Dana White pulls all the strings at UFC

LOS ANGELES — Two men tied to reputed Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger came to collect money.

“I knew one of the guys,” says Dana White, recalling the mid-1990s incident, “and he was (Bulger’s) right-hand man.”

The shakedown, for the regular payment allegedly charged to run a business in Bulger’s territory, came while White was teaching a boxercise class at a South Boston health club. White didn’t have the money, so he left Boston and moved back to Las Vegas, where he had gone to high school.

“I used to think that Mafia movies were really cool and fun to watch,” White says, laughing, “until that ... happens to you, then it’s not cool anymore.”

White, 42, has recounted this story before, but its ironic underlining has thickened over the years as the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has developed what many say is a “Godfather”-like grip over the lucrative world of mixed martial arts. No one is alleging any illegal activity, of course, but White will quickly cut fighters from UFC if he perceives them to be acting in a way that isn’t in the UFC’s best interests.

Even White’s nickname, “The Baldfather,” casts him as a don who commands undying loyalty rather than simply as an executive in charge of the UFC, a billion-dollar enterprise that dominates the sport.

Mixed martial arts trainer and agent Jeff Clark said there’s a healthy amount of fear of White within the business. “Any good leader needs to set a clear-cut line (that) if you cross him and go against him, there will be consequences,” Clark says, “and he certainly does that.”

In 2008, White severed ties with several fighters from the American Kickboxing Academy, including Jon Fitch, one of the UFC’s top-ranked welterweights, over an alleged merchandising dispute.

Rob Maysey, a Phoenix-based lawyer, says since 2006 he’s tried to organize MMA fighters into an association, but the fighters fear being cut from the UFC by White. “ ‘Convince me Dana White is not going to do anything to me,’ “ Maysey said. “They all say that.”

And if a fighter isn’t up to snuff, White can take swift action.

He fired popular heavyweight Kimbo Slice, citing ineffectiveness, after a fight in 2010. Slice was the same fighter White had said was terrible two years earlier when Slice was fighting for a competing MMA organization, EliteXC, before Slice joined the UFC.

White, ever confident, laughs at the idea that fear is part of his management style.

“Let me tell you what you hear,” he says. “ ‘We’re a monopoly, there’s this thing of fear in all the fighters, there’s this, there’s that.’ It’s such a crock. ...”

UFC legend Tito Ortiz has had a rocky relationship with White. In late 2007, Ortiz entered into a well-publicized feud with him, arguing that he wasn’t being paid enough, and Ortiz split from the UFC.

“He’s a bully. He always has been,” Ortiz, known as the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” later said of White.

But after a short hiatus, Ortiz returned to the UFC in 2009 with a milder approach. “You will never hear anything about money out of my mouth ever again,” Ortiz said then.

Today, Ortiz says the two have strong personalities, which is why they butted heads so often.

He compares their relationship, which began in 2001 when White managed Ortiz, to a damaged bridge. “It takes many years to repair that bridge,” Ortiz says, “and I’m still trying to do that now.”

Can White forgive? “If I didn’t, Tito wouldn’t be here right now,” White says of Ortiz’s return to the UFC.

Many others around the sport have had run-ins with White or, by extension, the UFC.

In some cases, the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa LLC, has bought out its top competition, such as when it acquired Pride Fighting Championships in 2007 and Strikeforce this year.

In others, White has taken a different approach.

In 2008, the Affliction mixed martial arts show was scheduled to air its first pay-per-view fight. But just weeks before it aired, White threw together a competing rival card to air the same night on cable — a tactic known as counterprogramming.

“He’s a determined person,” says Tom Atencio, the former face of Affliction who stepped down this year.

Although White doesn’t discuss it, one of his most strained relationships is with his mother, June. This year she wrote an unauthorized biography of her son that criticized him for a number of failings in his family and professional life, and on the final page says, “I’m just disappointed in my son.”

UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta believes only Dana White, his high school classmate, could have taken the UFC from the brink of bankruptcy to its current success. “I’m convinced if we hired someone with a Harvard MBA, we’d be out of business by now,” Fertitta says.

