Dana White: From Bellboy To King of The Fight Game

The Wild Story of How He Took UFC from Laughing Stock to Global Goliath

From Bellboy To King of The Fight Game

The Wild Story of How Dana White Took UFC from Laughing Stock to Global Goliath

“Nothing comes easy. Success doesn't just drop on your lap. You have to go out and fight for it every day”

Once upon a time, when you said you were watching a fight, it was assumed you’d be watching boxing.

Now, it’s assumed you’re watching the UFC.

The multi-billion outfit that now hosts some of the most recognised athletes on the planet.

But it wasn’t always this way.

In the 1970s, MMA was a distant dream in the United States until a cadre of Brazilian pioneers brought their brand of jiu-jitsu to American shores. 

Fast forward to 1993, in a half-full arena in Denver, Colorado, the UFC was born - a daring experiment that featured a motley crew of kickboxers, karate experts, boxers, and sumo wrestlers in a tournament-style event. 

Yet, there were no rules, no boundaries, only raw, unbridled brutality that left North American audiences uneasy.

It even reached the senate – John Mccain led a campaign to ban the sport, likening it to ‘human cockfighting’.

Thus it was banned in 36 states, including New York.

On top of this, they were losing cash hand over fist. It was a sinking ship. 

If it was ever going to be more than a controversial niche sport, it was going to need a bold leader to captain the ship.

Someone who would give absolutely EVERYTHING to the pursuit.  

As fate would have it, that leader was waiting in the shadows.

Not just a visionary but someone who was daring, bold and never backed down. 

A modern-day legend who turned a niche, controversial sport into a global goliath.

Step forward Dana White.

Dana rose from humble beginnings in New England to acquire the UFC in 2002 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.  

He proceeded to grow the sport to a multi-billion dollar enterprise that many believe will be bigger than the NFL in the United States and the World Cup worldwide.

But it has taken almost two decades of blood, sweat and tears to become the behemoth it is today.

And it’s all down to one man’s self belief.

Dana White: Hated, adored but never ignored.

But to understand how the UFC went from the brink of collapse to an industry giant, you have to first understand Dana and his backstory. 

His journey and the UFC's are completely entwined.

It’s not work or life. It’s both. It’s everything.

An adventure with soaring highs, crushing lows and unbelievable stories that is lined up to make a Hollywood blockbuster. 

But we’re going to save you the wait and unravel Dana’s entire backstory today.

From being kicked out of school for upsetting nuns, to escaping Whitey Bulger's infamous Winter Hill Gang, and transforming the UFC into $12 BILLION juggernaut. This is a story of how a maverick hotel bellboy took over the fight game, piece by piece.

And it all started in the gritty heart of 1960s Manchester, Connecticut.

Today on David to Goliath:

The Problem Child

Dana had an extremely troubled upbringing, but embedded deep within his DNA were the fibres of independence and self-reliance.

His father's absence due to over-drinking left him to navigate the jagged terrain of childhood alone, while his mother toiled tirelessly to keep their fractured family afloat.

Moving between Boston, Connecticut and the neon-lit chaos of Vegas, the family’s nomadic existence mirrored the turbulence within.

Vegas, the city of excess and opportunity, became the backdrop for a fateful encounter with a classmate called Lorenzo Fertitta, although Dana wouldn’t realise this until many years later.

The pair, with a rebellious swagger, waged war against authority from day one.

A fiery character, Dana even got expelled for upsetting Nuns in his school.

Every day, he would kick shut a large door and send the nun teaching inside into a frenzy.

But behind his mischievous acts, there lay a fire of desire – to outsmart the system, to carve out his own path amidst the chaos.

And boy was he in for one hell of a ride.

As a teenager in Vegas, Dana developed an affinity for fighting.

He was drawn to the adrenaline-pumping rush of boxing, where warriors clashed and how in 12 rounds of brutal combat, legends were born from the shadows.

But before he could sink his teeth into this passion, he then moved to the eastern side of the US where he finished his education and enrolled in college. Twice.

His first attempt was at Quincy College and then at The University of Massachusetts Boston, but being the rebel he was, he dropped out from both institutions after his first semester.

He could not, despite trying, bring himself to succumb to the life of mediocrity.

Dana White is not someone who can be put into a box. 

He had a burning desire to make his own way in the world.

So off he went, sweating through odd jobs to keep the wolves at bay.

Then an epiphany struck.  

A Life Lesson From The Streets

He tried his hands as a nightclub bouncer, and a valet in a luxury hotel, where he and his co-workers would physically fight to see who got most tips.

