During his years as a boxer, Dana White learned to duck. But the UFC president doesn’t do that in his position as entrepreneur, promoter, and decision-maker in the mixed martial arts fight business.
Ask him a question, and as he looks you directly in the eye, the man likely will surprise you with his candor.
The last time the UFC was in Boston was three years ago, when the inaugural event — UFC 118, highlighted by B.J. Penn vs. Frankie Edgar — was held on Aug. 28, 2010, at TD Garden and available on pay-per-view.
This time, the card will be shown on free TV, as it serves as a different kind of inaugural event — the first live sports broadcast on the newly minted Fox Sports 1.
“I’ve always wanted to be on a sports network,’’ said White, a former South Boston resident who retains many ties to the city he loves. “I felt that that’s where we should be.
“You know how honored I am, going from not being able to be on TV to now launching a sports network with Fox Sports? Huge. And the icing on the cake is I get to do it in Boston.
“Friday night, the Patriots play on Fox. Saturday, the Yankees play the Red Sox on Fox, and Saturday night, from the Garden, we launch Fox Sports 1 with the UFC. Could that be any cooler? No. Every single piece of this thing is special for me.’’
The headliner for Fight Night 26 will be Chael Sonnen vs. Mauricio “Shogun’’ Rua in a light heavyweight bout.
The UFC has grown steadily since 2010 with White & Co. determined to cross-pollinate across all continents. One place he hasn’t been able to crack is the state of New York, something White was excited about doing three years ago. Now, he has moved on.
“I’m over the New York thing,’’ said White, 44. “It’s not driving me crazy anymore. How do you battle corrupt politicians? You can’t.
“This guy, [New York State Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver, is the most powerful political figure in New York and you can see all the other things that are going on around him. It’s such a slap in the face to democracy.’’
White believes most people in New York want to see the UFC sanctioned there, but certain obstacles have to be removed for that to happen.
“It just goes to show you how powerful one politician can be,’’ said White. “He’s in bed with the union [of culinary workers in Las Vegas, which has clashed with UFC co-owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta] and what are you going to do? It has nothing to do with the sport or MMA. You get some of these politicians who will speak without even educating themselves on stuff.’’
Passionate about his sport, White has engaged in Twitter wars with numerous people and doesn’t shy away from trash talking.
“At the end of the day, understand and realize we can never not remember or hide from the fact we’re in the fight business,’’ said White. “When you look at the word ‘fight’ and what it actually means, it’s every sense of the word — verbally, mentally, physically, emotionally — all of that is involved in a fight.’’
Sonnen said White’s passion can show itself in amusing ways. For example, arguing with the referees at UFC events.
“I love it when he does that,’’ said Sonnen, laughing uproariously. “It’s his own show and he’s arguing with the referees! There was some show Kenny [Florian] and I were working and Dana didn’t go. He was watching the show [on TV]. And he [tweeted out] ‘UFC, you [expletive] up!’ He IS the UFC! He forgets. He’s at home, so he’s being a fan. We were all reading it like, ‘You just scolded yourself on Twitter to 2 million people.’
“But it’s just who he is. He’s got to be the worst poker player in the world.’’
White isn’t afraid to admit when he is wrong. On multiple occasions, he said women would never fight in the UFC — but Ronda Rousey singlehandedly changed his mind and opened up a whole new world.
“Ronda Rousey is inspiring, to say the least,’’ said White. “I was very resistant. I said it would never happen. I said women would never fight in the UFC. The sport has evolved so fast that I had to eat my words.’’
Rousey, who serves as a coach on the TV reality series The Ultimate Fighter 18 (which begins airing next month), is a highly marketable personality, which certainly has helped her cause and that of other female MMA fighters.
“She was the perfect storm to kick off female fighting in the UFC,’’ said White. “She’s beautiful, she’s photogenic, she’s smart, she’s got personality, and she’s bad-ass. She’s the real deal when it comes to fighting. She’s mean and nasty and likes to win. She definitely, 1,000 percent gets it from her mother.”
Rousey felt confident she could sway White to see things her way.
“I just remember thinking at the time that I could change his mind,’’ said Rousey, the UFC women’s bantamweight champion who was an Olympic bronze medalist in judo in 2008. “I didn’t think he was a bad person because he didn’t agree with me.
“He didn’t have any reasons to agree with me and I was going to give him a reason. I just did whatever I could to be un-ignorable . . . because if you’re paying attention, you’re going to be impressed because I’m the best fighter in the world. My obsession was getting into the UFC.’’
Despite people around her being against it, Rousey pursued her dream, and she and White have admiration for one another.
“Dana has a presence that is un-ignorable,’’ said Rousey. “It is what makes him such an influential figure. He’s a very caring and giving and generous person. He’s very grounded and he’s not one to hide his opinion.
“People confuse opinionated people with mean people. He’s just saying what he thinks is the truth. He definitely cares about his fighters more than his own image. Even if it doesn’t seem that way, I can tell you that it’s true.’’
Being a pioneer is never easy, but with White’s backing, Rousey has been proud to lead the way.
“I get mostly respect from the men and I get half-respect and half-resentment from the women [in the sport],’’ said Rousey. “It’s not unexpected. I have what a lot of them want. The dog with the bone is always in danger.’’
Of the future and the past
White is excited about the return to Boston and all that accompanies it.
“We’re putting together probably the nastiest live fight card ever on free TV and we’re launching probably the baddest sports weekend ever in the city of Boston,’’ said White.
Although many argue that UFC will never be mainstream, White said the growth of the sport has been dramatic. He sees nothing but positives as young fighters move up the ladder.
“Nobody excites me more than Cain Velasquez,’’ said White. “He’s our heavyweight champion. I think he’s the baddest man on the planet.’’
Velasquez will face devastating striker Junior Dos Santos in a rubber match Oct. 19 in Houston, and before that, Jon Jones will fight Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto Sept. 21.
“Everyone bitches about Jon Jones being too big for that weight division [light heavyweight],’’ said White. “He’s fighting Gustafsson, who is an inch bigger than him, so that excites me and the possibility of him winning and feeling like he’s cleaned out the division and possibly moving to heavyweight.’’
As thrilled as he is by the future, White thinks it’s time for some of his past champions to move on to the next chapter of their lives.
“I love B.J. Penn but I would love to see B.J. Penn retire,’’ said White, referring to one of the more popular fighters in UFC history. “I don’t like seeing guys stick around longer than they have to.
“Some guys need the money. B.J. Penn has money, he’s got a beautiful wife, he’s got beautiful children. He’s got a family who loves him, he’s well off in Hawaii. There’s just no reason. What would be the goal?
“The sport is in a different place now. This is a young man’s game. I’d like to see him ride off into the sunset. He’s won two world titles in two different weight classes — 155 and 170. What’s left to prove?’’
As feisty as White is publicly, Sonnen said he’s been a guardian angel to many but doesn’t call attention to himself.
“He’s definitely a friend,’’ said Sonnen. “We have a real one-way relationship. He’s done a whole bunch for me and I’ve never done anything for him.
“It’s tough, the position he’s in. It’s very hard. He’s never come to me and asked for anything. I wish that he would. I appreciate having the opportunity to live my dream and compete in this company.
“I have some friends he has looked after. I have one friend who probably wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for Dana White. Dana never tells. He does a lot of stuff for a lot of people. He gets very little credit but he’s a very nice man.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.