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Sports Q&A: Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White

Dana White, head of the leading mixed-martial-arts enterprise, is (no surprise here) combative in responding to suggestions that slippage in TV ratings is a possible indicator of a sport in trouble.

May 21, 2012|By Lance Pugmire
  • Dana White
Dana White (Buda Mendes / LatinContent…)

LAS VEGAS -- Dana White was upset and wanted to make something clear.

Last Friday night, as White attempted to lounge inside his office building where cable network FX films live fights for the Ultimate Fighting Championship's reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter," he wanted to return to the topic of mixed-martial-arts journalism.

As president and chief promoter of the UFC, White seeks as much attention as possible for his organization, but occasionally — if not often — he is chafed by the accuracy of online reporting by MMA writers. He actually has taken to declining fight credentials to a handful, including those employed by ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated.

White now contends too many bloggers have misrepresented what the ratings of UFC bouts on Fox-owned networks in the first of a seven-year, $100-million deal mean about the future of his sport.

Your ratings have slipped at times. You're saying there's no concern from Fox about this?

"None. Listen, before us, the ads sold to television audiences on Saturday nights were Poligrip [denture adhesive] and [adult] diapers. We've brought the 18-34 male crowd that never used to watch TV on Saturday, and when they say our fights on [Fox cable network] Fuel are slipping, we had double our early audience of the same fights on Fox Deportes. As for ['The Ultimate Fighter' on] FX, our 2010 prelims on Spike [TV] were at 1.4 million [viewers], and the last one was at 1.6 million, and growing every prelim."

Have there been obstacles to your Fox arrangement — having to switch networks for "The Ultimate Fighter," airing the fights on Friday nights, and the quality of your big Fox bouts?

"The real story is, what do the Internet reporters know? When they say Fox made a big bet on the UFC, and now it's tanking . . . it's not. It's given Fox an audience it never had before. [Research] shows 3.9 million new viewers to Fox networks in the last three months, [more] new women viewers, and UFC on Fox 1 had a higher composition of Latino viewers than the big four sports leagues."

You set the bar high at the UFC on Fox 1 card with the heavyweight title bout between Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez, but it did seem as if your May 5 card was a pretty big drop-off.

"Who's hotter than the Diaz brothers now? And Nate Diaz put on an absolute show. That was a bad TV night. It was the biggest movie night of the year, with 'The Avengers.' It was Cinco de Mayo, so people went out. Plus you had the Floyd Mayweather fight. The numbers cycle up and down in sports, but we felt Diaz went out and won a big fight, and our sport makes its stars different than boxing. Mayweather was a 1996 Olympian, and now he's finally at his biggest. With our guys — like Jon Jones, who no one knew a year and a half ago — they become huge stars overnight with one great fight. [The Fox fights] aren't all going to be 10 million viewers. There are a lot of things we still need to dial in, but everybody's good with what we're supposed to be doing. If a rating is bad in another sport, do you see a writer say, 'This sport's over?' No."

Now you're preparing for Dos Santos' heavyweight title defense Saturday against veteran Frank Mir here in Las Vegas. How's that going?

"We just added bleachers for it. I think it's because of Dos Santos. He's a beast, and people love exciting knockout fighters. With Cain on it too, it's a deep card."

For me, Mir is an ultimate test of your belief that MMA fans disregard losses. Mir's older, he's lost to top guys. Maybe fans are looking at the losses now, and thinking this guy's done?

"This is that fight for him. I've really been beating that Mir drum, that he's the most dangerous guy in the UFC because he's been in the UFC for 11 years. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz weren't in the UFC for 11 years. And if Frank Mir grabs your limb, he can — and will — break it. But if you hit that chin, and Dos Santos can do that . . . now you have the ultimate striker-vs.-grappler fight. Dos Santos puts guys to sleep, but Mir just KO'd [Antonio Rodrigo] Nogueira, and that's Dos Santos' mentor. So there's that too."

This match came together only because Alistair Overeem tested positive for testosterone. How devastating was that to your sport?

"The steroid, [performance-enhancing drug] thing affects the whole sport. The key is to make sure these guys never get on it, because once they do, they change. The problem with Overeem is that I want to sit in a room with him man to man and believe him. He told me before he ever fought for us, 'Don't worry, I'm the most tested athlete in sports.' But I think we have about 42 fights a year . . . you have a guy or two popping [positive tests] here and there, that's a pretty good ratio."

Do you want to increase testing?

"Yes. We're going to do our own testing, order these guys into [a lab]; we're sorting it out now. You have to do this to save the sport. You can't have these guys fighting on this stuff."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimespugmire

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