“I was a bellman - a great hotel, five-star hotel in Boston. I made great money. I made cash every day. I had good benefits. We had 401k. All the things you could ask for in a great job, I had. You know what I didn't have? I hated my job.”

But deep down Dana always knew what he wanted.

He wanted a career in the fight game.

So to hone his skills, he worked for free under the guidance of a former Golden Gloves champion named Peter Welch, learning everything there was to know about the industry. 

Over the next 10 years, he immersed himself in every angle of the boxing world, from fighting himself to training and managing other fighters, being a cornerman, refereeing and running gyms.

And after a decade of learning the ins and outs, it was finally time to put his own name on the map.

From his basement, he imparted his knowledge to eager learners, Making a name for himself locally.

“I just thought ‘what's the worst thing that could happen if you try?’ The day I walked out of that hotel, if it doesn't work out I can go and be a bellman again whenever I want to. I always knew what I wanted to do and every day when I woke up I worked towards that goal. I didn't even have a car, I had a mountain bike, I rode everywhere in town.” 

But his popularity was about to become his nemesis.

On one life-altering occasion at the age of 21, he was brutally beaten up outside a bar and felt lucky to escape with his life. 

“These dudes beat the living s*** out me for a good 20 minutes… until the police came”

“At one point, I remember I was on one knee and this f****** guy must have punched me in this ear a thousand times. I was getting kicked and hit from all kinds of directions. The guys were from Charlestown, I’m lucky I didn’t get stabbed. I’m lucky I just got the s*** beat out of me.”

He lived to tell the tale, although, there was lasting damage. He suffered hearing loss and nerve damage which caused Meniere's disease, with its cruel onslaught of vertigo-like symptoms.

It wasn’t until years later that a specialist German clinic helped cure him with stem cell surgery.  

But the assault cracked open a Pandora’s box of problems.

“If you fight, be ready for the consequences.”

The One Way Ticket Out of Hell

Dana had been learning to cope with his illness and was managing to get by.

He and Peter Welsh were working with at-risk youth in Boston, bringing them in from all over the city to channel negative energy into positive action through boxing.

Offering them a sanctuary of hope amidst the chaos of city streets.

The program wasn’t profitable – nor was it intended to be – so they got the bills paid by providing personal Boxercise sessions. 

But his thriving business hadn’t gone unnoticed. And it was not attention of the good kind.

Boston's Winter Hill Gang, under the tutelage of the notorious Whitey Bulger had caught wind of Dana’s Boxercise business. A man once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, who was played by Johnny Depp in the film Black Mass, came knocking on Dana’s door.

Bulger and his associates were loan sharks, bookmakers, arms traffickers, and truck hijackers – and they were particularly skilled at extorting ‘protection’ money from the area’s businesses. 

Some of Bugler's enforcers interrupted one of Dana’s boxing classes and demanded he pay $2,000.

Dana didn’t take it seriously, until a moment of chilling clarity, where his world was shattered by a single phone call – a grim ultimatum delivered with deadly consequences.

He had until 1pm to cough up. Or else…

With a sense of urgency fueling his every move, he packed his bags and purchased a one-way ticket to Las Vegas, the city of second chances.

“I literally hung up the phone, picked up the phone and called and bought a one-way ticket to Vegas.”

To hell with plan B’s.

There wasn’t a single doubt in Dana’s mind that he couldn’t make it in the fight game.

But enough with the talking - it was time for Dana to take action.

It was time to do or die (literally).

Reuniting With An Old Friend

As any fighter will tell you, no matter your approach to the sport you must leave a little room for serendipity, the intangibles, the opportunities that only reveal themselves along the way.

Like in the ring, when your opponent, dazzled by the lights, makes a momentary hiccup and leaves himself open to a quick uppercut to get you back in the fight.

Or that split second where his heel slips just enough to throw him off balance and deliver the title-winning knockout blow.

For Dana, this opportunity came in the form of a chance to reunite with his childhood best friend.

His rebellious counterpart.

The one and only Lorenzo Fertitta.

They met again by chance at a mutual friend’s wedding.

Lorenzo was making a name for himself running the Vegas casinos he co-owned with his brother Frank.

He had previously served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission, giving him valuable insights into the world of regulated sports.

The brothers, keen fight fanatics, asked if they could train with Dana, who had transitioned his boxercise business over to Vegas, but lacked direction. 

