HomePoliticsDana White, Donald Trump and the Rise of Cage-Match Politics

Dana White, Donald Trump and the Rise of Cage-Match Politics

Dana White’s diplomatic ambitions were clear, if complicated: Un-cancel Bud Light.

He had some calls to make.

As the CEO of the UFC, White was the arena-filling, Trump-loving, perpetually smirking public face of a multibillion-dollar sport.

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But in completing a reported nine-figure deal last fall to make Bud Light the UFC’s official beer sponsor, White suddenly stood accused of selling out: Much of the political right — and, not incidentally, much of the UFC’s audience — had been pulverizing Bud Light for months over a promotion featuring a transgender influencer. The brand, which first worked with the UFC more than 15 years earlier, was plainly hoping that a renewed affiliation might help its cause.

Publicly, White appealed to friends across the conservative media, defending Bud Light’s parent company in interviews with Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Charlie Kirk. “The fact that Anheuser-Busch wants to be in business with me?” White said, arguing that this alone demonstrated the success of the backlash.

Privately, White presented the lucrative sponsorship as a matter of principle (“We don’t cancel people,” he told one confidant) and helped hasten a detente. During a fight night at Madison Square Garden in New York in November, Kid Rock — who had been savaging Bud Light — had “a great conversation” with Anheuser-Busch’s CEO in White’s green room, the musician later said. The boycott was soon off.

When a final holdout, former President Donald Trump, continued hammering the company in February, White spoke to him by phone, according to people briefed on the conversation, and Trump was sheepish about causing any headaches.

Within days, Trump suggested on social media that Anheuser-Busch deserved “a second chance,” ticking through talking points that sounded suspiciously like White’s.

Weeks later, before a sellout crowd in Miami, the two walked out together to rapturous applause, taking their seats cage-side to watch White’s fighters bleed and rumble across the canvas’ unmissable Bud Light logo.

In a cultural era stocked with blusterers, wheeler-dealers and ideologically pliable political players, perhaps no one (with the possible exception of Trump) has been more ostentatiously effective at anticipating this American moment and harnessing it toward his ends.

Perched at the intersection of sports, business and the forever culture wars — while insisting, unpersuasively, that his is the rare sport unconcerned with such politics — White, 54, has steered his once teetering cage-fighting enterprise to the carnivorous heart of the national mainstream.

He dines with Emirati royals and takes meetings beside a saber-toothed tiger skull in his Las Vegas office. He salutes and antagonizes the trained destroyers in his workforce, depending on the day.

He is the P.T. Barnum of people choking each other into submission, if P.T. Barnum also hawked a line of canned whiskey and cola and bet $100,000 per blackjack hand.

“He was born in the perfect time,” Mike Tyson, a close friend, said in an interview.

Yet beyond any feat of commerce in building his combat sport into a global juggernaut, White has emerged as a vital ally to the former (and maybe future) president, carefully tending a mutually invaluable friendship that stretches more than 20 years.

From the early 2000s, when Trump’s imprimatur helped buttress a down-and-out UFC, through his White House tenure as “Combatant in Chief” (as the UFC has hailed him), the two men have worked to enshrine mixed martial arts as the MAGA movement’s semiofficial sport.

In a statement provided by his campaign, Trump called White “a special person and a tremendous businessman,” praising the UFC and the “loyal friend” who leads it.

Like Don King and Vince McMahon before him, White has become Trump’s conduit to modern fight fans, whose demographics track neatly with an essential chunk of the remodeled Republican base: young, male, not steeped in back issues of National Review.

“BLUE COLLAR PATRIOT,” read one fan’s shirt in Miami, in a section near the cage, amid a smattering of “Make America Great Again” hats and a small armada of Trump-blessed, eternally streaming media celebrities — Dave Portnoy, Dan Bongino, Candace Owens, Benny Johnson — eager to honor White and the former president upon arrival.

A few feet away, Joe Rogan, the podcasting colossus beloved by many Trump supporters, was reprising his longtime night gig as the UFC’s fight commentator.

More than anything, the UFC has supplied Trump with a consistent safe harbor since he left office, buoying him through his political nadir after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and his gusher of legal problems.

Trump’s first major sporting event as a twice-impeached, quasi-radioactive civilian in 2021 was a UFC fight card. After Trump’s indictment in Manhattan last year, he turned up days later at another UFC event, to chants of “USA!”

