When Dana White and the Fertitta brothers first purchased the UFC back in 2001, they acquired little more than the name and a used Octagon.
“Back when we bought it, we were hoping just to be covered by ESPN, let alone be on ESPN,” says White. “We believed that this could be a global sport, that this could work everywhere. Pretty much everything the Fertitta brothers and I believed 20 years ago has come true.”
And then some. Fast-forward two decades, and that investment has given way to an international sports juggernaut that continues to expand and evolve at a breakneck pace.
On the occasion of not only the end of year, but the end of a decade, we sat down the UFC President to reflect on the triumphs of the past, and his vision for the future.
Dana White: There’s so many things to think about when you think about 2019. It was a record-breaking year for us in many different ways, from gates to the amount of fights we did. Our ESPN deal—we’ve been with these guys since the beginning of 2019 and the whole business has just taken off like a rocket. We opened the UFC Apex this year. The UFC Performance Institute, first in Vegas, is now open in Shanghai. We’re looking at breaking ground in Mexico soon. Coming off all the things we’ve achieved in the last 20 years, 2019 was a pretty strong year for us.
DW: When you’re a guy like me and you’re involved in sports, you hope someday to be on ESPN because you know it’s a big deal. You don’t realize what a big deal it is until you’re in it, and how good these guys really are at what they do. Their entire focus, 24/7/365, is sports. They’re the “Worldwide Leader” for a reason. They’re very good at what they do.
DW: From the day we got into the business, we thought like fans on everything from how the live event should play out, to how it should be shot on television, how it should be presented to the fans in every aspect. We had this vision to make this thing the biggest live sporting event in sports. I say it all the time and it’s true; it’s not me being arrogant or whatever: when you come to our event, it is the best live sporting event you’ll ever see. It’s great on TV, but it’s even better live. We always believed that we would get here, and we did.
DW: Yeah. In the big picture, this company—from our production to a lot of other things—we don’t get the credit we deserve for how good everybody is that works here and the product we put out, pretty much being the first true global sport. When you think about all these other sports and how long they’ve been trying to go global, we’ve done it in just 20 years. So we have our little wins here and there--like passing the NFL on Instagram—but I’d love to see the talented people that work here get the credit they deserve someday.
DW: I love the concept of Dana White’s Contender Series, so I think any version we do anywhere in the world, we’re going to find the best talent the way we have in the last couple years. But Asia is on fire right now, man. We have our first ever Asian world champion in Weili Zhang, and there’s just a lot of talent. It’s a numbers game. When you have over a billion people, you’re going to find some really talented fighters out there. And now with them having access to something like the Shanghai Performance Institute, the next five or six years are going to be very interesting.
DW: One of the scariest fighters of all time, Cris Cyborg, Amanda absolutely destroyed her. The fastest knockout in that division.
Every GOAT is established through time. It’s not just who you beat, but how you beat them. If you look at who she’s beat, it’s the who’s-who. And if you look at how she beat them…there aren’t a lot of women knocking other women out. She knocks women out.
DW: Conor is one of those guys who's got this incredible personality, who has that “it” factor that makes him a big star. But most importantly, the kid comes in and puts on unbelievably exciting fights. And everything from him showing up to the arena, to the press conference, to the weigh-ins are all just as entertaining and exciting as the fight. He’s got people on both sides—people who hate him and people who love him—but everybody is excited to see him back.
DW: The only fight that I wanted to make that was never made was Brock Lesnar vs Fedor Emelianenko. We were going to do it at Texas Stadium. But I couldn’t get a deal done with Fedor, so it never happened.
DW: If you look at how much this business has grown in one year with ESPN, wait until we’ve been with them for 10. I told you the last year has been a rocket ship with ESPN, and with a lot of the things we’re working on with them, it’s just going to be incredible what we’re going to do. And that’s just here in the United States. That doesn’t even include the rest of the world. We’re on fire right now in Australia, we’re on fire right now in Asia. Russia is hot. The Middle East is hot right now. This business is literally becoming everything else I thought it could be, and it’s fun. I’m still having as much fun as I was 15 years ago, so I’m really looking forward to the next 10.