
And with White hopeful of shattering other records they set last year, let’s look at how the UFC boss got to where he is now…
White, who was born in 1969, spent the early days of his childhood in Connecticut before permanently moving with his family to Boston.
He started boxing as a teenager and after finishing high school he eventually joined a college, but dropped out of two different schools and admitted it wasn’t for him.
“I knew I wasn’t going to college, I knew that wasn’t a reality and I didn’t really want to go to college,” he said.
“One of the things that I was very lucky in my life with is I knew exactly what I wanted to. From the time I was a young age I knew I wanted to be in the fight business, and people thought I was crazy.”
Despite knowing he wanted to be involved in the fight game, White would have to work jobs such as a bellman and valet before pursuing his dream career.
It wasn’t until White sought the advice of experienced boxing trainer trainer/manager Peter Welch that he would ditch his jobs and move into the fight business.
Boxing and the mob
Under Welch’s guidance, White’s knowledge of boxing continued to grow and he eventually set up his own boxing classes.
White’s sessions were a success and he toured around several boxing gyms in Boston to teach them, but would eventually be paid an unfriendly visit by a notable member the Boston mob.
White revealed in a 2015 interview with Colin Cowherd that after mobster Kevin Weeks demanded $2,500 from him, he bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas.
He said: “One day I was teaching a class in one of the big clubs in South Boston and these two guys walked into the class and said, ‘Hey, we need to talk to you.’
“He basically said, ‘You owe us money’. It was like $2,500, which was like $25,000 to me back then, and said, ‘You owe us money.’ It was actually a guy named Kevin Weeks.
Weeks was the right-hand man for crime boss Whitey Bulger, who was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list before being sentenced to life in prison.
And White continued: “Basically said I owed him some money, and I didn’t pay him. This went on for a while and one day I was at my place and I got a call and they said, ‘You owe us the money tomorrow by 1 o’clock’.
“I literally hung up the phone, picked up the phone and called Delta and bought a ticket to Vegas.”
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Moving into MMA
When White moved to Vegas, he reunited with a childhood friend in Lorenzo Fertitta who – along with his brother Frank – owned Station Casinos.
The trio had planned a business move into boxing, but after bumping into accomplished mixed martial artist John Lewis one night in Vegas, they became interested in MMA.
White and the Fertitta brothers trained under Lewis several times a week, which is what sparked their eventual interest in buying the UFC.
After managing fighters such as Tito Ortiz who fought for the UFC at the time, White caught wind of the promotion’s financial struggles and suggested buying the failing brand to the Fertitta brothers.
In 2001, the Fertitta brothers and White purchased the UFC for $2m and formed Zuffa LLC, a sports promotion company specialising in MMA to coincide with the purchase.
With the money for the purchase largely coming from the Fertitta brothers, they received 90 per cent of the UFC’s ownership whilst White was given the other 10 per cent.
What started next was a long rebranding mission for the UFC, after their previous owner – Semaphore Entertainment Group – sold all their media and merchandise rights.
UFC growth and sale
Since purchasing the promotion, the UFC has gone from being banned in over 36 states and on the brink of folding to becoming a multi-billion-dollar company.
Broadcast deals with Spike TV and FOX Sports opened up huge sources of income for the UFC, with top fighters eventually inking deals with companies such as Nike and Under Armour.
Their parent company, Zuffa LLC, was in talks to sell the promotion in 2016 for an estimated $3.5 to $4bn, with a handful of potential buyers being interested.
But it was WME/IMG (Endeavor) who purchased the company for $4billion in July 2016, making it the largest ever sales price for a single sports franchise at the time.
In 15 years, the UFC had transitioned from a niche company that was plagued by barbaric stigmas to a global sports empire.
And White – who is reportedly worth over $500m claimed just two years after their sale that the UFC had gained an additional $3bn in value.
“We just did a TV deal with ESPN for $1.5 billion for five years. Now the company is worth $7billion,” White told Tony Robbins in 2018.
That figure has since increased even more, with White stating in 2020 the promotion is worth an estimated $9 or $10bn.