With it being the long American Thanksgiving weekend, the fight schedule is a bit lighter than usual, which tends to lead to a paucity of breaking news or intriguing headlines. Case in point is our hottest story of this week’s MMA news cycle: did you guys know that UFC President Dana White is a vulgar, reactionary sort of guy with a penchant for cutting off his nose to spite his face?
And to think, they say that no news is good news. There wasn’t a single soul under the sun shocked or surprised in any way by the comments made this week by former EliteXC and Strikeforce poster girl Gina Carano regarding how White’s brusque manner of negotiations ended up tanking the hopes of a potential fight between her and Ronda Rousey several years ago – suffice to say, “no news.” Even then, every anecdote added to the list of White’s gaffes on account of his imperious personality is still enough to make even a hardened observer shake their head if not outright face palm.
On Monday, Carano appeared on “Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show” and discussed how White and then UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta approached her with a million-dollar offer to face then-unbeaten Ronda Rousey, who was then UFC women’s bantamweight champion and at the peak of her powers. Long story short: Carano, despite having being firmly entrenched in her new Hollywood career, was open to the idea but wanted at least six months to get back into training and put a team around her, further asking White and Fertitta to keep their conversations under wraps.
Surprise! White instantly took to the media to discuss the feasibility of Rousey-Carano, presumably in an attempt to both grab headlines and put Carano’s feet to the fire. When Carano didn’t cave to the pressure, White then allegedly and erroneously sent her a text message that read, in her words, “This b---- is effin’ us around.” I’m sure Carano was censoring that just a tad.
Following that incident, Carano essentially cut off negotiations and decided to focus on her film career as White sought to publicly trash her, despite the fact she hadn’t fought in nearly five years at that point. Again, Carano’s story comes as a surprise to no one, especially given White’s public comments about her at the time.
“Gina Carano is the f—ng hardest athlete we have ever dealt with,” White said back in September 2014. “The problem is she allows herself to be handled by these Hollywood f—ng idiots. It’s absolutely crazy … Any time you deal with anyone in f—ng Hollywood it’s a joke. It’s literally a joke, it’s comical. You feel like you’re in a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit.”
Oh the irony, now that Dana White’s bosses at Endeavor are those very same “Hollywood f—ng idiots.” Also, there is the amusing tidbit of the infamous text message itself, which obviously wasn’t intended for Carano, but her telling of the story and its circumstances is such classic Dana White that it only lends extra credence to it, as if it were necessary.
Given the third-party comment that White made in the alleged text message in referencing Carano, he was clearly in an emotionally charged state, mind likely going a mile a minute, and in our age of constant texting, that’s where you’re liable to make the classic “Oops, wrong person” screw-up. It’s not as bad as say, when a UFC staffer accidentally sent Vitor Belfort’s hush-hush bloodwork and testosterone level results to a bunch of random managers and media a few years ago, but it’s almost amazing these things don’t happen more with White, given both his penchant for provocative texting and general surges of blind emotion.
Even if this story of fizzled fights past is hardly unexpected, there are still lessons to be gleaned from it. Primarily, White’s style of hardball negotiating is effectively antiquated, and keep in mind, this was five years ago and the MMA landscape and rules of promotional engagement have only continued to evolve. White has historically had success with these kind of tactics when he can draw on longstanding relationships with the talent involved, such as his constant break-ups to make-ups with the likes of Tito Ortiz or BJ Penn. Those relationships are few and far between now; two or three management groups control the vast majority of the UFC’s bonafide stars and any negotiations in those cases are essentially a game of chicken between the promotion and managers in question on who will blink first on any potential deal.
In this instance, there’s also the element of a particular leverage. In the past, the UFC could allow any fighter they didn’t want to acquiesce to free reign to go elsewhere, often with the idea that whatever promotion ponied up for them would crumble or be bought out by the company. In 2019, that dynamic is far less prevalent, even if Bellator MMA is a distant second banana and One Championship continues to make outlandish, unverifiable claims about its revenue and market share abroad. There are few athletes who have a unique arrow in their quiver that they can use as a bargaining chip, i.e. Brock Lesnar’s clever penchant for constantly pitting the UFC against World Wrestling Entertainment to suit his fancy and bank account. In this case, Carano had already starred in the Steven Soderbergh-directed “Haywire” and featured in “Fast and the Furious 6,” the fifth-highest grossing film of 2013.
Carano had clearly divested herself of fighting and was hardly hurting for money. Moreover, given the timing of the negotiation, as well as the very obvious style disparity between her and Rousey, I’m sure Carano and her management were keen enough to realize she was simply being brought in to create a major, media-intensive spectacle that would further establish Rousey’s star. Any idiot could read the tea leaves here and see that the UFC was hoping to effect, which only serves to bolster Carano’s position as the one with the real bargaining power, yet White was all too eager to use the same tired bully tactics, both privately and publicly, which only tend to work on roster fighters desperate for just a little thicker slice of the pie. If Carano is just one phone call away from making what she’d make (or more) to be armbarred by Rousey to instead do some lowbrow action flick, how can you honestly think a tough guy strong arm routine is going to work?
It doesn’t. Half a decade later, these instances will only increase if and when the UFC tries to sign recognizable names who have both financial stability and their own particular source of leverage. Again, Carano’s tale is not at all surprising, nor is the dissolution of a perfunctory Rousey-Carano showcase fight even a real loss in the grand scheme of MMA history; we’re not exactly talking about missing out on prime or quasi-prime Fedor Emelianenko in the Octagon here. If anything, the story is most relevant because it shows how outmoded and unsuitable many of White’s tried-and-true tactics to exert control over fighters are, even dating back several years when the tables were more firmly tilted in the UFC’s favor.
White is not without his merits as a promoter, even today. He is, for better or worse, the face of the promotion and that still has currency. He’s great for a soundbite, even if it’s caustic and ill-conceived. He remains a sensational carnival barker, which sounds like a pejorative, but is still a crucial and essential part of promoting fights. However, White is not the person you want steering the ship; he wasn’t in 2014 and he isn’t now. This is the same guy who thought “The Ultimate Fighter” was a moronic idea, who was talking about how women would never fight in the UFC while the promotion was already probing the idea of buying up Strikeforce, a company largely built around women.
Whether 2014 or 2019, White still has value. It’s just incumbent upon the company around him to recognize what his assets truly are, and one of them certainly isn’t a nearly pathological lack of foresight that at the least embarrassed the promotion, and at worst could cost them future opportunities. Five years ago at the negotiating table, there was one person that knew what was smart for their brand, and I’m pretty sure Dana White isn’t the one in the latest “Star Wars” show.