There was a moment at the very end of UFC 242 back on Sept. 7, 2019, that gave us a telling demonstration of where, and with whom, power within the mixed martial arts promotion really lies.
The headline fight, a unification bout between reigning lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and then-interim champ Dustin Poirier. The contest went about the same as all of the Eagle’s fights. Poirier held his own admirably for three rounds, but Khabib’s seemingly limitless stamina and unparalleled grappling prowess proved too much. With a little over 2 minutes left in the 3rd, Nuragomedov took Poirier’s back. Eventually ending the fight with a rear-naked choke.
However, that’s not the important part of the story. This next part is really what deserves our focus.
Immediately after Poirier tapped, Khabib jogged across the octagon, jumped the cage and hugged UFC President Dana White.
Anybody who’d been paying attention to the sport in the last year knew exactly why this happened. 10 months prior, following a submission win over Conor McGregor, Nurmagomedov jumped the cage to settle a score with cornerman Dillon Danis. Before the fight with McGregor, Danis called the champ a “fucking Muslim rat.” This capped off about a year of racist trash talk, and an assault charge, from McGregor’s camp. The brawl that ensued resulted in fines and suspensions from the Nevada State Athletics Commission for both fighters.
The fight with Poirier was Khabib’s first since giving Danis his due. It’s telling that Nurmagomedov knew exactly who he had to thank for being able to be back in the octagon in the 1st place. Make no mistake, this decision, like so many others in the UFC, was White’s and White’s alone.
Dana White is less the UFC’s head of operations than he is its puppet master and absolute monarch. If he pulls a string, the entire promotion and everybody in it contorts in the same direction. This dominance over the company has continued, regardless of topic and without interruption, for years. It’s also made him and his partners incredibly rich.
Dana White Builds an Empire:
This globetrotting, superbrand-version of the UFC is a far cry from what the promotion looked like when White and his childhood friends Lorenzo and Francis Frettita bought it back in 2001. White was a manager for UFC proto-stars Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz at the time. He was catching his 2nd wind after (his claim) he fled his life as a Boston boxercise instructor when the mob tried to shake him down. As a side note, this makes White the least (allegedly) mobbed up of the 2001 owners.
When White and the Fertittas bought the organization, MMA in the United States was more or less illegal. There was a round of lobbying and legislation aimed at cutting down the nascent competitor to boxing. That illegality was beginning to thaw around the time of the acquisition, but venues were still antsy about hosting fights. At the time, U.S. Senator John McCain even called MMA “human cockfighting.” But, White and company did manage to convince somebody to host UFC 30: an Atlantic City casino owner by the name of Donald Trump.
Trump took a chance on the fledgling promotion when few would. To his credit, he might be the reason the UFC is still around today. Since the start of Trump’s political ascendency, White has repaid that risk with numerous speeches in support of Trump’s election and re-election. While the president goes around endorsing death squads and telling people to shoot bleach, White continues to stand by him and pushes the UFC to do the same.
Abuse of Power:
But White’s toxic influence doesn’t stop at stumping for an authoritarian (or two or three, for that matter), his hand is present in every morally questionable decision the promotion has made in the last decade. Why is the UFC holding events on an island built by abused migrant laborers? Because Dana White wants to. Why does the UFC pay its fighters so little compared to professional athletes in other popular sports? Because Dana White thinks he can get away with it. Why did Dana White celebrate Colby Covington’s racist comments after his win over Tyron Woodley, but airbrushed Dan Hardy’s tattoo out of promotional images? That’s just who he is.
Given what happened before and after the Khabib-McGregor fight, it would have been perfectly understandable if both fighters, or at least McGregor, wound up banned from the sport. But White likes McGregor, and sticks his neck out for the Irishman time and time again. His tone changed following McGregor’s second sexual assault arrest this September, but the man was only scheduled to fight Poirier after that arrest.
Again, this defense of reprehensible, abusive behavior, is characteristic of White’s tenure over the UFC. Former NFL star Greg Hardy fought in Abu Dhabi just last Saturday, and has found a welcoming home in the promotion. Hardy’s switch from the gridiron to the octagon comes after credible allegations saying he abused his girlfriend back in 2015. Due to the allegations, Hardy was eventually blackballed from the NFL. But in the UFC, he’s just one of a number of fighters who have been arrested for domestic violence.
Writing White off as a mouthpiece for ownership would be easy if he weren’t the sole common denominator through the UFC’s ascension to prominence. In 2001, the promotion struggled to find people willing to host its events. In 2020, it’s a multi-continental behemoth doing PR for Donald Trump and Abu Dhabi. Despite all that growth, it still doesn’t pay its fighters their fair share, and athletes are getting fed up. The UFC also doesn’t care if it gives a platform to the worst people on Earth. Through all of it, Dana White is the sole common denominator. So if he gets credit for that massive bump in status, he also gets credit for the promotion’s demons.