These are busy days for UFC president Dana White. While the native New Englander is in town for Friday night’s UFC Boston card at TD Garden, he’s also looking ahead to future UFC cards, and planning a foray into the world of boxing.
White sat down for an interview with the Globe this week. Topics included television deals, how he thinks he can make the top fights in boxing happen, the return of Conor McGregor, and his friendship with President Trump.
Q. What do you think of the card?
A. I love the card, and obviously the card got a lot better when we added Jair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens. Then [Greg] Hardy got added to it, so the card is great. Maycee Barber, she’s undefeated, she’s 7-0. She’s a savage. She’s 21, and wants to be the youngest female world champion, calling everybody out. I love her attitude. I love everything about her.
Q. What do you think of Boston as a market for UFC?
A. Obviously, I might be a little biased, but it’s the greatest sports town on planet Earth. A big fight town. Always has been and always will be. If you look at all the different sports that are here, they pretty much always sell out. When you add it all up, plus I love the city, plus I’m from here, it’s a no-brainer.
Q. How often would you like to get back here?
A. Well, the problem is we only do 44 fights per year, and now we’re such a massive global sport. We just got France done. We’ll have our first fight in Paris next year. The Russian thing is going crazy right now because of Khabib [Nurmagomedov]. We just did a five-year deal with the Middle East, so we’ve got to bring fights to the Middle East now, so it’s not a matter of how many times I would like to come to Boston, it’s when we can.
Q. You mention Khabib. Any idea what’s next for him?
A. Yeah, so, Tony Ferguson. I’m looking for Khabib vs. Ferguson in March in Vegas. That’s what I’m trying to make right now.
Q. UFC Fight Pass streams Murphys Boxing fights. Do you have a good relationship with Ken Casey?
A. I do. He’ll be at the fights [Friday]. I’m getting into boxing, so in the next couple of months I’ll be making some announcements about boxing and UFC Fight Pass. I’m looking for guys like Casey and a lot of other promoters around the world who can’t get television deals. I’m doing television deals with these guys through Fight Pass.
Q. What prompted that? Are you surveying the scene, seeing that HBO is not doing anything anymore, or how DAZN is doing? Is it that the timing is just right?
A. Yeah, you’re dead-on. Everything you just said is exactly right. I hate Showtime, I can’t stand those guys. HBO was the best to do it, they’re out. DAZN can’t sign everybody and [promoter] Bob Arum is 88 years old [in December]. I believe right now there are four guys in the heavyweight division, the four top guys, and it’s getting exciting again.
I think there’s a lot of fights that could be made out there. I like [Matchroom promoter] Eddie Hearn, I like [Premier Boxing Champions manager] Al Haymon, I like a lot of these other guys that I’ve met, and I think that we can all do something together and I think that there’s enough money for everybody.
Q. So you think it’s something where you guys can work together?
A. Yeah, and I know that I can jump into the game right now and end up with a pretty good TV deal, which helps.
Q. Let’s talk about that. You had a great relationship with Fox . . .
A. Amazing relationship with Fox.
Q. You moved to ESPN. When ESPN+ came out, people were kind of skeptical. You guys partnered up, and that seems . . .
A. There are over 3 million subscribers now.
Q. Did you envision that when this partnership . . .
A. Yeah. So if you look at our history, we started on Spike TV, we drove big numbers there. We left and we went to Fox, and we drove massive numbers on FX. So then the president, Eric Shanks, comes to me and says, “I want to start my own network that competes with ESPN, but I can’t do it without you. Will you go with me?” I said yes. Look at the success of Fox Sports 1.
Now we are at ESPN and ESPN says we want you because we want to drive [subscriptions]. Oh, and I forgot about Fuel. Remember Fuel? We went to Fuel for a little while and killed it for Fuel.
So I knew that we would be able to drive business. And I still have UFC Fight Pass, which since we have been with ESPN, the numbers have actually gone up, and we’re the same thing, we’re both streaming services.
Q. But it’s separate from ESPN?
A. Yes, They own all my content, right? They have all my content on ESPN+, plus I’m bringing all these other peoples’ content onto UFC Fight Pass.
Q. I would imagine the relationship must really do a lot for the sport. You already had plenty of popularity, and now they had the “30 for 30: Chuck and Tito” on the other night; is it helping make it even more mainstream?
