UFC president Dana White has developed what many say is a "Godfather"-like… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press )
Two men tied to reputed Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger came to collect money.
"I knew one of the guys," says Dana White, recalling the mid-1990s incident, "and he was [Bulger's] right-hand man."
The shakedown, for the regular payment allegedly charged to run a business in Bulger's territory, came while White was teaching a boxercise class at a South Boston health club. White didn't have the money, so he left Boston and moved back to Las Vegas, where he had gone to high school.
"I used to think that Mafia movies were really cool and fun to watch," White says, laughing, "until that ... happens to you, then it's not cool anymore."
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White, 42, has recounted this story before, but its ironic underlining has thickened over the years as the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has developed what many say is a "Godfather"-like grip over the lucrative world of mixed martial arts. No one is alleging any illegal activity, of course, but White will quickly cut fighters from UFC if he perceives them to be acting in a way that isn't in the UFC's best interests.
Even White's nickname, "The Baldfather," casts him as a don who commands undying loyalty rather than simply as an executive in charge of the UFC, a billion-dollar enterprise that dominates the sport.
Mixed martial arts trainer and agent Jeff Clark said there's a healthy amount of fear of White within the business. "Any good leader needs to set a clear-cut line [that] if you cross him and go against him, there will be consequences," Clark says, "and he certainly does that."
In 2008, White severed ties with several fighters from the American Kickboxing Academy, including Jon Fitch, one of the UFC's top-ranked welterweights, over an alleged merchandising dispute.
Rob Maysey, a Phoenix-based lawyer, says since 2006 he's tried to organize MMA fighters into an association, but the fighters fear being cut from the UFC by White. "'Convince me Dana White is not going to do anything to me,'" Maysey said. "They all say that."
And if a fighter isn't up to snuff, White can take swift action.
He fired popular heavyweight Kimbo Slice, citing ineffectiveness, after a fight in 2010. Slice was the same fighter White had said was terrible two years earlier when Slice was fighting for a competing MMA organization, EliteXC, before Slice joined the UFC.
White, ever confident, laughs at the idea that fear is part of his management style.
"Let me tell you what you hear," he says. " 'We're a monopoly, there's this thing of fear in all the fighters, there's this, there's that.' It's such a crock...."
UFC legend Tito Ortiz has had a rocky relationship with White. In late 2007, Ortiz entered into a well-publicized feud with him, arguing that he wasn't being paid enough, and Ortiz split from the UFC.
"He's a bully. He always has been," Ortiz, known as the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy," later said of White.
But after a short hiatus, Ortiz returned to the UFC in 2009 with a milder approach. "You will never hear anything about money out of my mouth ever again," Ortiz said then.
Today, Ortiz says the two have strong personalities, which is why they butted heads so often.
He compares their relationship, which began in 2001 when White managed Ortiz, to a damaged bridge. "It takes many years to repair that bridge," Ortiz says, "and I'm still trying to do that now."
Can White forgive? "If I didn't, Tito wouldn't be here right now," White says of Ortiz's return to the UFC.
Many others around the sport have had run-ins with White or, by extension, the UFC.
In some cases, the UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC, has bought out its top competition, such as when it acquired Pride Fighting Championships in 2007 and Strikeforce this year.
In others, White has taken a different approach.
In 2008, the Affliction mixed martial arts show was scheduled to air its first pay-per-view fight. But just weeks before it aired, White threw together a competing rival card to air the same night on cable — a tactic known as counterprogramming.
"He's a determined person," says Tom Atencio, the former face of Affliction who stepped down this year.
Although White doesn't discuss it, one of his most strained relationships is with his mother, June. This year she wrote an unauthorized biography of her son that criticized him for a number of failings in his family and professional life, and on the final page says, "I'm just disappointed in my son."
White's street smarts
UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta believes only Dana White, his high school classmate, could have taken the UFC from the brink of bankruptcy to its current success. "I'm convinced if we hired someone with a Harvard MBA, we'd be out of business by now," Fertitta says.