Dana White, UFC continue to show immaturity as a major sports brand with even bigger potential problems ahead

In the five years since UFC left Fox to announce a landmark, $1.5 billion broadcasting deal through 2025 with ESPN, it has been hard to find a time in which UFC president Dana White hasn’t been smiling. 

White, the 53-year-old tireless maverick who has been the face of combat sports’ most successful promotion since 2001, has typically closed each calendar year reminding MMA media members just how lucrative the ESPN deal has been, usually by announcing UFC’s best year to date financially in company history. 

The start of 2023, however, has felt a bit different. 

UFC currently finds itself at the crossroads of a concerning confluence of narratives, events and unresolved issues — typically surrounding the treatment of its athletes — which have created a “perfect storm” of challenges that house the potential to threaten future success. 

Of course, there’s the never-ending topic of fighter pay that has dominated the headlines for two years while furthering the rift between White and an MMA media he regularly refers to as “scumbags” for questioning his decision making. Then, there’s the recent gambling scandal centered around former fighter and respected coach James Krause, which has led to two UFC fighters being cut after the promotion banned all participants from legally betting on fights amid legitimate concerns regarding the integrity of the product.

To make matters even worse, White publicly apologized this week after video surfaced of a physical altercation with his wife from New Years’ Eve that was caught on video in a nightclub in Mexico. No legal charges have been filed, but everyone from ESPN to the UFC and parent company Endeavor have been strangely quiet in the aftermath.

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The only comment ESPN has made regarding the incident was to direct media back to the UFC by saying, “ESPN does the distribution and UFC produces the content.” From the files of bad timing, the news of White’s domestic altercation came on the same day that former UFC fighter Phil Baroni was arrested in Mexico for allegedly beating his girlfriend to death

All of this brings us to Thursday morning when, seemingly from left field, one of White’s most ardent critics, YouTube star turned pro boxer Jake Paul, announced he was signing a two-fight MMA deal under the PFL banner, launching a pay-per-view “super fight” division. PFL also announced Paul would be receiving company equity and that his arrival would mean PPV fighters would receive “at least” 50% of profits, which is a purposeful jab aimed at UFC, which pays its fighters, according to previous court filings, just under 20% of overall revenue. 

While the Paul news may seem unrelated on the surface, the biggest surprise factor from the announcement was that ESPN, which holds a smaller output deal with PFL, essentially acquired one of White’s biggest PPV adversaries in Paul, who has created a cottage industry boxing retired UFC fighters, to compete directly against him under the same network banner. 

Nakisa Bidarian, a former CFO of the UFC who White has previously dismissed as a “scumbag accountant” was also hired by PFL and given an equity share. Bidarian, who co-founded Paul’s Most Valuable Promotions, will assist with league operations and strategy for the PFL’s PPV expansion.

PFL co-founder Donn Davis even used the Paul announcement, during an interview Thursday with the New York Times, to declare exactly what his intentions are. 

“You’re not a prisoner anymore to UFC,” Davis said. “You can now choose UFC or PFL, but what makes PFL different is we’re coming out with a true economic partnership for fighters.”

While none of the current issues facing UFC are likely to lead to any crippling short-term issues — save for ESPN, UFC and its parent company Endeavor’s deafening silence regarding White — the long-term threat of each problem can’t be ignored. 

The focus of both Paul and Davis on fighter treatment does go beyond simply pay, however, and has some direct correlation with the ongoing gambling scandal, which affects UFC in more ways than credibility considering it signed a 5-year, $350 million deal with DraftKings in 2021.

One of Krause’s former fighters, featherweight Darrick Minner, entered a now infamous Nov. 5 fight against Shaylian Nuerdanbieke with what appeared to be a pre-existing leg injury. Minner used the injured leg to kick twice in the first round before buckling over in pain and being stopped via elbow strikes.

The dramatic swing in the prefight’s odds, which including major money coming in on a first-round TKO loss for Minner, led to the fight being removed from various sportsbooks, with UFC betting temporarily banned in various jurisdictions, including the Canadian province of Ontario, until the investigation that led to Krause and Minner’s banishment was carried out. 

But outside of the very real fear that the Minner fight teased the potential of impropriety behind the scenes and escalation of speculation into fight fixing, his lot might not be that different than what happened to former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in an October loss to current champion Aljamain Sterling. 

Dillashaw badly injured his shoulder in training camp and later admitted it came out of the socket upwards of 20 times entering the fight. Dillashaw would go on to lose via second-round TKO after a shoulder separation in the opening minute left him largely unable to compete. The connection between Minner and Dillashaw surrounds pre-existing injuries and UFC policy, which dictates the promotion will only pay for surgery after injuries suffered inside the Octagon.  

On the surface, the lucrative ESPN deal and the constant flow of new sponsors being added suggest UFC has evolved to a level of success and crossover viability it could only have dreamed of 15 years earlier. Back in 2008, UFC was becoming an emerging PPV vehicle that rivaled that of boxing but had trouble breaking through the stigma of cage fighting enough to draw consistent coverage from major outlets like ESPN (full disclosure: I worked for ESPN from 2005-2017). 

During each step of the company’s rise, White was ahead of the game prophesizing about the brand’s global potential and that UFC would one day be considered a “big four sport” entity on par with NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and elite college sports. To White’s credit, that became a reality, with the signing of the ESPN deal and the intentional crossover promotion of the sport through legacy platforms on the network such as “SportsCenter” and “First Take” seen as a graduation, of sorts, to the country club level of respectability.

White’s already rock-solid reputation for consistently exceeding fan’s expectations for big fights was further cemented into mythical immortality by the brazen ways in which he kept the product alive amid the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, ESPN was the only place in town to visit for live sports in the spring and summer of 2020, when UFC rallied to fulfill its minimum set of dates required by the ESPN deal while White’s competitors sat idle. 

Both UFC and White became the darling of just about everyone, from fans to the same ESPN executives who partnered with them. But the smooth ride wasn’t without bumps as White was reportedly told to “stand down” by Disney, ESPN’s parent company, in April 2020 when he first attempted to stage fights in California on Native American grounds before any state commissions had given the approval.   

What this current cluster of potentially compromising issues seems to question for UFC, however, is whether White and his trusted fight promotion are truly ready for prime time from the standpoint of the responsibilities that come with being presented as such a mainstream entity, especially since the ESPN deal has offered UFC select dates on terrestrial television with ABC. 

ESPN’s silence in the aftermath of White’s domestic scandal seems to question whether the network actually views UFC on the same level as the other major leagues it partners with, including the NFL and NBA. Could a commissioner or front-facing executive of any other major sport have survived this kind of bad press without a punishment? And what is ESPN’s responsibility, as an editorial entity, in covering the matter as aggressively as it would other sports? 

White has built much of his reputation upon how politically incorrect he regularly chooses to be. That kind of seat-of-your-pants leadership might work better when UFC was airing on Spike TV or Fuel TV in previous eras, when MMA was seen as nothing more than uncivilized brawling to the outside world. But it simply can’t sustain on this level, where previously tiny or forgotten matters become front-page news. 

What happened with White and his wife was anything but tiny and has a ripple effect across a combat sports community that already has an awful track record when it comes to domestic abuse and the treatment of victims. The rallying cry of fighters, fans and even media members who publicly supported White in recent days suggests there is still major change that needs to be done. 

UFC might have fulfilled all or most of White’s lofty dreams to get to where it is today. But if recent history is any indicator, that honeymoon is over and choppy waters are near for a company whose reaction to serious issues remains profoundly immature for the platform it carries. 

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