In the meantime, Dana’s own interests had expanded from boxing to the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

A young sport that promised no-holds-barred action from athletes trained in fighting styles ranging from wrestling to Muay Thai and everything in between.

Fights took place in a ring reminiscent of a traditional boxing ring, with one important distinction. It was an octagon - a term we’re now all familiar with today.

The premise was that participants would bring any and all martial arts, boxing, and wrestling training to the octagon in matchups that tested disciplines to the max. 

Before long, Dana asked another acquaintance, John Lewis (a prominent fighter) to join their group.

It turns out Lewis was a mixed martial artist. 

Dana, Lewis and the Fertitta brothers began to fall in love with Brazilian jiu jitsu and were constantly training.

This led Dana to begin developing relationships with the fighters Lewis would train including: Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, and B.J. Penn.

He served as their manager, handling their UFC ongoings, and in this, began to learn the inner workings of promotion.

But what he didn’t know was that the UFC was actually teetering on the depths of extinction.

However, when he found out, he instinctively knew this was the big chance he’d been waiting for.

The Deal of a Lifetime

Dana had been managing several MMA fighters who featured in bouts presented by the UFC. 

It was during this time that he met Bob Meyrowitz, the owner of Semaphore Entertainment Group, the then-parent company of the UFC.

Dana came to learn that Meyrowitz wasn’t at all pleased with the UFC’s revenues.

Everyone in the sport was trying to cement its identity, acceptance and mainstream appeal.

Once while negotiating a contract, Dana was given access to the UFC financial files, and found out the company was going bankrupt and that its owner was looking to sell.

"I ended up finding that out, that they're in trouble and they're probably going to go out of business. I'd been to a UFC event, and I was looking around and thinking, 'Imagine if they did this, and imagine if they did that. This thing could actually be huge.' So I called the Fertittas and I said, 'I think the UFC's in trouble. And I think we can buy it. I think we should do this.'"

In a daring move, Dana rallied the Fertitta brothers, whispering in their ears the UFC's impending doom and the goldmine it could become in the right hands.

He was convinced this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

And when the offer came in for what’s now a mere 2 million dollars, they jumped at the chance and sold it to Dana and the brothers in January of 2001.

They formed the parent company Zuffa, LLC and bought UFC, with Dana White serving as president.

They didn't inherit a thriving enterprise but a carcass scavenged by it’s past creditors. In reality, all they had was the UFC name, a rusted octagon and a big bag of dreams.

Dana began using his natural marketing talents to start a rebranding campaign for the sport, aimed at shedding its "human cockfighting" image.

“You have to be a realist and go out there and promote and market yourself.”

Under their joint stewardship, UFC secured sanctioning for fights in Nevada, and were able to use Las Vegas as their headquarters.

Lorenzo’s political connections smoothed the regulatory minefield as they fought tooth and nail for legitimacy.

Weight classes, standardized rules, and safety protocols—all stitched together to resurrect the UFC from the brink of oblivion.

The stage was set.

But before the big breakthrough, they hit rock bottom.

Hitting Rock Bottom

UFC was still not respected as a brand when Dana and the Fertitta brothers took over.

It was shunned by many, and misunderstood by most.

Beset with legal and regulatory obstacles, and unable to secure pay per view events.

All in all, it was barricaded by an image problem – stemming from the violence of the sport. 

It was difficult – near impossible – to generate cash when no-holds-barred fighting was banned just about everywhere. 

“The amount of negativity I hear on a daily basis is unbelievable. But that's the kind of stuff you have to tune out, focus, stick with your vision and keep plugging every day.”

Drawn into a contract dispute with UFC on behalf of his fighters, things weren’t looking good and Dana had his back firmly up against the wall.

But as you’ll find out that’s when he performs at his best.

His first challenge was tackling the regulatory issues head on.

He spent much of the early years flying around the country, speaking to the most heavily regulated states such as New York, Nevada and California about mixed martial arts.

Educating those at the top and convincing them that this was not the 'human cockfighting' presidential candidate John McCain described it as.

“I don't shy away from controversy. I embrace it.”

Over time, Dana ramped up marketing, secured corporate sponsors, and facilitated a return to the main revenue driver - pay-per-view. 

He also promoted the release of video and DVD versions of popular fights, which generated additional income for the organization.

Literally, anything to give him the resources to keep the UFC dream alive. 

They codified rules and Dana was all over the US chipping away at members of the media, local and national, trying to convince them of his product. 

He was met with resistance at every turn, but the potential was clear to see and anyone who had attended a live event was captivated. Although the vast majority still turned their nose up at a sport easily dismissed as 'cage fighting'. 