Rarely an energetic campaigner in his 2024 Republican primary, Trump could accrue the benefits of a proper rally — including fawning coverage from favored outlets — simply by attending fights.

“Donald Trump Sends UFC 296 Crowd Into Utter Frenzy After Making His Entrance Like a Complete Boss,” The Daily Caller enthused in December.

“His base is Trump’s base,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former White House counselor, said of White. “And Trump’s base is his base.”

If White and Trump see some of themselves in each other despite their disparate beginnings — White is a former Boston hotel bellman without a college degree — this is reasonable enough.

White, too, speaks with “believe me” bravado about the ways of the world: winners and losers, wusses and “killers.”

He loves a camera and hates the news media — or at least makes a show of his disdain — giving fans ample content for YouTube sizzle reels of White dismissing critics, reporters, COVID. (White, through the UFC, declined to be interviewed.)

He has survived scandals that might have felled most contemporaries, suffering little consequence last year after he was videotaped slapping his wife at a nightclub.

He takes a long view of publicity (“You have to embrace the negativity, too,” White has said) but dwells more than occasionally on those who have underestimated him.

“Bet against me,” he is fond of saying.

Such is the creed of the rampaging optimist.

“He’s America, man,” said Ari Emanuel, the CEO of Endeavor, a key business partner since a $4 billion acquisition in 2016 that left White in charge.

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At minimum, those who know White say, he seems to understand his times.

In interviews with allies, associates and rivals through the decades, many were quickest to flag his abiding pre-Trump foresight about where his life, and everyone’s, seemed to be headed.

Did he fill a need or create one? Did he anticipate America circa 2024 — the collective stomach for a certain kind of gruesome spectacle, the period of national combat beyond the cage — or did he help make it so?

The answers are yes, friends say, and White’s explanation is simple.

“America has become so soft,” he said in a television interview last year, pinching his fingers together. “If you even have this much savage in you, everything out there right now is for the taking.”

An Influential Early Backer

Mixed martial arts combines aspects of kickboxing, wrestling, jujitsu and other disciplines into a bone-busting medley of organized brawling.

Early appraisals described it differently.

“Human cockfighting,” Sen. John McCain said in 1996, three years after the UFC. was founded.

“There Are No Rules,” read one company tagline that seemed to almost taunt athletic regulators and alienate casual fans.

Many venues refused to hold fights. But one was undeterred: the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

“Nobody took us seriously,” White has said. “Except Donald Trump.”

Even before White became the UFC’s president, Trump hosted fights without apparent hesitation. An inveterate combat sports fan forever seeking a ringside seat, he could lend the proceedings a certain tabloid credibility. (He would years later invite Tito Ortiz, one of the UFC’s early stars, onto the first season of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”)

To this day, Trump speaks with high fluency about the history and intricacies of the UFC. “It’s sort of a microcosm of life,” Trump said on a UFC podcast last year, edging about as close as he gets to contemplative.

For White, a Taj Mahal fight night in February 2001 was the first for the UFC under his direction and the culmination of a vision that even friends had considered harebrained.

A serial scofflaw, by his own account, bouncing between Las Vegas and the Northeast in his youth, White had trained to be a boxer before concluding that he was not professional material. He worked as a boxercise instructor around Boston, hauling a hockey bag full of equipment from session to session by mountain bike and imagining more.

“He was always talking about the big time: ‘There’s so many opportunities out west, out west, out west,’” said Peter Welch, a Boston boxing fixture with whom he worked.

White has said he fled Boston in the mid-1990s for a difficult-to-confirm reason: that associates of crime boss James (Whitey) Bulger came to demand money he did not have. He settled back in Las Vegas, continued training boxers and made himself ubiquitous in local fight circles. He became a manager for Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, another UFC contender.

When White learned that the UFC’s previous owners were looking to sell, he persuaded two high school friends, casino operators Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, to buy it for $2 million. They made White president and gave him a 10% stake. None of this seemed especially wise at the time.

“We bought a company that wasn’t allowed on pay-per-view,” White said in 2013. “Porn is on pay-per-view.”

After the purchase, White moved quickly to revamp the UFC’s live production values, pumping in pyrotechnics and metal-band music cues.

The goal, White suggested, was to convince audiences of the UFC’s magnitude through sheer force of pageantry — “the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts,” he said on his first broadcast as president, looking little like his future self, with a close-cropped haircut and a tie.

