Boston homecoming shows White’s rapid rise as head of UFC
BOSTON (AP) — Dana White is looking for a staircase. He remembers there are steps leading to the gym he once rehabilitated, around the corner from the justice building where Will Hunting made a mockery of the court. Had you not known White was UFC’s maestro of mayhem, he’d be mistaken for just another guy from Southie. Bald, street tough, Patriots jacket and T-shirt, poking around for a way into a building without an invitation.
But it’s Boston, so of course, White knows a guy.
The keys soon arrive — and so do a few stragglers who notice the UFC president, take snapshots and quickly lobby the leader of a $4 billion company on which dream fights to book next.
White could be one of them today, because for 10 years he was one — just trying to stay afloat in his adopted hometown. He worked as a bellhop at a swanky hotel, wheelbarrowed asphalt and busted up fights as a bouncer at an Irish tavern. A 20-something White even scrapped his way out of a job at the Black Rose.
“I actually got fired for fighting over there,” he said, laughing.
But the path from barroom brawler to blossoming businessman started down the concrete stairwell to McDonough Gym. White had befriended a former Golden Gloves champion named Peter Welch and together they turned barren space into a boxing gym. White and Welch painted the joint, secured a ring and locked up gear that wasn’t worth locking up inside a storage room that has since transformed into a snack bar. They sparred and trained kids and White knew a better life was ahead than the one he had working the front of the house at a hotel.
They are still close and Welch has since opened his own boxing gym inside a converted warehouse that served as the site of a fighting reality series.
“He’s done very well for himself. He’s got a huge gym a couple of blocks down the street,” White says.
“Please,” Welch said. “Pale in comparison to what this guy did.”
All White did was use his street-smart Boston savvy to turn UFC from a dying-on-the-vine brand to a multibillion dollar industry running sanctioned events in every U.S. state. Much like in his early Boston jobs, White did the heavy lifting, worked as the front man and yeah, still fights here and there, though he mostly keeps his smackdowns these days to the verbal kind against fighters and promoters who tick him off.
White’s triumphant return last week to Boston for the UFC pay-per-view event at TD Garden was a sublime blend of his roots and present-day reality: Eating steak tips with his “goons” at a Southie pub then sitting courtside at a Celtics game with the team owner.
But as he walked into McDonough for the first time in 23 years, White’s mouth was agape when he saw how the boxing gym he built was now a community rec center filled with a pingpong table, a pool table, a computer room and a big screen TV.
“It seemed bigger when I was younger,” White said.
White was just a wannabe boxing trainer begging for a break when he was introduced to Welch by a mutual friend.
“Everybody has a friend who wants to box,” Welch said. “I just figured it was another guy who was interested in getting punched around until they feel what it was like to get hit. Then they go the other way. But this guy, he wasn’t that guy. He took his first beating and kept coming back. I took a liking to him.”
White’s taste for the squared circle dried up the day he saw a punchy pugilist stumble around a heavy bag.
“I remember looking at him thinking ... what if it happens to me?” White said. “The minute you think that to yourself, you’re not a real fighter.”
The Mike Tyson junkie never laced up as a professional. He quit on his own much and thinks retired athletes should take personal responsibility for their health in the same way, knowing that fighting careers can be punishing.
“I was just telling these guys the other day, I got a CT scan on my head. It looks like a ... Dalmatian,” he said. “I’ve got spots all over my brain. I wouldn’t take back one punch.”
UFC has yet to become seriously slogged down in lawsuits the way the NFL and NHL have over the thorny issues of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“Nobody forced you to play in the ... NFL. It’s what you wanted to do,” White said. “At that time of your life, that’s the deal you signed and that’s what you did. Just like me. I’ve got spots all over my head. Who the ... am I going to blame? Me, that’s who I’m going to blame. I did it because I wanted to do it.”
