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Dana White takes blackjack mentality into UFC's pivotal 2014

Esther Lin

LOS ANGELES -- When the topic turned to high-stakes blackjack, Dana White's passion ratcheted to a level usually reserved for hyping his biggest events.

"It's the rush and excitement of all rushes," White told reporters at a Monday media luncheon which was ostensibly meant to promote UFC 169. "What would you do if you put a $50,000 hand up there and you have to split ‘em? There's nights I beat the casinos for $5,000,000."

He grew even more animated when he talked about leaving Palazzo and heading out to the Las Vegas Strip with one of those multi-million dollar hauls, in cash, underneath his arms.

"I'm like, are you serious? We're going to get killed," White said. "They don't have some kind of suitcase where they put the money in. ‘You just beat us, here you go.' That's really the attitude. They just stack it all up there and go ‘thanks, have a great night.' We've had trash bags, we got to the point we started bringing our own bags."

While the colorful story is not directly related to the UFC's business, it's a window into the type of mentality the company's head honcho has as he tackles his company's challenges in a year in which he has to forge on without two of his biggest drawing cards.

Georges St-Pierre is out on an indefinite leave and Anderson Silva's career remains in question after a horrific leg injury. But as cold as it my sound, White simply has to take a "been there, done that" approach if the machine is going to keep on rolling.

"Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, all of these guys who helped build the company, everyone asked me, ‘what are you going to do when these guys go?" White said. "They're all gone, they're all retired. When we talk about the growth, now we talk Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre," White said. "Until Anderson Silva kicked Vitor Belfort in the face, no one cared about Anderson Silva. Then he blew up and became this big star."

White went in detail on the difficulties it took in turning Silva into a superstar. There was a language barrier in North America, of course, but there were also fights like those against Thales Leites and Demian Maia, which turned off fans. Creating a breakthrough star in a business as unstable as the fight game isn't something which happens overnight.

"His attitude with the media, his attitude with the fans, his attitude in some fights, you know, doesn't make you reach out and love the guy," White said of Silva. "But when you continue to win and dominate and do what he did, it just becomes, it's hard to deny. Do you think people love Floyd Mayweather? No, they don't. But they tune in to watch him get beat."

White and the UFC enter 2014 knowing this will be a transition year. There are no Silva or GSP megafights on the agenda and no instant replacements. But there's the opportunity for several fighters who have built momentum to take the ball and run with it.

"People are like, Chris Weidman, can he carry this thing?" White said. "If Chris Weidman beats Vitor Belfort, we're all going to be going ‘holy s---,' you know what I mean? Renan Barao is going to meet Urijah Faber this weekend, one of these guys is going to win, and if they win spectacularly, that's who you're going to be talking about."

"The next great talent is out there," White continued. "Ben Henderson is a grinder. He's done so well that he beat all the great guys in that division. Here comes Anthony Pettis, made him look like the f------ guy doesn't even belong in that weight class. .... Anthony Pettis, if he can stay healthy, is a f------ superstar."

White, of course, still has a f------ superstar in the mix in women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who defends her title against Sara McMann in the main event of UFC 171 on Feb. 22.

Even then, though, White's taking nothing for granted. Rousey is right in the middle of her window of opportunity in which she could transcend the sport and go Hollywood. White says if that happens, he's not going to be bitter about it.

"It's reality, man, it is what it is," White said. "Let me tell you what, if Ronda Rousey goes and becomes a huge movie star, how is that bad for me? Ronda Rousey fought in the UFC, became a star in the UFC, and then goes on and does movies, it's like, it's like Vince [McMahon] being bummed about The Rock. The Rock became a huge superstar. How could you be bummed about that?"

Maybe the fact he's done this for over a decade has given White enough perspective to know that these things come and go in waves. Or maybe it's the fact that the guy who grew up a boxing fan in Boston remains, at heart, a fan of combat.

"I sell fights for a living," White said. "There's no doubt about it. I sell fights for a living. But I'll tell you this. I don't sell anything that I don't believe in. Ever. I have this massive, global company. I have everybody on a daily basis coming to me. ... If you knew the s--- I turned down on a daily basis, movies and all this other s---, that I turned down every day ... There's so many employees and so much s--- going on. The one thing I reel everyone back in and go, we're a fight company. I don't care how many pairs of underwear we sell or these things or those things or how many things we're selling. It's about the fights."

One of those projects which did make it through the clutter was his boxing reality show on the Discovery Channel, "The Fighters." But White sounded ready to throw in the towel on the series after the ratings came in on the premiere episode, calling the numbers "horrendous."

Win some, lose some. It happens in the fight promotion business, the television business, and at the casinos. And it will keep him going even as he's told there's no way the UFC will survive the loss of St-Pierre and Silva.

"I like the whole me vs. you thing," White said. "I'm a competitive guy and I like to win."

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