Dana White was always interested in mixed martial arts, but he never anticipated he’d become the savior of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). White, the president of UFC, found himself on a new path in 2001 when he and his childhood friend Lorenzo Fertitta and Lorenzo’s brother, Frank Fertitta III, bought the then-struggling organization for $2 million. In the years since, White has been instrumental in turning the nearly bankrupt company around and bringing MMA into the zeitgeist, reminding fans around the world that there is something deeply compelling to watch two fighters compete in the Octagon.
A pivotal moment arrived in 2004. White had been president of UFC for three years and the organization wasn’t making the kind of money he and the Fertittas had hoped for. They weren’t sure it could continue.
“Lorenzo called me up one day and said, ‘I can’t keep burning this type of cash. Would you get out there and see what we could sell this thing for?’” White recounts. “I made some calls that day, and basically we could sell the company for six to seven million bucks. I told Lorenzo and he called me the next morning and said, ‘F— it. Let’s keep going.’”
His partner’s sudden optimism baffled him. “I guess he thought it over that night and got up the next day, and it was a good day,” White says. “Whatever the reason was—thank God. Imagine if he’d woken up that day and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore, let’s pull the plug.’” A decade later, in 2016, UFC would sell for $4 billion, the largest sale of a sports franchise in history.
The two friends often talk about how the small details lined up to bring them to this point. They knew each other in high school, but reconnected at a mutual friend’s wedding years later. “Imagine if I didn’t go to that wedding,” he says. “Or if Lorenzo hadn’t gone. So many details like that led us to buying the UFC.”
But beyond those right-place, right-time circumstances, White knows that it takes conviction and a deep sense of belief in what you do to be successful. For White, this is where the fighting spirit of never giving up comes in. It’s how UFC landed a deal with FOX, which White cites as his proudest career moment, and it’s why White has seen potential in a few particular fighters and made them into superstars.
His motivation? Proving people wrong. “I love doing things that people say can’t be done,” he says. “It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and gets me ready to kick some ass.” And today, White continues to translate that sensibility into everything he does. “If you get into something that you’re passionate about, and if you really believe in it, you gotta get up every day and fight. Nothing comes easy. Success doesn’t just drop on your lap. You have to go out and fight for it every day.”
White thinks back on one of his first jobs as a road paver in Boston, when he was a teenager. “There was this kid I worked with, and the owner of the company was very good at getting us to compete against each other every day. It wasn’t even a job to the two of us. It was a competition every day. We still talk once in a while about who was the greatest wheel-barrower of all time. I say it was me and of course he thinks it was him.”
Igniting that fighting spirit is his best advice to those who want to follow in his shoes. “Anything can be changed,” White says. “Anything can be fixed. Things that are broken can be fixed. And you don’t have to be some billionaire or millionaire to do it. You just have to be a person with a vision and the passion to do it, and be willing to fight for it every day. If you have all of those things I promise you, you can be successful. You can change the world.”
Made with the fighting spirit
Esquire is teaming up with Modelo to celebrate our reader’s stories of courage and perseverance. Check out our winner’s story announced in February 2018. Our winner will be honored at an event in New York City and receive $15,000 to the charity of their choice.