White’s love for fighting was passed down to his 15-year-son, Aidan. Aidan White is set to make his amateur debut at a South Boston gym on St. Patrick’s Day with his father and family cheering him on. White said he’s never pushed his athletic son into lacing up the gloves. But the MMA mogul was proud his son was going to fight in the gym run by his mentor.
“As a father, it’s your job to teach your kids how to fight,” White said. “My younger son is super aggressive in everything. He’s a really good snowboarder. He’s a really good skateboarder. Pretty much everything that kid does, he’s very good at it. All sports just come really naturally to him. So does fighting. This was his thing.”
White sits in the middle row of an SUV when his phone rings. Sure, TD Garden is a sellout and would draw a $2.45 million gate and Dana’s extended friends should help pack the place. But when three-time New England Patriots Super Bowl champion Willie McGinest is on the other line, there’s room to squeeze in one more sports great.
“I’ll hook you up with a couple of tickets,” White said over the phone. “No problem.”
White, who can add Boston ticket broker to his Linkedin resume should he move back, makes a quick call to the person who will actually leave McGinest tickets. Then he gets a quick update on what time he needs be at the Garden for the ceremonial weigh in.
The press conference turns testy when White is prodded with questions about why sidelined superstar Conor McGregor hasn’t been stripped of his lightweight championship. Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic stirred the pot a night later when he snatched the belt from White and refused to let him perform the traditional wrapping of the title belt around the winner’s waist. Even homecomings have headaches.
Yet, the 48-year-old White never considered cashing out on the company he ruthlessly ruled, rebranded, reorganized and built into a juggernaut that sold for $4 billion in July 2016.
“Why would I do anything else?” White asked. “The day I walked out of the Boston Harbor hotel, it wasn’t about the money. That’s the job guys die for. It still isn’t about the money for me. But the money came.”
White bristled at criticism that UFC had leveled off with the absences of stars such as McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones by noting — thanks in large part to its hefty cut of the outlier McGregor-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight that grossed more than $600 million — the company had its best financial year in history in 2017.
“And now we’re having the best first quarter,” White said. “When you look at the growth of the sport, we haven’t even scratched the surface of how big this thing can be.”
White used to tour newsrooms to plead his case for more UFC coverage. Now, the promotion gets more people to fork over $70 for a weekend pay-per-view than fans who watch a typical NHL game or IndyCar race for free on the same night.
White has missed best friends Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, his two casino baron brothers who bought UFC for $2 million in 2001, but the company made a smooth transition to Hollywood entertainment conglomerate WME-IMG and CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell.
“Ari’s a smart guy. He leaves me alone and lets me do my thing,” White said between sips of ginger ale. “Zero interference. Less than zero. He checks in every day. All good? Yes. No. Whatever it may be. Couldn’t have been a more perfect guy. Because obviously the key to this thing was keeping me around. Couldn’t have a better guy to keep me around for. I love working with him.”
Some people leave for Boston for a better job or warmer winters.
White might have never split for Las Vegas when he did except for the pesky fact he was the target of a shakedown by a reputed mobster named Kevin Weeks. Weeks, a longtime confidant to notorious crime boss Whitey Bulger, barged in on White’s training session at the Boxing Athletic Club. The not-so innocent request: fork over protection money or else.
Or else what?
White didn’t know for sure but he had a pretty good guess. When the crew called White at his home and demanded the cash from him in 24 hours, he decided to bolt Beantown.
“I hung up the phone, picked it back up and got a one-way ticket back to Vegas,” White said.
He bounced on his lease, left behind his personal items and said goodbye to a city he called home.
The son of a father with alcoholism and a mother who wrote a tell-all book on him was back in his element with a seat to watch the Patriots play in the AFC championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He pulled out his phone to show a video of the entire White family sitting among the Patriots fans who never left the stadium when they trailed Atlanta 28-3 in the Super Bowl last year. He’s raised his kids as Boston sports fans, and the Super Bowl was just one more title to add to the collection.
“They don’t know what losing is,” White said.
Neither does White, anymore.
Unlike the Patriots, he just had to leave New England to find out.