Dana White oversees the meanest, most violent game in professional sports. He is the president of UFC, the multibillion-dollar cauldron of hurt and mayhem that will be on display again Sunday night at the Garden, featuring possibly the greatest bantamweight title matchup (T.J. Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz) in the history of mixed martial arts.
“But what makes it even better,’’ White said late last week after ticking off each combatant’s bona fides, “is that they absolutely hate each other.’’
Hate. It always works in the fight game.
“Yes,’’ said White with a smile, “it does.’’
Now 46 and in his 15th year as UFC czar, White owes his success in part to a form of organized street hate, a state of perpetuated fear, that played out on Boston streets for decades.
Some 20 years ago, deciding after a brief stay at UMass-Boston that college wasn’t his thing, he lived in Southie, off Broadway, and taught boxing classes in a small gym as one of his sundry side jobs. White was, in fact, a tsunami of side jobs, which included lugging wheelbarrows full of asphalt in the suburbs, bouncing drunks as a Black Rose doorman, hustling bags as a Boston Harbor Hotel doorman.
If there was a buck to be had, White, who today is worth around $400 million, was out there to grab it.
“A driven kid, really great worker,’’ recalled Tommy Evangelista, president of EJ Paving of Methuen. “He was with us for about five years, and at the end of each year he would send me a gift certificate to a restaurant, in appreciation for making him work so hard.’’
So White, who was born in Connecticut and lived his grade school years in Ware, wasn’t afraid to work. But he was, perhaps due to his instinct for the sweet science, legitimately spooked the morning Whitey Bulger’s infamous bag man called him on the phone. It was time to pay, Kevin Weeks told him, Bulger’s confidant trying to shake him down for $2,500 in “protection’’ money so he could operate his boxing classes in Southie.
What if he didn’t have the money, White recalled asking Weeks.
“And he said to me, ‘You’ll find out,’ ’’ said White.
The call ended abruptly, with tomorrow now clad in black, and White promptly dialed Delta Air Lines to book the first available flight to Las Vegas. Come daybreak, he stuffed whatever clothes he could in a suitcase and dashed for Logan, leaving behind furniture, TV plates, pots, pans, and whatever future he had in Boston.
“I didn’t know if they wanted $2,500 a week, a month, a year, or whatever,’’ recalled White. “But I didn’t want to find out, either.’’
At 26, in the summer of 1995, White was back in Vegas, where he had lived grades 5 through 11, his mother, a nurse, moving the family west around 1980 for better wages. He soon reconnected with Lorenzo Fertitta, one of his classmates at Bishop Gorman High.
“Actually, I ended up getting kicked out of Gorman . . . that’s me,’’ explained White, as frank about his failures as his successes. “Then I ended up in a bad car accident that summer and my parents were like, ‘OK, you are out of here!’ So they sent me back to Maine to live with my grandmother.’’
He graduated with the senior class of Hermon High School, just west of Bangor, in 1987.
So when asked today where he’s from, White laughs a little and says, “It’s complicated.’’ He was born in the East and raised here till age 11, then a Vegas kid until expelled from Gorman High. Soon after Hermon High, he moved to Boston, where, until Weeks whispered indelicately in his ear, he figures he might have stayed. Some of his sundry jobs here paid pretty well.
“A doorman or valet or bellman, those are big money jobs,’’ he said. “They are making $100k a year, and they have good benefits. And I felt, yeah, it is awesome when you are making $100k and you are 19 years old. But if I am 50, I am going to be making the same exact money . . . and this just isn’t me, man.’’
Back in Vegas and teaching boxing, he built a strong friendship with the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, whose father founded the Station casino brand. Excited over the prospects of reviving a sullied UFC brand, then withering on the vine after its 1993 inception, the three partners in 2001 purchased it for a total of $2 million. It was all Lorenzo’s money, though White was cut in as 10 percent owner.
“Two million dollars, and then we burned another $44 million over the next five years,’’ explained White, the UFC brand so downtrodden that it ultimately took a final $10 million of Fertitta dough to buy it air time on Spike TV. “No one liked it. No one wanted it. Nobody thought it would work.’’
In fact, when the Fertitta brothers pushed in the $10 million to land the “Ultimate Fighter’’ reality series on Spike, they told White there would be no more money. Like a tattered fighter, bleeding money, UFC had reached the end. Win or lose, the $10 million punch would be their last.
“That took big balls for them,’’ noted White. “They stayed in it, got beat up, threw in another $10 million, and said, ‘Let’s give it another shot.’ And because they did, it has changed so many people’s lives. I don’t think people really realize what these guys did.’’
Today, said White, he and the Fertittas receive frequent offers to sell. He said they have eschewed offers as high as $4 billion and have no interest in selling. And if not for the Bulger/Weeks scare tactics, White fully realizes, none of it might have happened.
“No doubt,’’ he said. “I had always planned to go back to Vegas. The question was, when? I never would have gone back that soon because I had a lot of stuff going on here. Yeah, everything happens for a reason [deep inhale], and if that didn’t happened . . . had I not been in Vegas, it never would have happened.’’