The Zuffa myth and UFC auteur theory
In a softball profile of Dana White for the Boston Herald, sportswriter Ron Borges falls hook, line and sinker for the same inexhaustible fairy tale: that the UFC was held on barges and regularly featured groin biting before White and investor brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta gallantly dragged it from the muck.
“The fighter’s spirit [White] learned at McDonough’s was never extinguished as he rewrote UFC’s rules to exclude troubling practices like groin shots, eye gouging and head-butts,” Borges writes. Does the UFC circulate a media kit with this fiction? Probably not; enough reputable outlets have repeated it so often that Borges probably considered it accurate. But the UFC rules as we know them were more or less in place in New Jersey in 2000, well before White purchased the promotion.
Boston was home to White for years, and a little hyperbole isn’t so bad. The bigger issue is the consistent portrayal of White as the sole and exclusive engine behind the UFC’s success, to the point that any and all history prior to 2001 is either revised or eliminated.
In fairness to White, he had a good teacher. Bob Meyrowitz, who ran Semaphore Entertainment Group at the time that ad man Art Davie and Rorion Gracie approached the business with the premise for the UFC, wasn’t even in attendance for the first event in Denver. By the time the promotion was turning over hundreds of thousands of pay-per-view buys, Meyrowitz had purchased Davie’s and Gracie’s stakes and turned himself into its sole creator. It made for a cleaner, better package, with the neat side effect of satiating Meyrowitz’s voluminous ego. Sound familiar?
White’s story, as told through the uncritical lenses of the media, misses several key points: When a business officer has a near-bottomless well of financial resources to cover his slips, things get easier. Those slips came early and often. UFC 33 was a disaster simply because no one could get a time slot coordinated, as embarrassing an error as any the upstart promotions have managed. A marketing campaign featuring heavily oiled fighters was mocked more than celebrated. Chuck Liddell was lent out to Pride and smashed. It was all rookie, bush league stuff. The difference? The Fertittas could cover the repair bill.
Also swept aside is the fact that Zuffa purchased the UFC’s intellectual property when it easily could have started its own banner and saved a couple of million. The reason? Meyrowitz, despite his fumbles, turned the UFC into a highly recognizable brand: The UFC-as-Kleenex analogy started under his watch. For everything White has done since, he started out working with an incredible asset, eight years of brand placement. If Coca-Cola is hemorrhaging money and a new CEO is able to reverse its fortunes, that’s an impressive feat — but it does not mean the suit invented Coca-Cola.
The UFC and MMA as we know them today are products of many, many people: the Gracies, who popularized the idea of disparate styles meeting in Brazil; the boxers who would sporadically consent to fighting a wrestler throughout the 20th century; Bill Viola, who strapped headgear and pads on martial artists and let them punch and submit each other in Philadelphia at the height of the Toughman craze; Pat Jordan, who wrote a 1989 Playboy article on Rorion that brought Davie to his academy; Davie and Rorion, who packaged the sport as a commercial property; SEG, which turned it into a viable television product; Joe Silva, who can make sense of the bigger picture in matchmaking; and White and the Fertittas, who used money and connections to make it digestible to the masses.
Bill Viola, who strapped headgear and pads on martial artists and let them punch and submit each other in Philadelphia at the height of the Toughman craze;
But that’s not a good sound bite, is it? It’s long and laborious and probably missing even a few more components.
Today, White is fond of statements like, “I built this thing.” And in many ways, he’s right. White figured out how to monetize a business with the scarlet letter of political oppression and social irresponsibility seared into it. It’s a spectacular fourth-quarter comeback, and it’s impressive enough on its own. So why embellish it?
Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.