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The End of Dana White

(Photo via Getty)

By Mike Fagan

Dana White is the face of the UFC.

This isn’t a surprise, nor should it be. MMA is a sport whose elite athletes rarely compete more than three times a year. The UFC is a promotion that prefers to put the brand ahead of its athletes. Dana White is the president of that promotion, and his duties include everything from running press conferences and doing media requests to emceeing reality shows and constant tweeting. It’s no surprise that his once-balding-now-bald head, which has been ubiquitous since Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC at the turn of the millennium, is synonymous with the company.

But recently, there have been signs that White’s ubiquity is fading.

White’s video blogs were once a staple of the UFC promotional machine. These vlogs would give us a “behind the scenes” look at fight week, though this (too) often involved watching Dana White parade his wealth. The UFC hasn’t released a Dana White vlog since UFC 177.

The UFC began producing the Embedded series for UFC 173. Instead of following White around on fight week, Embedded is structured more like a series of mini-documentaries. There’s no narrator, very little of White, and a whole lot more focus on the card’s featured fighters. Unsurprisingly, it’s a more inspired, interesting, and entertaining product.

White’s also not the lock he once was on fight night. Tom Wright, who runs manages UFC operations in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, hosted the post-fight press conference for November’s Fight Night Down Under. Vice President of Public Relations Dave Sholler hosted the post-fight press conference following UFC 181. Chief Content Officer Marshall Zelaznik got the nod for the Fight Night event in Brazil on December 20. Zelaznik also hosted a press event prior to UFC 182 announcing the UFC’s purchase of various fight libraries intended for Fight Pass.

You’ll notice a different tone during those press conferences than a traditional presser hosted by White. White often sets an emotional tone right away, whether he’s pissed at Georges St-Pierre for quasi-retiring or beaming about Mauricio Rua and Dan Henderson laying into each other for 25 minutes. Wright, Sholler, and Zelaznik provide a more professional, more corporate atmosphere. There’s little threat of any of those three yelling or ranting or trashing a fighter. And whenever UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta steps out front and takes the mic, forget it — MMA suddenly seems like a respectable enterprise.

That’s the direction the UFC is headed. Zuffa once fought to turn the UFC profitable. Then it fought to inject the sport into the mainstream. Then it fought for control of the industry. Now it wants to establish itself as a legitimate sporting organization, akin to the NFL or NBA.

They’ve had a rough go of it thus far. They scrapped their own drug testing policy after the Cung Le-HGH fiasco. It was explained — by White — that the UFC’s legal department “screwed that whole thing up” and that the UFC “has no business handling the regulation.” The promotion’s Code of Conduct policy seems to be of use only when convenient, which explains why Jon Jones received zero discipline after testing positive for a cocaine metabolite. Vice President of Athlete Development and Government Relations Matt Hughes, who, in theory, should be the Code of Conduct’s point man, has less credibility as an authority figure than Jack Tunney. The desperation signing of Phil “formerly/currently known as CM Punk” Brooks doesn’t help matters.

These are matters that professional sports organizations deal with. They have established drug testing policies. They enforce a code of conduct. They have appellate protocols. They don’t sign glorified celebrities for a quick PR burst. Essentially, the UFC wants the benefits of being a professional sports organization without any of the costs.

That extends to White. Fans like Dana White because he’s not like Roger Goodell or Bud Selig. He’s not a stuffed shirt who prattles on about the “integrity of the game.” He yells. He curses. He’ll call out a fighter or a media member. For better or worse, he seems more genuine.

But White’s nature is starting to bite the UFC in the ass. First it was the pesky Culinary Union. Now it’s the class-action anti-trust lawsuits filed by several former fighters and one fighter still under contract. The original lawsuit filed by Cung Le, Nathan Quarry and Jon Fitch is littered with White’s own quotes about killing competition, among other things. White’s mouth has finally become a liability.

It’s telling that White tweeted that he was on vacation hours before the aforementioned plaintiffs officially announced that first anti-trust suit. It means that someone at the UFC understands the situation, unless you want to believe that White coincidentally took a vacation that kept him out of Las Vegas during both the lawsuit announcement and the big company Christmas party.

The UFC doesn’t need to dump White as its figurehead to be successful. The promotion has proven already that it can succeed with him. But if the UFC wants to be mentioned in the same breath as the NFL and the NBA, if it wants to be taken seriously like those organizations, it will need a corporate-friendly figurehead — and a comprehensive drug testing policy, an athlete code of conduct, and collective bargaining to boot — to do it.

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