At the same time, Lorenzo was working on deals to take the UFC global. He acquired international competitors and created television partnerships in France, Germany, China, and Mexico. 

From the outside looking in they were finally starting to turn a corner.

But on the inside, the balance sheets told a different story. 

Underperforming events, debts piling up, and monumental financial losses.

In the 1st four years Dana was in charge, the UFC lost $44 million, as many events struggled to reach the bold targets of $1,000,000 gate revenue, 10,000 people attending the event, and 100,000 buys on pay-per-view.

The doubts were creeping in.

And by 2004 the UFC dream almost died.

At this point, they were banging their head against a brick wall and getting nothing back.

Like a fighter who keeps getting knocked down over and over again, wondering how they can make it to the final bell.

They had truly hit rock bottom.

The Fertitta brothers were itching to get out.

“Lorenzo called me one day and said ‘I can't keep doing this, burning all this cash, I need you to get out there and find out what you could sell this thing for’. I made a load of calls and rung back saying we could maybe get $6-7m.”

“Lorenzo said ‘OK, I'll call you tomorrow’. The first thing you think is ‘I just blew $40m of my friends' money’ you put all this time and energy into it and it just doesn't work. Then he called me back the next day and said ‘f*** it, let's keep going’.'“

But this is where we find out the true fighting spirit of Dana White.

Just as all hope seemed lost, from nowhere he delivered the punch of a lifetime.

The Fight That Saved The UFC

Dana convinced the Fertitta brothers, through relentless determination, to fork out another 10 million dollars to produce a televised event: The Ultimate Fighter.

“This was going to be our Trojan horse. You're watching the fights, but they are taped so the network doesn't have to be terrified of them. We can take a peek inside and let fans see how cool this sport is, how exciting the fights are, how interesting the fighters are.”

The basic premise of the show was there were two teams, coached by rival UFC fighters and each member of the team would fight someone from the opposing camp to stay on the show until eventually an Ultimate Fighter was crowned champion. 

Cameras peered behind the scenes into the lives of fighters, capturing their struggles, triumphs, and unyielding spirit.

But at the start, no TV network was interested in airing the show and even Spike, a channel targeted at men, were sceptical. 

They persisted, offering the show for free, until Spike TV finally embraced their vision and carved out a slot after WWE's Monday Night Raw. 

The prime spot for any fighting brand.

The raw authenticity of the show shone through and it was an instant success, with 1 million viewers for 1st episode.

The final fight was between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonner. 

It was a scrap for the ages and the fight has since been inducted into the UFC's Hall of Fame. 

This fight single-handedly saved the UFC from the brink of collapse.

Dana would play his part, coming on to stir things up and rally the crowd. 

“As soon as that fight was over, that was when I knew that we had made it. I didn't give a s*** about if Spike re-signed us or not. I knew we had a winner.”

It wasn’t long before the company was valued at tens of millions – an impressive return on the Fertitta brothers’ $2 million investment into a prior sinking ship. 

Spike TV were so keen to renew the contract for a second season that they agreed terms straight after the fight on the back of a napkin.

The Ultimate Fighter show had successfully thrust UFC and MMA into the mainstream.

“I love doing things that people say can't be done.”

And from there, it exploded.

The Biggest Acquisition In Sporting History

Dana was on a mission to cleanse the UFC of corruption and make it a brand people would trust and respect.

In the early years, it was no secret that a number of fighters used testosterone replacement therapy and steroids to enhance performance.

This threatened to tarnish the purity of the sport.

So Dana brought in USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) and turned the UFC into one of the most trustworthy environments for clean athletes.

Unleashing a storm of scrutiny, rooting out the cheaters and restoring honor to the arena.

Even if it meant some of his biggest pay-per-view stars (such as Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar and Anderson Silva) failed drug tests and had to succumb to public humiliation.

But Dana’s quest for purity did not end there.

Among other accomplishments, he supported the development of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which were eventually adopted by the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) on July 30, 2009. 

Laying the groundwork for a new era of fairness and equality in the arena of combat.

In March 2007, the UFC purchased its long-time rivals and competitors, Pride (Japan) for 70 million dollars.

Then in 2011 they acquired the kickboxing organisation Strikeforce, which opened the door for legends like Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Robbie Lawler and Khabib Nurmagomedov to etch their names into fighting history.

And as if that weren’t enough In July 2016, the unthinkable happened.

