During the final days before Conor McGregor’s mega-hyped boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Aug. 26, UFC President Dana White sounded like part of him just wanted to get it over with.
“I don’t want to be doing this every weekend,” White told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview 10 days before the bout. “I have to run my business while dealing with this at the same time. This isn’t really what we do.”
If White was feeling the grind, maybe that was understandable. With the UFC scheduled to put on nearly 40 fight cards during 2017, the notoriously detail-oriented boss didn’t have much time for extracurricular pursuits.
The UFC had signed on for Mayweather-McGregor as a way of keeping its lightweight champion happy while making a boatload of easy money for itself, but White was clearly eager to get back to focusing on MMA.
Fast-forward three months and it was perhaps surprising when White announced Tuesday that he and UFC co-owner Ari Emanuel will be getting into the boxing business on a more or less full-time basis.
During a speaking engagement at the Wild Card West boxing club owned by filmmaker Peter Berg in Santa Monica, California, White said he’s in the process of obtaining a promoter’s license. He also spoke in broad strokes about establishing a boxing-focused brand akin to what the UFC has done in MMA.
“It’s still early,” White said, per the LA Times’ Lance Pugmire. “We’re still working on it. I’ve got to get my s–t together, but I’m getting into boxing, man. It’s coming.”
He was quick to add that such a move wouldn’t affect his status as the UFC’s longstanding president. Still, the idea of White expanding into boxing is a bit of a head-scratcher for MMA fans—and perhaps one that could bode poorly for the future of the UFC itself.
If nothing else, White’s announcement immediately raised some questions:
I’m a complete outsider here but if The UFC is doing so well, why the hell does Dana White want to get involved in boxing?
Dana White gonna promote boxing ? Interesting UFC a league where they control all aspects good luck with that in boxing !!!
UFC Boxing will be Dana White’s XFL. https://t.co/FnE5soGtSg
It’s not a stretch to imagine White and Emanuel as successful boxing promoters. White arguably deserves more credit than anyone for the rise of the UFC from barroom spectacle to mainstream entertainment juggernaut. Before getting involved in MMA as a manager, he was an amateur boxer and has routinely talked about his love for the sweet science.
After publicly beefing over the years with boxing promoters Bob Arum, Oscar De La Hoya and Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza (who was a partner on Mayweather-McGregor), it isn’t hard to imagine White also taking some glee in cutting into their profits.
When he started showing up to prefight events for the May-Mac fight sporting a red “Zuffa Boxing” T-shirt, perhaps we all should’ve known something was up.
But if you’ve spent any time at all around MMA, you know how consumed White has been by the UFC’s product since taking over as president in 2001. It’s hard to believe he could add another significant promotional venture to his plate without loosening his iron-fisted grip on the UFC at least a little bit.
The idea that he’s thinking about it is puzzling, even disquieting.
Though White claimed during the lead-up to last weekend’s UFC 217 that this year had been the most financially successful in UFC history, outside analysts maintain 2017 was actually a down year for the organization. With McGregor and Ronda Rousey absent and Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones both trundling through drug-test related woes, there was a noticeable lack of star power in the Octagon.
Meanwhile, McGregor’s foray into boxing was lauded as one of the biggest sporting events of the year and proved to be “the most lucrative bout ever involving a UFC fighter,” per Pugmire.
Is it possible White’s sudden business interest in boxing means he and the UFC harbor some internal fear that the MMA market is softening? And if so, maybe White found his involvement with May-Mac—while admittedly wearying—to be instructive.
Does the grass abruptly look greener on the other side of a set of boxing-ring ropes?
The last few years have ushered in such wholesale change for the UFC that even hardcore fans have begun to question where the promotion is headed.
Its bloated live event schedule cut the quality of most fight cards to alarming levels. It’s exclusive apparel deal with Reebok cleaned up its image but also gave it a bland, corporatized look. Meanwhile, injuries and the company’s well-intentioned but sometimes wrongheaded drug-testing policy continue to wreak havoc on its best laid plans.
Finally, the sale of the UFC to Endeavor for more than $4 billion in July 2016 was supposed to raise the bar for the sport, but instead it only bred more anxiety.
Former owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta were cutthroat businessmen who built the UFC according to their own tastes, but at least they loved MMA. The casino-magnate brothers ran the UFC as their own personal passion project, and that zeal gave it the feel of family business.
The fact that the Fertittas cashed out when they did was alarming in its own right. That their exit preceded a 2017 where every measurable number in the UFC is believed to be down feels like more than just a coincidence.
By contrast to their hands-on approach, Emanuel and Endeavor co-CEO Patrick Whitesell have been all but invisible to fight fans. After buying the UFC, they left White in charge precisely to retain some continuity from the Fertitta era and to make sure the UFC remained in the hands of a man who knew the MMA world.
Otherwise, the most powerful men in the sport have been totally MIA.
At this point, we don’t know a thing about Endeavor’s vision for the UFC. We don’t know if the giant Hollywood talent agency is in it for the long haul or if someday it might strip the MMA company for parts.
With the UFC mired in these uncharted waters—feeling as though its on its most precarious footing in years—it doesn’t seem like the ideal time to announce an expedition into boxing.
At the least, it won’t ease MMA fans’ already troubled minds.
It’s possible White would be up to the juggling act. Maybe a boxing side project wouldn’t have any affect on the UFC at all. Maybe it would even enrich both sports, with occasional crossover attractions like smaller versions of the one Mayweather and McGregor pulled off over the summer.
But what if the boxing venture became a distraction? Or what if it proved so profitable that it turned into White and Emanuel’s main focus? What then for the UFC?
For years, it was unimaginable that White would consider leaving the company or that business would become so bad that ownership might throw up its hands and decide it was done with MMA entirely.
It’s hard to say.