White only briefly attended college,, but Fertitta says White’s street smarts — honed during such South Boston jobs as pouring asphalt and being a bar bouncer — set him apart. “He’s just a very, very smart person who knows how to read other people,” Fertitta says.

White, an ex-amateur boxer, was an experienced MMA promoter from his time managing Ortiz and Chuck Liddell in Las Vegas.

In 2001, White persuaded Fertitta and his brother Frank, two Las Vegas casino owners, to buy the foundering UFC for $2 million. White has run the company ever since and gets credit for building MMA into a mainstream sport that’s drawn young fans away from boxing. The Fertitta brothers are now billionaires, according to Forbes, thanks to their UFC investment.

A key talking point for White is that boxing’s demise is attributed to corruption, greed and fragmentation.

Because of this view, he fights to maintain dictator-like control of the UFC in an effort to further legitimize MMA, a sport Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once called “human cockfighting.”

White handles everything almost as he did when the UFC had only four employees. Few tasks are delegated, even today. He still picks the walk-out music for fighters, gives them pep talks and oversees production plans before fights.

White’s demand for control in fight telecasts, of the loud music, camera angles, the entry of his fighters, is the paramount reason why UFC turned down numerous TV deals, including with HBO. “I just always knew we had to do it the way we wanted to do it,” White says.

It paid off as the UFC signed a seven-year deal with Fox in August that is worth a reported $100 million annually.

But as the UFC enters into more of the mainstream, how does White balance his bad-boy attitude now that the UFC is more beholden to new corporate sponsors?

“Let’s be honest,” White asks. “How bad is my attitude?”

“I like to swear,” White says.

And he does.

“He comes off like a drunk sailor,” says UFC lightweight fighter Antonio McKee.

White’s language is as raw as his personality.

“If I don’t like you, I’ll let you know I don’t like you,” White says.

“Maybe, yeah, I’m a little different than what the sports world is used to seeing, but when it comes down to what I do for a living and dealing with the networks and sponsors and everything else ... I think anyone who has ever dealt with me in business is happy to be in business with me.”

To many, White’s bluntness is refreshing.

“I don’t always agree with him, but I always know what he’s thinking,” says UFC legend Liddell. “And I much rather prefer that, someone who says something to my face rather than saying it behind my back.”

Said Ed Soares, manager of several prominent UFC fighters, including middleweight champion Anderson Silva: “You never ask him a question you don’t want to know the answer to, because he has no problem telling you how he feels.”

Another thing that hasn’t changed is his work ethic. White has attended nearly 1,600 consecutive fights, he says, not missing one since he became UFC president.

Between fights, he’s constantly promoting the UFC, traveling to seven cities, three countries and two continents in the last few weeks alone.

He’ll return from a short vacation to promote UFC 141, which takes place Friday in Las Vegas and features a heavyweight bout between Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem.

When White is home in Las Vegas, he spends his free time with his wife of 17 years, Anne, whom he met in eighth grade, and his sons Dana, 10, and Aidan, 9, and daughter Savannah, 5. He sleeps just four hours a night, he says, and often sneaks out to play high-stakes blackjack.

But five days a week, for three hours each morning, White works out with Skipper Kelp, a former pro welterweight boxer with a 24-1-1 record.

White runs the treadmill and shadowboxes. Then Kelp slips on boxing mitts and White boxes, as he did when he was young, for a few rounds. “He’s a crispy boxer,” Kelp says.

So boxing is never far from White’s mind, even as UFC and MMA have begun to pass it by.

He watches every match he can, even on UFC fight nights, and a huge photo of his favorite boxer, Mike Tyson, hangs in his office. Like Tyson in his heyday, White is a dominating force in his realm, bulling over almost anyone in his path.

And, with a wise-guy grin, a sharp tongue and a sharper wit, the barrel-chested Baldfather will make no apologies along the way.

After all, in his eyes, it’s only business, not personal.

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