A championship belt hangs in Dana White’s office in the UFC’s sprawling new headquarters in Las Vegas. It is not unlike those that White has wrapped around the waist of UFC champions over the years, though White didn’t have to take a punch to earn this one.
It is a belt presented to him a few years ago by owners of the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. White is an accomplished blackjack player, and he was on such a hot streak at the Palms that the owners made up a belt that dubbed him the undisputed blackjack champion, a not-so-subtle plea for him to take his bets elsewhere. They couldn’t afford to lose substantial amounts of money to him any longer. In MMA parlance, they tapped out.
White is a gambler, and it’s that personality trait that gives his desire to promote boxing a chance to succeed. But making an impact in boxing will be the most difficult challenge of White’s career and will make his feat of turning the UFC from a dying business into a multi-billion-dollar empire look like a cakewalk.
Boxing survives in spite of itself. White acknowledged during a speech at the Wild Card West gym in Santa Monica, California, owned by director-producer Peter Berg, that the sport is broken.
White is in the process of obtaining a promoter’s license, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, and said he “100 percent” is going to promote boxing.
Boxing is in the midst of a great year, relative to how it has done in the past five, 10 or even 20 years. There have been sensational fights, higher-than-normal television ratings, big pay-per-view sales and just a general sense that the sport has turned the corner.
The sport, though, hasn’t fundamentally changed, and the flaws that have relegated it to also-ran status in the American sporting landscape not only still exist, they’re more significant than ever.
Just look at boxing in the U.S. now, even during what is perceived to be a great year. Top Rank has given its entire product to ESPN, and while there is much great about what is going on there, it creates vexing issues with no simple answer.
Al Haymon, the sport’s most powerful manager and the founder of the Premier Boxing Champions, has a lineup of terrific fighters. Those fighters compete primarily on Showtime or Fox. They don’t go on HBO or on Top Rank’s ESPN shows.
So when Top Rank’s brilliant, undisputed super lightweight champion Terence Crawford announces he’s vacating his belts to make a run at welterweight, the realization quickly dawns upon you that the welterweight fighters you’d most want to see Crawford face – WBA-WBC champ Keith Thurman, IBF champion Errol Spence and former champ Shawn Porter – probably won’t happen because they are with Haymon.
There is no mechanism in boxing that guarantees the fights the fans want to see will happen in any type of expeditious manner. Who among us will ever forget the torturous five-years-plus it took to put the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight together? They were each at their absolute peaks when it was first discussed in 2009, but both were on the downhill when it finally occurred in 2015.
Boxing is facing that situation now. The fight to make is the heavyweight title unification bout between American Deontay Wilder, the unbeaten WBC champion, and Brit Anthony Joshua, the unbeaten IBF-WBA champion.
Wilder, who is 39-0 with 38 knockouts, wants to fight Joshua. And Joshua, who is 20-0 with 20 knockouts, wants to fight Wilder. If it were signed today and held in May, it would be a mega-event that would sell out whichever arena it was placed in and generate healthy pay-per-view sales.
But it’s not going to happen in the spring, probably won’t happen in the summer and there is at least a decent chance it doesn’t occur at all in 2018.
Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, has done a brilliant job building the sport into the second-most popular in the United Kingdom, behind soccer. He’s beginning a push in the U.S., promoting an HBO show on Saturday in Long Island that features a middleweight bout between Daniel Jacobs and Luis Arias.
Hearn is a bright, clever and engaging man who took to the streets this week, asking New Yorkers if they knew who Wilder was. It was a great stunt, though it failed to prove anything.
Save for a few promoters, the quality of boxing promotion is beyond abysmal. Fights aren’t made. Many promoters treat the fighters like hired help. There is little investment in the sport’s future. Boxing is an event-driven sport. When there is a big event, like Mayweather-Pacquiao, the world pays attention, the media comes out and lots of money is made.
Far too often, though, the world at large ignores what is going on in boxing because there is no cohesive strategy in the sport. It’s every man for himself.
Into this breach steps White, who is arguably the greatest fight promoter who ever lived. Love him or hate him, you’re ignoring the facts if you deny that.
There are, though, major differences between 2001, when White and then-partners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the UFC, and 2018, when White would presumably move into boxing.
For $2 million in 2001, White and the Fertitta brothers bought a hope and a dream. They loved mixed martial arts and believed, if promoted and presented properly, the public at large would as well. But it was a dying sport that was ripe for them to remake.
Significantly, when they purchased the UFC, in the process they acquired the contracts of some of the world’s greatest fighters.
Going into boxing, there is nothing to buy, so they’d have to partner with someone like Haymon or sign free-agent fighters to build a roster.
A UFC title is now hugely significant because a vast majority of the world’s greatest fighters are signed to UFC contracts. If White creates a league like the UFC in boxing, the problem he’ll have is finding a way to make the fights for his athletes when there are great opponents signed to other promoters.
It’s a complicated process, but if anyone can make it work, it’s White. He’s not only smart and resourceful, but Zuffa Boxing will be as well-financed, or perhaps better, than any of the existing boxing promoters.
Asked about White’s announcement that he’d enter boxing promoting, Hearn gave a hearty thumbs-up, understanding the need for someone of White’s caliber in boxing.
“I was thrilled to hear Dana White plans to promote boxing,” Hearn said. “He’s got a great profile, he’ll bring more attention to the sport, he knows how to put on a show and he’s a real promoter. That’s what we need in this business.”
There is an irony here in that, while building the UFC, White often trashed boxing as a dying or dead business. There is no denying his love for the sport, but he hasn’t hesitated over the years to point out its many inadequacies.
As good as White is, though, those problems that White identified are still very real and, as of yet, remain unresolved.
White could be boxing’s, er, white knight, but it’s going to test him like he’s never been tested before.
If he can help boxing become a viable and relevant business in the American sporting landscape, it will be, with no hyperbole intended, one of the great business success stories of all time.
Popular UFC video on Yahoo Sports: