The greatest news conference in the history of the new conferences — for the greatest event to ever hit Toronto — was about to begin when one chair on the podium was left vacant.
That, of course, was intentional.
Dana White didn’t just grab a microphone and begin selling on Wednesday. He is introduced into the rather large gathering for what is called UFC 129 almost like he is one of the fighters. He may not be that, but make no mistake, he is the face, the voice, the big star, the bald head, the brains behind the wave that is Ultimate Fighting all dressed up in torn jeans, a grey T-shirt and running shoes.
Loud he is. Formal he isn’t.
And successful, there is no questioning that. On Saturday evening at the Rogers Centre, more than 55,000 people will pay way too much to watch a sport that wasn’t sanctioned in this province a year ago and in real terms is less than 20 years old. This is the new wave, the new wave people keep telling me. And when you watch Dana White and listen to his spiel — there is lots of that — you can’t help but buy in, if even for a moment.
He sounds like Don King without the mandatory garish suit or the hair. He’s more impressive, more instantly likable than Vince McMahon, which isn’t difficult. He isn’t old school charming the way Bob Arum can be old school, selling a story around the fight, rather than the fight and the fighters itself.
“I’m a fight fan,” said White, talking about how and why he does what he does. He will be promoting Saturday night’s card here. Next Saturday, he will be home in Las Vegas for Manny Pacquiao’s next fight. “I’m a boxing fan. I’m just a fan of fighting, that’s all. That’s the problem with boxing. That’s why the sport is what it is today.”
This is the byplay that has happened between MMA fighting and its closest, no longer rival. Boxing. UFC will talk about boxing. Boxing won’t say much about UFC. A call to Arum’s office this week to ask about White brought no response. A call to King’s office brought a response of we’ll try, followed by the line that “Don could spend all day, every day, answering questions about Dana White and the UFC, for all the requests we get.”
Some have compared White to King, which could be considered an insult if you think of King as a murderer or cheat. If you think of him as the most successful boxing promoter of this or any era, then it’s a compliment.
“King usually talks pretty good about us,” said White. “Any time I ever see Don King he says (in his best King voice) ‘Dana White, the greatest promoter ...’ He’s always cool. Arum, ah, he doesn’t like to say nice things about us. If Arum puts on a good night like next weekend, I’ll be there. l’ll be at Arum’s fight next Saturday. I can guarantee he won’t be here on Saturday.”
One way that White is polar opposite to the promoting competition of years gone by is he’s all about the fight and the fighters. In boxing, the best make a habit of avoiding fighting the best. In UFC, the best fight the best — and then do it again and again.
“That’s the problem with boxing,” said White. “These guys are all protective.”
Once upon a time, King talked about putting a Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight at SkyDome. Never happened. Bob Arum thought he might put a Matthew Hilton fight in Toronto. That didn’t happen, either. Years later, White beat both of them to the punch with astounding results.
Kevin Iole understands better than most. He’s been covering boxing most of his adult life in Las Vegas and now writes as much about MMA as he did the sweet science. He knows all the players in the game intimately.
“King likes to promote himself. He makes it about him,” said Iole. “Dana gets that comparison because he’s the face of the UFC, but he loves the fight. I don’t think Don loves the fight. For him, it’s a business.
“For Dana, it’s not about building himself up or building up a fighter. It’s about building up the brand. The brand is UFC. The brand is bigger than Georges (St. Pierre), bigger than Brock Lesnar. Dana’s making sure that, long after they’re gone, there’s going to be a UFC.”