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Examining The Motivations of The Premier Mixed Martial Arts Organisation and Its Charismatic Leader - The UFC and Dana White

From its realisation in 1993 to where we are now in 2019, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been a pioneer and market leader in Mixed Martial Arts promotion. Founded by David Isaacs alongside owner Bob Meyrowitz, the UFC was created on the ideals of joining together the top martial artists in a no holds barred tournament to determine which of them possessed the more superior skills in combat. The immediate attraction of the UFC was evident. Marketed as a ‘No Rules’ event, it gave casual combat sports fans a chance to experience a more brutal and raw form of action.

However, the apparent barbarism of the sport caused major issues with the governing bodies across America, who threatened to cancel cable coverage of the UFC. It became quickly apparent to Meyrowitz that the company was not sustainable and that drastic action was required in order to save it from going under. This led to Dana White, along with Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, purchasing the UFC for $2 million in 2001, in a deal that was done more out of passion than logic.

Under their guidance, the UFC has grown into what we know it as now; a multi-billion dollar fight promotion that contains some of the highest level fighters on show in MMA. Thanks to the work of Dana White and the Fertittas, we have witnessed the development of names such as Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Anderson Silva to name but a few. Whilst these names have shaped the modern landscape of mixed martial arts, the line between what is beneficial to the fighters in terms of business and what is good for the promotion has become blurred. Obscurity within the sport has grown increasingly since its conception but recent incidents such as the cutting of top ranked female fighter Cris Cyborg from the organisation have left us to question exactly what image Dana White is attempting to portray.

Cyborg has always been regarded as a pioneer of women’s MMA and, despite her recent brutal loss to Amanda Nunes, she had rejoined championship conversation after her latest victory over Felicia Spencer at UFC 240. What made her exit from the UFC even more confusing was her vocalised desire to have a rematch with Nunes after she was previously criticised by Dana White for being afraid of ‘The Lioness’. While the feud between Cyborg and White has certainly been far from a private matter for some time now, it still seems a strange business move from the President of the company, as a rematch with Nunes would no doubt be a pay-per-view success if their last bout is anything to go by.

During an interview on his Tuesday Night Contender series, Dana White responded to questions about Cyborg by stating “Dealing with her has been a nightmare” (in regard to her past use of steroids and apparent avoidance of fights). Furthermore, the controversy surrounding Cyborg and White’s relationship was brought to a climax when an edited video released by Cyborg’s team after UFC 240 showed White apparently confessing to Cyborg about lying to the media in relation to her desire to rematch Amanda Nunes. Cyborg has since apologised on behalf of her team. It is clear that the divide between what the fighters deem as good business for them and what the promotion sees as good business has widened exponentially, with more and more fighters it seems disagreeing with their treatment within the company. Notable examples in the past include disagreements between White and Al Iaquinta over the allocation of fighter bonuses. Speaking to Ariel Helwani, Iaquinta criticised White’s comments about the fight card after he claimed that the highlight of his night was his plane ride home. Iaquinta went on a verbal rant stating that White has no idea of the fighter’s struggle when they step into the cage, mentioning injuries and the obvious risk each fighter takes when he or she enters the octagon.

White has never shied from voicing his opinions, arguing that “the guys who are complaining about this stuff are the guys that don’t matter”. Here we can see an outlying trait of the UFC as a promotion; it’s focus is primarily on the big names, which opens up the argument of fighters being neglected the further down the roster they are placed. If we take a look at the average money made by UFC fighters last year, the median figure excluding bonuses and sponsorships came to $68,500.

Now, when we consider that these fighters risk their wellbeing every time they step into the cage to fight, it seems surprising that this figure is not higher. It is also vital to consider the recovery time for a fighter after an event as sponsorships can only support so much of a fighters income. For instance, after his all out war with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189, Rory Macdonald was out of competition for almost a year due to injury, and received a payout of $139,000 ($59,000 to show, $50,000 performance of the night bonus and $30,000 Reebok sponsorship). For a sport that can bring about life changing injuries for fighters, it has to be questioned why pay for the majority is so low.

A particularly shocking incident of pay disparity occured at UFC 157. The main card featured a bantamweight match-up between Urijah Faber and Ivan Menjivar, in which Faber won the bout via submission in the first round. Faber walked out of the Honda Center that night having pocketed a comfortable $100,000 including a $50,000 submission of the night bonus. His opponent on the other hand earned a meager $17,000 for his time. Such a gap in pay is astonishing considering both fighters put themselves at equal risk every time they fight. Other fighters on the undercard that night earned as little as $8,000, truly highlighting the shocking divide between those at the top of the sport and the lesser known fighters who risk just as much as those making the big bucks.

Another cause of controversy in White’s organisation was the sponsorship deal made with Reebok in 2015 in an effort to “structure athletes’” income outside of fights’. The deal meant that fighters who had previously been sponsored by a variety of companies would no longer be able to receive sponsorship income outside of Reebok. The promise of increased income fell short and Vitor Belfort even compared the deal to “living in slavery” in his post-fight interview at UFC 198. During an interview on The Cruz Show, when questioned about the fighters’ discrepancies with the Reebok deal, White accused fighters of being “short-sighted”, arguing there had previously been a lack of professionalism from fighters who frequently appeared at weigh-ins with unsponsored underwear. Considering the vast sums of money fighters have lost as a result of the deal, it is evident that that the promotion’s care does not lie with the livelihoods of its fighters.

It seems that White has an inability to provide a cohesive response for his fighters’ doubts, often falling back on simply criticising the fighters as people, as shown in the aforementioned interview. White blasted ex-fighter Brendan Schaub after he criticised his business management tactics, saying “What the f** does this idiot know about the sport or the business*”, with Schaub immediately pointing out that White himself has never been involved in an MMA bout so by default cannot know what is best for the fighters. Schaub has long stood on the side of wanting to see White gone from the organisation, citing his own experience as a fighter for the UFC on his Below The Belt Podcast:

I’ve been in that exact same scenario where you’re working your ass off to fight another man in a cage and you’re looking for some sort of approval from the head guy who controls your destiny who controls what match-ups you get, who controls how much publicity you get, who controls now what sponsors you get, who controls how much success you’re going to have

As a promoter it is White’s job to be capable of building up his fighters confidence alongside being able to sell the fights. If White continues to talk down to his fighters the way he currently does, then it is likely we will see fighters seek opportunities in other promotions.

Such an aggressive backlash from an ex-fighter would be a clear indicator that White’s leadership isn’t supported wholeheartedly. However, unfortunately, without Dana White, the UFC would not be the powerhouse promotion it is today and it does not look likely that White will be going anywhere anytime soon. It is evident that the key motivation for the organisation is financial and global growth, championed by the mindset of Dana White. In future we can hope to see a more equal pay bracket for those who risk their wellbeing by fighting in the octagon. However, due to the current atmosphere of the promotion and the longevity of Dana White’s career as president, whether or not this revised pay bracket will come to fruition is too difficult to predict unless some form of fighters union were to be formed.


James Eakin

Student at Sussex University writing about UFC.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.