NEW YORK – At the time, Dana White was a 20-something in Boston who was just trying to make an honest buck while searching for his lot in life. He took college for a spin, enrolling at the local University of Massachusetts campus and lasting two semesters. When that didn't take, he roamed the New England landscape working odd jobs.
He checked IDs and ejected unruly drunks as a bouncer at the Black Rose, an egg toss away from Quincy Market. He had a gig as a bellhop in a Boston hotel. He had five years of hard labor while working for a paving company. A former amateur boxer, his side job to side jobs was giving lessons to prospective fighters.
It was the early 1990s in South Boston, hardly the environment tourists experienced while combing brick roads and New England's rich history. The visitors' bureau didn't distribute pamphlets for Southie, which had become an exercise in survival during notorious gangster Whitey Bulger's reign of terror.
"I was in Southie," White said, "when Southie was still Southie."
Bulger's muscle paid a visit to White one day, walking into his gym, interrupting a training session and pulling him outside. They were attempting to shake him down for $2,500, the fare for conducting business on Whitey's turf. Never mind that he couldn't spare $25, let alone $2,500. That wasn't their problem. It was his problem.
White continued operations for another month under faint hopes Whitey's boys wouldn't return, knowing darned well they would. And when they actually did, when they called his apartment, told him to come up with the dough, or else, and made veiled threats to his girlfriend, the message was clear:
One way or another, he was finished in Boston.
“I hung up the phone, then I picked up the phone, called Delta and got a one-way ticket back to Vegas," he said. "I left everything – furniture, stereo, everything. There was no way in hell that I was going to pay it. Once you pay it, you’re done. I knew once I got to Vegas that I didn't have to worry about the Irish mob in Southie.”
Sitting on a couch inside a small room of Kings Theater in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, he couldn't help but shake his head and laugh over the irony of his path to Ultimate Fighting Championship. He helped turn a $2 million investment into a $4 billion windfall for him and two partners when the company was sold in July.
White banked $400 million while investors Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta walked away with about $3.6 billion. The name and face of UFC for the past 16 years, White remained with UFC as president while collecting an estimated $20 million in salary for doing what he loves most.
Here's hoping Bulger and crew know they helped uncork an entire industry when chasing White out of town for a measly $2,500. He sought refuge in Las Vegas, which led to a chance encounter with the wealthy Fertitta brothers, which led to UFC's transforming from a small enterprise to a multibillion-dollar empire.
So there you have it.
UFC largely was made possible by Bulger, of all people. Now 87, his life has been reduced to three hots and a cot while serving two life sentences in prison. He escaped Boston in December 1994 and was a fugitive for 16 years before he was captured. He was convicted of 31 crimes, including his involvement with 11 murders.
"I’m not a big believer in anything," White said in February before weigh-ins in preparation for UFC 208, which was held in Barclays Center. "I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in the devil, ghosts, goblins or any of that stuff. I don’t believe in anything, right? But fate is a trip."
Yes, fate works in funny ways.
What a trip it has been for White, whose education comes from the School of Hard Knocks. He presided over UFC during mixed-martial arts' evolution from barbaric idea to respected industry while tightening its grip on a younger, hipper audience and all but replacing the dinosaur known as boxing.
The Fertitta brothers, from the family that owns Station Casinos, were the financial lifeblood of UFC. White was its promoter, spiritual leader and backbone. They had become friends years earlier in Las Vegas, where White attended school for several years before his mother returned his family to their New England roots.
White was back in the desert training fighters when he was reunited with Lorenzo Fertitta, who served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission. They bumped into one another at a mutual friend's wedding, started talking about combat sports and drew up loose plans for the UFC venture.
A month later, they created a company, Zuffa LLC, and purchased UFC.
It's the Cliffs Notes version, skimming over the fact White's partners were $44 million in debt within three years of purchase, how the company paid $10 million to Spike TV – rather than the other way around – while trying to build UFC's audience and push a new sport toward the mainstream.
“Lorenzo called me and said, “I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep spending my family’s money,’ " White said. "He said, ‘I want you to get out there and see what you can sell this thing for.’ By the end of the day, I called him and said, ‘$7 million, maybe $8 million.’ He goes to bed, calls me the next morning and says, ‘(Screw) it. Let’s keep rolling.’ Thank god. We did the Ultimate Fighter, and the rest is history.”
You see UFC now, tidied by regulations and finally sanctioned in New York after getting into the octagon with Albany bureaucrats, as if its linear graph revealed a steady ascension to $150 million to $200 million in annual revenue when all the events, merchandise and video games were counted. Actually, it took several years before the company experienced the growth spurt needed for long-term health.
UFC returns to Buffalo on Saturday a much safer and far more entertaining product than the ruthless, no-holds barred brainchild of a previous generation. It boomed after getting the exposure it needed when "Ultimate Fighter" became must-watch reality TV, turning millions of viewers into combat-sports junkies.
"When you're a promoter, you have to be out there, and that's what Dana has done," said Daniel Cormier, who will fight Anthony "Rumble" Johnson for the light heavyweight title Saturday. "He made these big claims about a sport that many people didn't know, like it was going to be the biggest sport in the world or one day we're going to sell out 50,000-seat arenas. People laughed, but he believed it."
