The Self-Made Man: Dana White
It may not be immediately obvious, but entrepreneurism is possible outside of the tech industry. UFC president Dana White is a good example. Sure, he may engage in really douchey behavior like walking around in fur coats and handing out cash bonuses like he’s the Godfather or something, but beneath all that is a pretty savvy businessman who is exactly right for his industry.
Dana, you see, was kind of a bro from the start. He was a bouncer, amateur boxer, and fitness trainer who liked to fight and was apparently pretty good at it. He still spars today, and occasionally shows up to press conferences with black eyes and facial bruising. Kinda hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg in that position.
Anyway, after the Irish mob muscled him out of the boxaerobics business he’d started in Boston, Dana moved to Vegas and met up with former classmate Lorenzo Fertitta, who just happened to be a multimillionaire on the Nevada state boxing commission. The two of them, alongside other investors, bought UFC for $2 million in 1991 and turned something that was on the verge of being totally illegal into an American cultural phenomenon.
I’m not saying anything new to older readers here, but UFC was pretty grisly in its early days. There were a lot of freakshow fights (Keith Hackney v. Cedric Yarborough being one example), no real weight classes, and pretty limited rules (hair-pulling and groin strikes were allowed). They weren’t too strict on medical exams, either. John McCain called the organization “human cockfighting,” and as wrong as he generally is about things, he was kinda right about that.
Dana White still saw potential, though. After convincing Fertitta to buy UFC, he began an aggressive branding strategy that saw numerous rules changes to encourage fighter safety, ad campaigns in men’s magazines (namely Maxim and Sports Illustrated), and an overall marketing focus on the fighters’ individual personalities to show off their natural charisma and underestimated intelligence (although seeing some of those same guys now, after years of head trauma, is pretty sad).
Dana also came up with The Ultimate Fighter, which followed up on the whole our-fighters-have-charisma thing by giving viewers people to root for (and against), and also showed that mixed-martial arts required legitimate skills and athleticism. In so doing, Dana turned a brutal sideshow intended for losers and high school dropouts and made it palatable for middle American alpha males. Today, UFC is a gravy train with biscuit wheels that destroys both boxing and professional wrestling on pay-per-view and live gates, and probably in merchandise sales as well, to judge by all the Affliction crap I see everywhere.
Now, Dana probably couldn’t have done any of this if he was some random Harvard guy. He was building this culture for himself as much as anyone else, because he was part of the demographic he wanted to reach. However, he’s proven to be really good at knowing how, when, and where to interact with that demographic, and also how to balance that with the demands of networks and sponsors. I think that goes a long way towards explaining why his tough guy act is tolerated as much as it is – the guy knows what he’s doing.
That said, he can be kind of an asshole sometimes.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.