It did not take, at least initially. Despite Trump’s endorsement and the sport’s efforts to impose (a little) more order on the fight rules, White has said the UFC was tens of millions of dollars in the hole.

Its path out was another gamble: a weekly elimination reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” that the Fertittas offered to produce themselves if Spike TV, a channel stuffed with testosterone-forward programming, would agree to air it.

The series, USA Today wrote in 2005, cast White in “the Donald Trump role,” making him a minor Las Vegas celebrity.

That it became a hit, dragging the UFC along with it, was at once a validation of White’s belief in the sport’s potential — the athleticism and tenacity required, the international cast of compelling characters — and a testament to his own relentlessness.

White has said he instituted a blanket personal policy against attending weddings (“weddings take time”) and once rescheduled his wife’s C-section to avoid the date of a major fight card.

“If there were 400 days in the year and 38 hours in a day,” said Brian Diamond, a former Spike TV executive, “he would work every single moment on UFC.”

Former fighters have said White’s work did not always prioritize their interests. He has been trailed for years by accusations that the U.F.C. underpays its fighters, especially given the sport’s physical toll. (The UFC’s parent company recently agreed to pay $335 million to settle class action lawsuits brought by fighters who accused the UFC of abusing its dominant market position.)

Michael Thomsen, the author of “Cage Kings,” a 2023 history of the UFC, described White principally as a single-minded executive who “really just wants things to work.”

“That can be dangerous,” he added, “when the thing you want to work is a formula of exploitations and wage suppression and minimizing long-term health consequences.”

Defenders say White’s is a star-driven business, where winners make more through bonuses and endorsements.

Those at the top see the logic.

“My perspective is: Make the UFC money, and they’ll be happy to pay you,” said Sean O’Malley, the current bantamweight champion. “I’m apparently making the UFC a lot of money, because I’m making a lot of money.”

Still, some disputes with fighters have been strikingly personal, forging White’s reputation for vindictiveness.

His feud with Ortiz, whose popularity helped sustain the UFC in leaner years, became so bitter that the two nearly boxed each other in an exhibition match.

“He kind of smashed my name,” Ortiz said, noting his non-VIP status at today’s fights. “I have to pay $2,000 to go to UFC in Miami.”

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If nothing else, White has succeeded in protecting his flanks financially — even from nominal allies like Trump.

In 2008, with his practiced grandeur, Trump said that he would invest in his own mixed martial arts organization, Affliction Entertainment, to compete with the UFC.

Michael Cohen, then a Trump Organization executive, was chief operating officer. The inaugural Affliction event featured appearances from Megadeth, the heavy metal group, and Fedor Emelianenko, a celebrated Russian heavyweight.

“I think we can be in here for the long run,” Donald Trump Jr. predicted.

They folded after two events.

While White was not above tweaking any would-be rival — “Donald Trump owns casinos,” he said pointedly — the two remained cordial, remarkable given how each typically greeted business threats.

White publicly vowed to never say a bad word about Trump, remembering his early boost.

And Trump made a habit of keeping in touch.

When the UFC reached a broadcast agreement with Fox Sports in 2011, White has said, Trump mailed a newspaper article about it with some warm scribbles, admiring his own instincts.

“Congratulations, Dana,” the message read. “I always knew you were gonna do it.”

Just Political Enough

As an executive, White generally engaged with politicians as Trump once had: situationally and transactionally, without much regard for ideology.

In 2010, White campaigned with Harry Reid, his home state’s Democratic senator. He spoke kindly of Joe Biden, then the vice president, when Biden traveled to Nevada to do the same, sharing a billing with White.

So when Trump asked White to address the 2016 Republican National Convention, Reid’s former chief of staff, David Krone, was surprised to field a message from an associate of White’s: Did he know any good speechwriters?

“I was just like, ‘Uh, I could ask?’” said Krone, whose former boss had been flaming Trump throughout the campaign. (He did not find any takers.)

Onstage in Cleveland that July, White seemed amused at his own attendance. “I’m sure most of you are wondering,” he began, “‘What are you doing here?’”

He reminisced about Trump’s hospitality in Atlantic City and his loyalty as a friend. (Affliction did not come up.) He said that he knew fighters and that Trump fit the specs.

But at times in 2016, White took care to say that they did not agree on everything, downplaying Trump’s build-the-wall promises and suggesting he could get “a little too hyped up” in front of a camera.