Fans came to understand MMA and became more familiar with its personalities, embracing the skill and training required while appreciating its human element. UFC turned into a pay-per-view gold mine while filling venues, effectively cornering the market on raw competition that couldn’t be found in other sports.
Critics complained about MMA's savagery inside the octagon, but there was no denying the adrenaline rush proponents experienced from watching. Women joined the circuit in 2013, when Ronda Rousey became a national phenomenon. She led a marketing campaign that further expanded UFC's audience and generated revenue.
Nowadays, men and women of all ages are training in mixed-martial arts in gyms that sprouted across the country. The sport has become popular around the world. The 2017 schedule alone includes stops in Sweden, Brazil, New Zealand, Singapore, Scotland, the Netherlands, Canada and Poland.
"You know all the things it was called. This many people want to see a freak show,” White said while pinching his fingers close together. “This many people want to see a real sport with real athletes,” he said, spreading his arms. “We believed. What’s great is that we not only changed combat sports, but we also changed martial arts. Martial arts has evolved more since 1993 than it did in the previous 2,000 years."
White, 47, easily could be mistaken for a UFC fighter rather than the company's head honcho. He also could pass for Andre Agassi's older brother with dark eyes, shaved head and sturdy, athletic frame. His wardrobe of choice is blue jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. He's also unapologetically foul-mouthed.
Let's put it this way: If F-bombs were real bombs, the apocalypse would have been upon us long ago. And yet, in a strange way, his unfiltered approach makes the father of three children come across as more genuine. It gives him street cred with a younger constituency that appreciates brutal honesty from a straight shooter.
Only a fool would interpret his cursing as a lack of intelligence. He's direct in his message but creative with his audience, which includes 4.4 million Twitter followers. White uses the forum to share opinions about each event, sometimes criticizing judges at the expense of fighters and drawing more attention to the sport.
"What you see with Dana, when you interact with him, is what you get," said Marc Ratner, the vice president for government at regulatory affairs at UFC for the past 11 years. "He's very, very real. He doesn't hide his emotions. He's very passionate. He's a fan first. If the fight card doesn't go well, or the fighters aren't fighting as hard as he wants, he lets the world know. He looks at it like a fight fan."
White is an unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, not because of the president's policies or politics but because they formed a friendship when White was an infant in big business. White accepted an invitation to speak at the Republican National Convention for no reason greater than Trump was always there for him.
White celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary on Election Night and was staying in the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, headquarters for Hillary Clinton while the country awaited results. He was watching on television when Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, invited him to join the victory party across town. He did.
"Every good thing that ever happened to me in my career, that guy has picked up the phone and called me or sent me something in the mail," White said. "Now I’m going to (crap) on him and not speak at the RNC? (To hell with) everybody else. I’m not a political guy. I’m not even a Republican. I'm also not a Democrat.
"I’m for the best guy. I voted for Obama the first time but not the second time. Trump was my guy. I’m not a Hillary fan. This guy was always there for me, so I couldn’t turn my back on him because of what the public thought. It’s the great thing about living in America. Everybody has a choice and can do what they want to do."
And that's the thing about White.
People often disagree with his opinions. But they're his opinions, and he doesn't often back down from them. However, when his partners took strong positions while making certain decisions, he wasn't stubborn. Their ability to work together and find solutions made the company stronger and more lucrative.
“Anybody that’s successful – business, bands, anything, it’s about the relationship, it's about the chemistry," White said. "You mean to tell me that Guns N' Roses can’t stay together for a month for a tour? Their egos are so blown out of control that they can’t get it together? It makes no sense. The Eagles, the Beatles? It was egos. We never had any ego."
While UFC raked in millions of dollars, and his own wealth grew beyond comprehension, his rough-and-tumble core remained intact. He still views himself more as a streetwise Southie guy than a savvy Las Vegas businessman. In reality, he evolved into a combination of both.
He took the same moxie he had as a young fighter into meetings with executives, going toe-to-toe with established suit-and-tie heavy hitters from business schools. Many found out quickly that their formal educations didn't hold up against White’s common sense, work ethic and toughness.
White battled for every inch and backed down from nobody. He remained hungry, never lost his passion for his product, made sure money didn't rule his life and stayed true to his wife and children. Anybody with a fortune has been the product of fortunate circumstances to some degree.
It was a lesson he learned the hard way while trying to earn a living in Southie. He was lucky, too, lucky he left in one piece. Bulger's crew didn't just push him into a corner. They pushed him into another state, where he found the path to success. Nobody knew he would wind up being the big winner.
Funny, but all these years later, he still has an odd job.
“If you look at the sequence of events, it's weird, you know?" White said. "If I blow off that wedding, this doesn’t happen – none of it. I could tell you 15 more things that lined up for us. For somebody who doesn’t believe in a lot of things, I do believe in karma and I do believe in fate. It’s too impossible to ignore when you look at the way things happened and the way things worked out. It’s such a trip.”