Las Vegas is the fullest expression of Middle America's id. The overwhelming allure of wealth and unbridled lust collapses into a hedonistic explosion of light and activity set to the sounds of ringing slot machines and alternating cries of triumph and dismay. The values and organizing principles that mainstream American culture alternately adores and abhors - money, sex, and fun paramount among them - are not only present in Vegas, but celebrated as the ultimate markers of achievement and self.
To fully understand the UFC and the characters who run it, it's essential to understand these things about Vegas. More precisely, it's essential to understand the Las Vegas Strip, the 4.2-mile stretch of resorts/casinos/resort casinos that runs from the Mandalay Bay in the south to the Stratosphere in the north. The UFC may be headquartered some distance away, but the Strip is its spiritual heart and home.
When Dana White lambastes fighters for not being exciting, he's not expressing an idiosyncratic, personal viewpoint: his frustrations and outbursts match almost exactly those of the Vegas crowds among which he's spent years and years and years watching fights. What separates the UFC's home fans from their brethren elsewhere is that Vegas crowds, more than anything else, just want to see something AWESOME. Crowds there are largely composed of tourists (with greater or lesser knowledge of MMA) drawn from all over the world rather than local or national fans emotionally invested in particular fighters.
If you're looking for hardcore appreciation of stifling grappling or the tactical execution of a brilliant gameplan on the feet, you're not going to find it in Vegas; brutal knockouts, high-amplitude takedowns, and choked-unconscious submissions, on the other hand, are all more than acceptable. Everything is bigger, louder, and more lurid in Vegas, and that's precisely what fans expect to see in a fight. The fact that people are more likely to be in some variety of altered state contributes to this, too. It's not a coincidence that Dana White shares these same prejudices: he's a man of the people, sure, but it's more precise to say that he's a representative of a very particular community with a very particular set of things they're looking for in a fight, influenced by a particular cultural and social context.
Dana White's cageside seat was perhaps a hundred feet away from where I and the eight friends who journeyed to this oasis in the desert to celebrate my impending nuptials sat (21 rows up from the floor) , close enough to see his facial expressions and watch his reactions over the course of the event. It was hard not to be struck by the fact that he knows exactly what he's selling. As much criticism as he's received (and deserved), he understands the psychology of a live crowd - a Vegas crowd especially - better than any fight promoter on the planet. Make no mistake, White puts on one hell of a show.
My friends and I sat in a section normally reserved for friends and family of the fighters. Given the fact that Vegas crowds aren't particularly partisan, it was an unusual experience to be among people who were so personally invested in the outcomes of the fights. (Notable exception: cards featuring Cain Velasquez.) To give a few examples, a whole crowd a dozen rows ahead was quite interested in both sides of the Sicilia-Phillips bout; two members of Al Iaquinta's family were several rows in front of us; a group somehow connected to Renan Barao sat behind us; and TJ Dillashaw's mother and aunt (?) were next to us.
As you can imagine, these last two parties made the main event even more fascinating than the action in the cage would suggest. Chants of voce vai morrer - "you're going to die" - from behind us were quickly stifled by Dillashaw's brutal knockdown in the first round and replaced with ever-more-noticeable silence as the fight dragged on. Meanwhile, Dillashaw's small cheering section next to us grew louder and louder, their shouts buttressed by the substantial number of gamblers in the audience (my friends among them) who'd spiked a bet on the challenger at +575.
Leaving the arena amid a cloud of mid-range cologne, foil T-shirts, incessant chatter about the card's highlights - Cormier's throws, Lawler's KO, and Dillashaw in general seemed to be the consensus - and alternately fulfilled/shattered hopes and dreams, it occurred to me that the debate over MMA's status as either sport or entertainment is fundamentally misguided: it's simultaneously both.
Watching fights from the comfort of one's own home, it's entirely possible to view MMA as pure sport. It is, after all, a relatively evenly-matched contest between two professional athletes operating within a relatively well-defined set of rules. When viewing in person, however, especially in Vegas, it's impossible to view MMA as anything other than spectacle. The family and friends of the fighters aside, nobody is particularly invested in the individual participants, except financially; the whole focus is on seeing maximum violence, and implicitly maximum entertainment as well.
Dana White doesn't think he's selling sport. He thinks he's selling spectacle - what a Vegas crowd expects - and once we accept that, his decisions and proclamations start to make a great deal more sense.