While White seemed to appreciate the perks that followed the election — a meeting on Air Force One, a dinner in the White House residence, impromptu hold-for-the-president phone calls — he mostly removed himself from daily political conflict until COVID arrived.

As with many Trump-inclined figures, the pandemic appeared to harden White’s skepticism of expert consensus and institutions, a position that happened to align with his business interests.

Determined to keep the UFC operating in the spring of 2020, White also seemed to recognize an unprecedented opportunity: having the sports landscape essentially to himself.

Weeks into the pandemic, he tried and failed to circumvent virus restrictions by holding fights on Native American tribal land in California. (State officials intervened, voicing concerns directly to Disney, the parent company of the UFC’s new broadcast partner, ESPN.)

By May, White and his fighters turned instead to lockdown-weary Florida, broadcasting from an empty arena in Jacksonville for the first major American professional sporting event in the COVID age. “Gate was zero — attendance was zero,” he told reporters afterward, grinning at the surreal novelty. “That’s a first.”

He also made plans, with help from Emanuel, for a “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, hoping to stage fights in a pseudo-bubble over the summer.

Public health researchers winced. The UFC seemed to violate its own safety protocols in Florida. (Two leaders of the American pandemic response, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, said they could not remember having any interactions with White at the time.)

But fighters were grateful — “for him to push forward on that was legendary,” O’Malley said — and other major sports leagues were, too.

“He was being championed as, ‘You’re being the guinea pig, but you’re out there proving that life can continue,’” said Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, whose live-event businesses were sputtering through the pandemic. “League commissioners were ecstatic.”

It helped that White had the enthusiastic blessing of the sitting president, who recorded a video message for the Florida fight (“We want our sports back”) and held up the UFC as a model for national resourcefulness.

The period established White as a MAGA luminary of the highest order — “You were the best on COVID,” Charlie Kirk reminded his audience last year during their interview about Bud Light — codifying a long-running merger between his orbit and Trump’s.

Steven Cheung, Trump’s campaign spokesman, is a former UFC employee.

Tucker Carlson, a bow-tied man of letters when the UFC came of age, found himself subsumed by the fight craze. “It’s totally wild,” he said in a text message, after attending a UFC event (with Trump) last year. “One of those things you’ve got to see in person.”

Some of the sport’s stars, like Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal, campaigned for Trump in 2020. (Covington would later echo Trump’s “rigged election” refrain when fight judges ruled against him.)

Joined by White at a 2020 rally in Arizona, Trump imagined the election as a cage match he could dominate.

“I don’t think Sleepy Joe would be a good fighter, do you?” Trump said. “I asked Dana before. One gentle little touch to the face and he’s down.”

By the time White spoke at his second Republican convention, nobody wondered what he was doing there.

“Many of you know who I am, what I do,” he said, “and that I am friends with the president.”

‘Sinatra’ for the TikTok Set

Few can question White’s capital at this point — political, cultural, financial.

How he might like to spend it has been less certain.

White’s most-hyped recent pursuit, a slap-fighting operation known as Power Slap, has doubled as a kind of referendum on his persuasive powers: Is there any limit to what White can sell?

“It’s like a YouTuber,” said Eddie Hearn, a boxing promoter who is friendly with him. “Once you build a profile, you have the ability to grow anything.”

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As with the UFC, whose 300th pay-per-view event this weekend has been celebrated as a signal achievement, White insists that his slap league will be a phenomenon in due time. (In November, he claimed that the league, wherein competitors take turns whacking each other without being able to deflect the blows, was already a $450 million business.)

Reviews have been mixed.

“It’s pretty brutal,” said Welch, his Boston boxing mentor. “I’ve slapped some guys in my day, but Jesus Christ.”

White’s slap-fighting venture also rhymed grimly with a dark turn in his personal life: Last year, a video emerged showing White and his wife, Anne, slapping each other during an argument at a New Year’s Eve party in Mexico.

White had once said that “putting your hands on a woman” was the “one thing that you never bounce back from.”

“Been that way in the UFC since we started,” he said in 2014.

While White has since apologized for making his children “see their dumb, drunk parents slapping each other on TMZ,” major business partners stayed largely silent.

One ESPN writer posted online that he had been advised “to not write anything incendiary” about the situation.