A. Yeah, I mean, we’ve been in business with ESPN since the beginning of the year, our business is literally just going up. Think about this: Conor McGregor hasn’t fought since the Khabib fight, right? We’re going to break the record this year for ticket sales, without a Conor McGregor fight.
Q. Do you think he will ever be back?
A. He’ll be back next year.
Q. Any idea what you have cooking there?
A. Next month at Madison Square Garden, we’ve got Diaz vs Masvidal, sold out. So whoever wins that fight could fight McGregor. We’ve got Cowboy Cerrone, we’ve got Justin Gaethje, but what Conor wants right now really is the Khabib rematch. So we’ll see how that whole thing plays out. But if you’re Khabib, you got the Tony Ferguson fight, George St. Pierre wants to fight, and you’ve got the Conor McGregor fight.
Q. So McGregor is probably down on the list of what Khabib wants.
A. Khabib is the man now. Conor isn’t the man anymore, so Khabib gets to sit back and call the shots.
Q. How often do you talk to President Trump?
A. I talked to him this morning, and I talked to him Monday or Tuesday of this week. We talk a lot. We talk about fights, we talk about just normal stuff.
Q. You spoke at the Republican Convention. How did that come about?
A. Let me tell you about the president. When we first bought the UFC, no venues wanted us. He actually reached out and said, “Come to the Taj [Mahal]. We’d love to have you at the Taj.” So our first two events were at the Taj Mahal. He showed up at the first fight, stayed until the last fight. Couldn’t have been nicer. Cut us a great deal.
Then we left and we went to the Meadowlands. Big Tito [Ortiz] fight at the Meadowlands. He showed up at the Meadowlands too. Then, for the rest of my career, anything good that ever happened, the president was the first guy to pick up the phone and call me. He said, “Congratulations, I knew you were going to do this, I knew this thing was going to big, I knew this, I knew that.”
He starts running for president and the New York Times calls me and says Trump is going to ask you to speak at the Republican National Convention. And I said, “First of all, I don’t know anything about this, he hadn’t asked me to do anything.”
And then the day comes, and everyone is telling me not to do this, don’t do it, don’t do it, it will be bad for your business, don’t get political and all this other stuff. I said, “This guy’s been a friend to me for 20 years. Anything good that’s ever happened, he’s picked up the phone and called me.”
So he calls me and says, “Listen, I want to ask you something, and don’t feel obligated to do this, because if you don’t want to do this, I completely understand, no hard feelings or anything. But I would be honored if you would speak for me at the Republican National Convention.”
I said, “I’m honored that you even asked me to do it, and I will be there.”
He called me every week leading up to winning the election. The night that he won, the Conor McGregor fight [vs. Eddie Alvarez] was that week in New York. I’m in my favorite Italian restaurant and he calls me.
I’m there with my wife, and he says, “Get your ass down here, I’m gonna win this thing. I’m gonna be the next president of the United States, come to the party.” I have one suit with me, the suit that I brought for the fight, so I went down to the party.
Since that day, I’m telling you, me and my wife went to the White House and had dinner with him, 3½ hours in the residence, having dinner, toured us through the whole place. I’ve been in the White House three or four times now, it’s been an amazing experience. He is the most solid guy you’ll ever meet. He gives you his word and it’s gold, I’m telling you, it’s unbelievable.
Q. Is there ever, since he’s been in office, anything that he’s done or said or even if it’s just him misspeaking, where you just cringe, like . . .
A. Listen, everybody thinks I’m a Republican, but I’m not a Republican. I’m for the best man or woman for the job. I don’t agree with all of his politics, but it doesn’t matter what president is in there, I don’t agree with everything they say.
There’s a little bit of me that’s Republican, and there’s a little bit of me that’s Democratic. I believe in taking care of people that don’t have, I believe in taking care of the planet, you know, all that type of stuff.
And then there’s a conservative side to me too. I believe in less taxes, and so I don’t agree with all his policies, and I definitely don’t agree with all of his tweets and the things that he says. But there’s a lot of people that I’m friends with that I don’t agree with everything they believe in and everything they say. It’s not that perfect, and that black and white.
He’s been one of the most solid guys that I’ve ever come across. And put it into perspective: When he asked us to come to the Taj Mahal, the Trump brand is here [raises his hand over his head], the UFC brand was below the floor. He’s a smart guy, he’s a sharp businessman, and he saw the potential in the UFC.