Opinion: Dana White, Lookin' For The Wrong Fights

By Lev Pisarsky Jul 5, 2021
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Dana White has always thrived on fights, and no, I'm not talking about the ones that happen inside the Octagon. Rather, White's career as Ultimate Fighting Championship president has been characterized by a series of personal battles not only against business competitors, but anyone who isn't fully amenable to serving the company's interests. Who can forget his infamous rants against other MMA and even boxing promoters, like his countless expletive-laden outbursts about Bob Arum over the past 15-plus years? Or what about his many feuds with journalists, such as his furious, foul-mouthed meltdown about Loretta Hunt? Or, for that matter, entire websites, like White calling up Sherdog founder Jeff Sherwood to yell and curse at him, and later blacklisting the website over a number of petty complaints, such as this site's gall in covering non-UFC North American MMA back in 2005? Naturally, White hasn't excluded his own personnel and other ancillary figures from the fun. He routinely blasts referees and even beloved figures like cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran. And an entire book could be written about White's various battles with fighters, beginning with top superstars of the early 2000s like Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz. And while those two are highly polarizing and certainly have their share of flaws, one of White's more enduring wars was with Randy Couture, perhaps the most beloved, revered champion in the sport's history.

However, while White 's recent fights call to mind the same ones he has been waging for 20 plus years, there is a unique wrinkle to them that doesn't bode well for the company's future. To begin with, he was fresh off a self-proclaimed victory in late December 2020 over an evil legion...of sports journalists. Again, White having a problem with individual writers and reporters is nothing new. However, the video, originally posted on White's Twitter before being deleted, is noteworthy for the sheer number and variety of journalists attacked here. By my count, he called out at least 22 different names, everyone from Gene Wang writing for The Washington Post to “Big” John McCarthy on his podcast. McCarthy, who had been the UFC's lead, head referee for over 20 years, from UFC 2 in 1994 to his retirement in 2016. McCarthy, who had almost single-handedly written the Unified Rules that White and the UFC brag about to this day, who has trained and mentored countless other top referees the UFC relies upon, such as Herb Dean and Mike Beltran. One would think that gratitude and respect would prevent White from including McCarthy in his little propaganda video. However, those are two qualities White has never been accused of possessing. Nor was McCarthy wholly unique, as White also called out former UFC title challenger and current referee Frank Trigg as well as very recent UFC commentator Jimmy Smith, who was treated horribly by the company.

Look, I get it. For a fan, it's easy to take the side of the cocky, trash-talking, anti-corporate White over a bunch of naysaying journalists, which was the point of the video. And I found it all very funny, especially knowing UFC employees worked hard to put together a much better promo than most of their actual pay-per-view events receive. Regardless, it was quite harmless and isn't going to change the company's future one way or the other.

The same, however, cannot be said about White's most recent fights against Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones. The White vs. Jones fight is truly curious. Bones is certainly a polarizing and troubled champion, but White and the UFC have spent over a decade making special exceptions for him for his litany of legal troubles and failed USADA tests. Perhaps most insanely, they moved UFC 232 from Las Vegas to California less than a week before the event, screwing over thousands of loyal fans to accommodate a fighter who had failed a drug test.

All the while the UFC has continually pushed Jon Jones as the greatest fighter of all-time. While that may or may not be true, Jones' current performances indicate a man who is past his prime. In my opinion, and that of most on MMA Decisions, Jones has lost his last two fights against Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes. Each of whom, incidentally, have lost two in a row since that defeat, all in decisive fashion, including three stoppages.

At the same time, Jones continues to be a huge pay-per-view draw, probably the second-biggest after Conor McGregor. While we don't have official numbers for the Santos and Reyes fights, Jones vs. Gustaffson did 700,000 buys and Jones vs. Smith did 650,000, both of which are excellent. And declining performances or not, the UFC has put itself into a corner promoting Jones as the greatest for years, and of course, Jones challenging Ngannou at heavyweight is an enormous blockbuster fight, regardless.

Jones was absolutely justified in asking for more money against Ngannou, and yet, White balked. Keep in mind that the UFC often struggles to even reach 150,000 buys without a big name nowadays, so Jones, through pay-per-view sales alone, likely made the company an additional $63 million in revenue in just 2 fights. By contrast, Jones is estimated to have made just $7.2 million across his entire 26-fight career.

The fact that White isn't able to open his pocketbook just one time for a true mega-fight, an expense he will easily recoup many times over, is troubling. Elite, big-name fighters have more options than ever nowadays, even freak-show boxing fights, so White can't lowball them successfully the way he has in the past. Instead of recognizing this, he continues waging the same battles he did 20 years ago, not realizing the landscape has changed.

However, even by that standard, White’s fight against Ngannou is mind-numbingly absurd. Unlike Jones, Ngannou is a very well-liked, respected champion with a cool, inspiring story. While he isn't yet the draw that Jones is, he is approaching that level with each new, highlight reel knockout. Estimates for the UFC 260 buy rate, Ngannou's rematch against Stipe Miocic, place it at a very good 500,000 buys. Moreover, he is the rarest of all modern fighters: a truly great, wonderfully exciting heavyweight knockout artist who, at 34, still has many years at the top in front of him.

So why pick a fight with Ngannou? Why pressure him to fight on short notice against Derrick Lewis just to meet a schedule? Considering the heavyweight king made the most money in his career in the Stipe rematch, and it was still only about $580,000, why not give him a few million to fight Jones? Again, White would easily recoup any expenses dozens of times over. Given that he is only 34, this also increases the likelihood that Ngannou will compete outside the UFC while still in his relative prime. Moreover, Ngannou is the true, current champion. Even very loyal UFC or White fans aren't going to see Ciryl Gane vs. Derrick Lewis for the interim title as anything other than a farce.

Going back to White's feud against Couture, even that made far more sense. In 2008, Couture was already 45 years old and angling for a fight with Fedor Emelianenko, even if it was outside the UFC. There were reasons not to give in and adopt a hard line, whether it was right or wrong, moral or amoral. But no such explanation exists for White's baffling fight with Ngannou.

If White can't even come to terms with his heavyweight champion, and treats him so disrespectfully, that doesn't speak well for his ability to work with virtually any champion or big name who wants more money going forward. And make no mistake. This won't stop being a problem even if White “wins” against Ngannou. Again, there are other large MMA promotions willing to shell out big money for talent, and freak-show boxing fights have more staying power than previously imagined. There are alternatives that didn't exist 15 years ago. What's going to happen when Ngannou's friend Kamaru Usman realizes he is being badly underpaid and wants to be compensated accordingly? And if White can't put together Jones-Ngannou and instead starts fighting with both guys, does that mean a sharp decrease in major showdowns we're dying to see?

Regardless of who wins White's two newest fights, it's the fans who will lose.
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