The network’s biggest star, Stephen A. Smith, seemed to give White some on-air cover, saying that while there was no excusing the conduct, White was a friend who knew he had crossed a line. (Smith is represented by WME, which is also owned by Endeavor.)

Among White’s allies on the right, the controversy was effectively ignored, reflecting the wagon-circling that comes from subsisting within a political tribe and its information bubbles.

In recent years especially, White has become a crossover figure in a booming lad culture that takes place mostly on YouTube and TikTok, with gatekeepers like Dave Portnoy, the brash founder of Barstool Sports, and the Nelk Boys, pranker-podcasters who interview UFC fighters, streamers, rappers, porn stars and occasionally Trump.

For this audience, White’s rollicking life in Las Vegas has given him credibility far beyond his affiliation with mixed martial arts. He has mined viral video content from the mundane (a recurring series that finds him taste-testing unusual foods) and the extravagant (hosting internet celebrities at the blackjack table).

Recent guests of White’s at a high-limit casino room have included Rogan, Portnoy and the streamer Adin Ross, an assemblage that Emanuel describes as a new-age Rat Pack.

“He is Sinatra,” Emanuel said grandly of White, adding, “This young group of social stars — he’s the granddaddy of them all.”

For at least some of his Generation Z standing, White has his family to thank. In 2020, as the UFC faced criticism for holding events, YouTube demonetized the Nelk Boys’ channel after the stars partied with maskless college students.

After one of White’s sons, a fan of theirs, showed his father their videos, White connected with John Shahidi, who runs Full Send, the Nelk Boys’ business. Soon, the Nelk Boys were fixtures at fights, and White introduced them to a constellation of celebrities that included the 45th president.

“I think Dana went to Trump and said, ‘These guys have a very cult, young audience,’” Shahidi said.

The group, he said, now speaks to the former president weekly.

Rewarding Friends, Flaming Enemies

And this, as much as any business success, is what seems to animate White most: bringing his circles of influence into closer alignment, making America a little more like Dana White.

A fitness evangelist, he can sometimes sound more like Rogan than Rogan, advising the masses on his regimen and extolling the virtues of the “seven-day water fast.”

On fight nights, White is by turns master of ceremonies and overbooked administrator, hustling in his UFC formal wear (jacket, no tie, dark tones) through crowds where more than a few attendees bear a resemblance to him: shaved heads, broad smiles, muscle T-shirts.

During matches, he vacillates between stern concentration on a canvas-level television monitor — often looking away from the live action a few feet in front of him — and clipped chatter with whatever eminence is seated next to him.

An incorrigible name-dropper, White can make a spectacle of how interconnected his exclusive orbit has become:

“I lost 20 grand to Snoop on that game. …”

“I tell Brady this all the time. …” (That would be Tom.)

“@zuck,” White posted simply on Instagram after Mark Zuckerberg posed with him at a recent fight, displeasing some fans who view the Meta CEO as an enemy to conservatives. (“Bud Light now this?” one commenter wrote.)

White’s friendship with Tyson, whom he once idolized, is a particular point of pride.

Tyson, who is 57, said White had sought noncombat jobs for him in the hope that he would stop agreeing to fights. These have included a television gig for Discovery’s Shark Week, for which Tyson became less grateful when he saw his co-stars up close.

“He’s worried about me fighting, getting hurt,” Tyson said. “I’m going to make a few million bucks, OK, Dana? The sharks are not paying.”

At times, White appears more interested in flexing his clout to make a point, even if it means encouraging the kind of product-shunning he is said to abhor.

When comedian-podcaster Theo Von told him that a sponsor, Peloton, had pressured Von to pull an interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., White ordered the removal of Peloton bikes from UFC facilities and repeatedly skewered the company in public appearances.

“We keep kicking Peloton” below the belt, he said later. “But they deserve it.”

Asked if more formal campaigns might await him, White has sworn he is not interested in entering politics.

“Hell no,” he told ESPN’s Pat McAfee in February, to which McAfee replied that White “kind of” already has.

At least one man likes White’s ambitions just as they are.

Speaking at a rally in Georgia last month, Trump told the crowd that he had big plans that evening: the UFC fights in Miami with friends.

“Dana White,” he said, naming only one of them. “He’s done a great job.”

Cheers went up instantly. The candidate noticed.

“Ooohhh,” Trump said. “I hope he doesn’t run for office against me.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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