The UFC was sold to talent agency WME-IMG (now known as Endeavor) for a staggering $4.025 billion making it the largest company acquisition in the history of sports.

Dana White remained on board as the UFC president, with a share of the profits and a five-year contract.

One of the key objectives behind the acquisition was to take the UFC brand and its fighters global, positioning them alongside other top-tier athletes and celebrities. 

Endeavor aimed to leverage its extensive network in the entertainment industry to secure bigger sponsorship deals, negotiate higher-value broadcast contracts, and even involve its other talents in UFC events and promotions.

Propelling it into the stratosphere of sports and entertainment.

And as the world watched in awe, the UFC's thunderous roar reverberated across the globe.

In 2018, they then signed a $100 million deal with Fox Sports to broadcast their events.

Now the UFC is a global phenomenon giving birth to a golden age of combat where warriors transcend borders and legends are born.

Fighters going from nothing to international superstars was the dream Dana had always wanted since his childhood days in Vegas.

He also secured his own bag and family's future, being entitled to 9% of all UFC's profits.

Not a bad ROI from that initial 2 million dollar investment that wasn’t even his!

But for him, the pursuit of greatness was never about the riches or the accolades—it was about the relentless pursuit of excellence, the unwavering dedication to the fighters, and the boundless love for the sport that defined his life's work.

The Fight Ain’t Over Until Dana Says It’s Over

Endeavor's monumental acquisition of the UFC had a huge cultural impact on the sport at large.

With the might of Hollywood brought to the traditionally gritty world of MMA, the UFC emerged not just as a sporting entity, but as a global spectacle that transcended the boundaries of the octagon and captivated the hearts of millions worldwide.

But perhaps most profound was the impact on talent development.

The UFC also opened its doors to mainstream celebrities, inviting them to join the ranks as fans, investors, and ambassadors of the sport.

In the arena of women's MMA, this transformation was especially striking, as luminaries like Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes ascended to the pinnacle of stardom, becoming household names and inspiring millions with their prowess and tenacity.

High-profile celebrities began to attend events, and UFC fighters started appearing in movies, television shows, and even fashion events.

“We're going to continue to go into markets that we've never been in, continue to grow the sport, continue to cultivate talent and the whole landscape of television is changing and I feel like we're ahead of the curve on that, too.”

The UFC president Dana now captains a business with tentacles stretching across the globe, valued at $12 billion with an unrelenting growth in popularity.

UFC is the undisputed champion of the MMA world, with fights in 175 countries, over 100 UFC training facilities worldwide and a television presence that has reached over a billion households.

In 2019, the UFC went on to sign a blockbuster $1.5 billion dollar deal with ESPN, to become their exclusive TV partner.

But that doesn't mean Dana thinks the fight is over.

"You always think that there's gonna be that day when, if we get to this level, then we can kind of cruise a little bit and kick back, but there's no cruise. There's no kick back. This thing is just a beast and it just goes and goes and goes and goes."

Ultimately, a multi-billion dollar company with thousands of employees, putting on events across the globe takes a unique individual to spearhead it.  

Dana White, without whom none of this would be possible', roars onto the microphone at every blockbuster UFC event. 

From where he’s come from and what he’s built it’s hard to argue that he isn't the greatest promoter in history. 

Transforming the UFC from an unwanted, unloved, debt-riddled company into a $12bn juggernaut is a jaw-dropping achievement and when Dana eventually calls it a day, there will be a gaping void to fill. 

He believes that in 10 years, the UFC will be the most watched sport in the world. And you’d only have to ask his previous doubters to know betting against him would be a bad idea.

Many are quick to criticise Dana’s loud, cocky and brash approach.

But given what he’s been through it begs the question: Would the UFC be what it is without Dana’s unique personality?

The answer is a resounding no.

To break the mould in such a ruthless industry, to keep fighting in the dark for a pipeline dream when all hope seems lost and to be utterly consumed by your life's work, it takes a crazy individual.

And Dana is just that.

A man drenched in conviction, dripping with passion from head to toe and standing tall in a world drowning with blandness.

You may not like him. He may not be your kind of guy.

However, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: His story commands respect.

To see with the odds completely stacked against them how far one human is willing to go to bring their childhood dream to life - you have to take your hat off to him. 

“It's all about competition and being the best.”

As they say in Vegas - No Risk No Reward.

In Dana White’s case, he’s 1 in 8 billion.

And there will never be another one quite like him.

Until next time, keep dreaming like a Giant.

But fight and believe in your dreams like a God Damn Underdog.

Yours truly,

-Nigel Thomas

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