Oddsmakers have set betting lines on it, every related publication has written articles about it, and those closest to the deal have even denied its existence. But the rumored sale of the UFC appears to be born from reality, and the biggest question surrounding its future concerns company president Dana White.
During the past week, reports of an ongoing bidding war between financial giants WME-IMG in conjunction with Dalian Wanda Group, and China Media Capital, have turned surprising rumors of the sale into a flood of questions about the UFC’s future. According to ESPN, both companies have submitted bids in the range of $4 billion, and thus far, White’s refusal to give any specifics on the subject has left fight fans wondering if the UFC will soon be under new leadership.
In May, ESPN‘s Darren Roval reported that owners of the UFC were entertaining bids ranging from $3.5 to $4 billion from four separate companies. But shortly after the ESPN article was published, White denied that the UFC was for sale during an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show.
”Yeah, we’re not for sale,” said White. ”We’re always working on deals and expansion globally. I’ve been saying this since this thing came out; No, we’re not for sale. But let me tell you what; If somebody shows up with $4 billion, we can talk. We can definitely talk.”
The tale of the UFC’s development and unprecedented growth is legendary among both fight fans and financial wizards alike. At the age of 31, White partnered with brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to purchase the UFC for only $2 million, making him the promotion’s president and de facto face of a sport that had been labelled as “Human cock fighting.”
Of the many things that have made White the ideal leader of the UFC, a fearlessness to display unfiltered emotion and a willingness to instantly act in order to preserve the promotion’s reputation and integrity rank near the top of the list. And when the issue of steroid use within the UFC was brought up during a meeting with Las Vegas-based members of the media in early 2014, White’s reaction was a perfect example of both qualities.
”Give me one [expletive] name right now, I’ll get them on the phone, and somebody will drive to their [expletive] house today and will test them,” White snapped. ”Say it. Say it.”
”Then don’t ever [expletive] say it to me again,” added White. ”You guys like to play these [expletive] games. Let’s do it. I’m ready. I’m down. Let’s do this right not. Give me one name. Give me ten names. Give me all the names you want. I’ll test all these [expletives] right now.”
Prior to White’s involvement with the promotion, the UFC was nothing more than a pay-per-view proving ground where fighters trained in everything from jiu-jitsu to jumping jacks could test themselves against some of the world’s best like-minded warriors.
Violent, barely regulated, and therefore unappealing to the mainstream, the UFC’s infancy looked nothing like the UFC of today. But with the help of legends such as Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, the sport showed signs of potential that were obvious to White and his partners.
Now, a little more than 15 years after stepping into the role that would come to define his career, White has accomplished the once-unthinkable by transforming an unregulated yard sale of combat sports into mixed martial arts and the hottest sport on the planet. And through it all, White has never been the suit-wearing type of league commissioner that we’ve always had in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or Major League Baseball.
Whether it’s the countless hours he’s spent promoting and explaining the sport, his unprecedented honesty with the media, or the fact that most fight fans really would be able to sit down and have a beer with him, White is the anti-Roger Goodell, and the template for success in his ultra-specific field.
Although there’s a chance that the new owners will offer White a role in the promotion after it’s sold, without him, the UFC would immediately lose its priceless sense of accessibility—arguably its greatest intangible asset. Whenever a significant issue with a UFC fighter or event arises, you can basically bet the farm that White will address it on the next edition of ESPN’s Sportscenter. And if someone on the promotion’s roster has worked through an issue of their own, regardless of their rank or popularity, the process often involves a sit-down with White himself.
If replaced, will the next person to fill White’s role be so attentive to the fighters and so accessible to the fans and media? Would White’s replacement participate in season after season of the Ultimate Fighter, or feed their love for the sport by travelling around the country with former great Matt Serra just as White currently does on the web-based Looking For A Fight? Probably not.
Nobody could ever replicate White’s presence. And even if the winner of this billion-dollar bidding war magically finds someone who could bring half of what White brings to the table, the promotion that made mixed martial arts into the sport that it is today will never be the same, and his presence will truly be missed.
[Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images]