So, yesterday was lunch with Dana White.
To begin, here’s a confession. Until we shook hands over the shrimp cocktail I wouldn’t have known Dana White from Vanna White.
Suffice to say I stopped being a fan of the pugilistic arts about the same time Roberto Duran said No Mas. Looking around the scorched landscape of the fight world it seemed that Duran had a point that went beyond the ring that night.
But it’s hard to ignore Dana White. His Ultimate Fighting Championship is making the biggest noise in the sports world since Hulk Hogan climbed a turnbuckle.
Neighbours and friends could care less about the Argos.
Nobody goes to the bars to watch the Maple Leafs anymore.
But the UFC? Tell someone you’re covering that and lawns mysteriously get mowed, friends buried in time suddenly find your phone number in case, you know, there are extra tickets. And a dozen people volunteer to drive you to the airport.
Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal. From the TV promos it looked kind of like Wrestlemania without the yelling. Or now that Toronto is getting an event April 30, just one more excuse for a couple of guys to beat the snot out of each other without getting arrested.
But, then came the coffee and the Gospel According to Dana.
He makes the UFC sound like the most natural phenomena since childbirth. And, give him 30 minutes and he’ll have you believing it, too.
Fighting, he says, is part of the human condition. The UFC is just harnessing it and he is its ultimate referee.
“Before there was a guy throwing a ball through a hoop, before there was a guy with a stick and ball, there were two guys fighting ... it’s the world’s first sport,” he says.
“This isn’t for everyone but it is for a lot of people. Nothing gets the world together like a good fight.”
Right. Pass the shrimp, please.
Some look at the UFC and see the brutality. Boxing was the sweet science and you’d never hit a man when he was down. In the UFC the whole point is to kick a man when he’s down.
Across the table Tom Wright smiles patiently. He looks like he just stepped out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood. And, in a way he has. He has been married for 30-plus years to the same girl. He ran Adidas Canada. He has establishment written all over his suit. Wright is now White’s Canadian connection, the guy who opened the doors to the corridors of power at Queen’s Park.
“I’ll be honest, my wife isn’t a big fan but I have three daughters and they enjoy it,” Wright said. “Our biggest challenge has been to educate general sports fans ... who see the sport as barbaric and the athletes as neanderthals who can’t put two sentences together.”
Ummmm. Yummy turkey treats.
The UFC is raw and it can be bloody but White argues nobody has been crippled for life, nobody has ever gotten killed, and when was the last time football or hockey could say that?
Good thing this sandwich is stuck in my mouth, because I’m not sure I’ve got an answer to that. Hate it when that happens.
White? He hasn’t touched a morsel. Too busy selling the game. Some suggest he is the game, that as president, owner, chief promoter and benevolent dictator he is a godly power in an ungodly sport.
“Our events are in a half billion homes around the world. Our fighters are known world-wide. St. Pierre went to the Philippines recently and couldn’t get into his hotel without a police escort,” White said.
So, obviously somebody is buying in. And, he makes no apologies for the power he wields. Like recently when he watched a fighter lose a bout, decided he’d gotten jobbed, and announced the UFC would award him a winner’s share of the purse anyway.
“I represent the fans,” he said. “It was obvious he won the fight.”
He is the ultimate authority. When was the last time Gary Bettman ever decided to award two Stanley Cups because he didn’t think the final score was fair? The UFC is not your ordinary sport. White is not your ordinary sports executive.
White recently called St. Pierre “the most famous athlete ever to come out of Canada.” Not sure where that left a guy named Gretzky. But some people figured “dissed.”
So, a little crow pie for dessert, Mr. White?
He grins. “I never mentioned Gretzky,” he said. But he doesn’t look sorry someone else made the connection. It is the fight game. A little bad-ass talk never hurt the gate, yet. Expectations are the fight night in Toronto will break all UFC records with close to 70,000 fans. “I love Canada,” he says.
It’s all part of selling the game — even to a guy who isn’t necessarily buying.