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The Next Level? Dana White and UFC Reached It While Most Were Sleeping

Dana WhiteOn Tuesday night, ESPN's E:60 investigative reporting show profiled UFC President Dana White, behind the central question: "Can UFC get to the next level with Dana White being Dana White?"

I have a question, too: At what point can we all just admit UFC has already reached "the next level" while corporate America was sleeping on the job?

The fallacy these days is that UFC somehow needs to be legitimized by mainstream media or major advertisers. The fact is that either or both would enhance their position rather than validate it.
ESPN pointed out in the piece that the UFC had seven of the top 10 pay-per-view events of 2008. They didn't mention that the company also had seven of the top 10 events in 2007 after breaking the all-time pay-per-view revenue record in 2006.

By any statistical measure, the UFC is big business. As stated in the piece, it's already a $1 billion company, and White and the Fertitta brothers accomplished that growth in less than a decade. The UFC has also successfully entered many international markets, draws athletes from throughout the world and boasts a desirable demographic. In a horrific global economic climate, they are still growing, yet some still see the need to question his leadership?

This particular time, the question stems from White's recent rant against Sherdog reporter Loretta Hunt, a diatribe which also included an offensive gay slur for which White later apologized. As someone who has faced White's ire in the past -- although admittedly nowhere near the Defcon-1 level Hunt faced -- I can say that it is an uncomfortable place to be.

Not to excuse his behavior, but I'm not sure people realize how dedicated to the UFC he is. He keeps a schedule that would make most drop of exhaustion, constantly traveling, planning and executing plans, sacrificing time from his family in the process. I once asked him what he liked to do in his spare time and he kind of laughed as though the question was ridiculous. After a few seconds he offered up an answer but the point was made.

Most of the people I know close to White marvel at his work ethic and tenacity. When motivated, he applies a singular-minded focus that is unshakable, and it's because he has a true passion for his company. In some ways, he values his company on the level of a close family member, which is why he defends it passionately and yes, sometimes crosses the line. Business is personal to him, and the UFC is part of his identity.

The ESPN piece was fairly even, except for the inclusion of New York State Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who is the UFC's top adversary in getting the sport sanctioned in the state. Reilly seems like a decent man; he donated his entire government salary to charities including community centers, family services programs and homeless shelters. But regarding the sport, he is blissfully ignorant. I recently read his report "The Case against Ultimate Fighting in New York State" which is littered with serious factual errors and leaps of logic so terrifying you might need a Dramamine to read through the whole thing. Still, he has become the figurehead for opposition to the sport in New York, and so gets a forum he doesn't deserve.

He tells Farrey, "If the state legislature and the government were to accept 'Ultimate Fighting', they have to realize this is who we're getting in bed with: Dana White. He mirrors very well the violence that happens with 'Ultimate Fighting." I'm not quite sure what he means, but I've been to UFC events in multiple states, and every athletic commission representative I've spoken to has been thrilled with hosting the UFC product. In fact, Ohio State Athletic Commission executive director Bernie Profato -- clearly thrilled with the UFC's success in the Buckeye State -- recently awarded White with a lifetime matchmaker's license. White also was recently given the Armed Forces Foundation Patriot Award for raising millions on behalf of American troops. It's unfair to paint him or the organization he represents with a broad brush. Sure he's capable of making mistakes, but he also has millions of satisfied customers behind him.

In the end, White will always be a polarizing figure. So are many corporate CEOs and leaders. They have difficult decisions to make, whether dealing with the livelihoods of the people underneath them or finding ways to grow their companies. And White certainly puts an extra target on his back by never holding his tongue. Maybe this makes him a 21st Century leader, or maybe it makes him a maverick. Or maybe it just makes him interesting.

In some ways it's fair to question who's running the show in any business, but the fact that White got the UFC this far is the only argument necessary for those who believe in him, while those who don't will likely will never be swayed.