Tonight at 10 on Fox Sports 1 marks the premiere of the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter, the long-running reality competition series that puts a bunch of up-and-coming mixed martial artists in a house and lets them duke it out for a shot at UFC glory. For the first time, half of the contestants will be female, and both mixed-gender teams will be coached by women: UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and top contender (and personal Rousey rival) Miesha Tate. Rousey is a particularly important member of the current UFC roster, as she is seeing a tremendous amount of mainstream success since she debuted in the UFC earlier this year: She posed nude in ESPN The Magazine, appeared on the cover of Maxim, and will be showing up in the next sequels in both The Expendables and Fast and Furious franchises.
The premiere of season 18 is its first on the just-launched Fox Sports 1, which marks the third network for the show (it previously aired on SpikeTV and then FX). Through 18 seasons, the one consistent thread has been that of Dana White, the UFC president who also acts as the show’s host, cheerleader, and verbal smackdown-layer. As noted in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, the rise of UFC has a lot to do with White’s skills as a promoter and a talker. EW caught up with White for an extended conversation about the current season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s upcoming 20th anniversary (a documentary on its trip will air in November), and who his favorite celebrity fight fan is.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Ultimate Fighter returns for its 18th season tonight, and the big draw for this show is going to be Ronda Rousey, who feels like the next big crossover star for the UFC. What does she bring to the show?
Dana White: She’s already one of the biggest stars in the UFC — one of the biggest stars in all of sports. She brings an intensity, and obviously the rivalry that she has with Miesha Tate is hard-core. She’s one of those people that’s a true competitor and loves to win at anything she does. Both girls are great coaches, and at the end of the day that’s really what it’s about: Bringing in this younger talent, having the right coaches there to cultivate this talent and push them. The one thing about The Ultimate Fighter that makes this thing so fun, and the reason why we’re 18 seasons in and going to all these other countries, is it’s such a pressure cooker. Think of any other reality show where people freak out — they’re not living in a house where they’re actually going to fight and compete with the people they’re living with. There’s this team mentality, but at the end of the day, only one gets to win.
Was there any tension in bringing in women to coach men? Were the male contestants receptive to taking coaching from Ronda and Miesha?
The cool thing about it is all the men that were on the show have incredible respect for the women as fighters and coaches, which was a cool dynamic because I didn’t know how it was going to play out.
The UFC’s mainstream popularity can really be traced to the first season of the show, which featured an incredible fight in the finale between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. Does that remain the company’s biggest watershed moment
Obviously when we put on a season of The Ultimate Fighter or when we do a fight night or Pay Per View, it’s always about the fight. You want to see an exciting fight, but the thing about season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter, there were a lot of things that happened that season. That thing pulled great ratings, you got to look behind the curtains and see who these people were and their personalities, both the people you love and the people you hated. Every season has the stories of who these people are, and that’s what you’re drawn to, and then obviously when the fights happen, you want to see great fights. The thing that made that final season 1 fight so important was we had a horrible TV deal. We bought our way onto TV and had totally killer ratings all season, but we never had to deal with these guys, so we ended that finale not knowing what was going to happen. And then after that happened, I was completely carefree. I said, “Whether [SpikeTV] takes it or they don’t take it, we’re going to end up somewhere after this.”
Since Ronda Rousey has become a star, have you noticed a big spike in UFC’s female audience?
I think that it’s grown in the last couple of years, and a lot of it is due to Ronda. There’s no doubt that Ronda is leading the charge. Look at the first fight we did with her and Liz Carmouche — it was bigger than any female fight that’s ever happened in history, boxing or anywhere else.
That was a hell of a fight.
Great fight! And everybody was talking leading up to that fight. There were a lot of people who personally attacked me because I made them the main event of the evening, and the co-main event was the Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida, and the Machida-Henderson fight was the worst fight of the night, and Ronda delivered.
The UFC recently helped launch Fox Sports 1 with UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen, which did a really big rating. Did that go beyond your expectations?
Oh yeah. If you look at the number that we did, it was huge. [Fox Sports President] Eric Shanks called me the next day and said, “Let me tell you what, you guys have accomplished a lot of amazing things, but everything you’ve accomplished to date pales in comparison to what you did last night.” A statement like that puts it into perspective, and then think about this: Time Warner, Dish Network, and DirecTV didn’t even come onboard until Thursday, so most people didn’t even think they had it, so it was pretty awesome.
Were you involved in any way with those negotiations in getting Fox Sports 1 onto those cable and satellite systems?
Yeah, it was actually all me, I got it done! No, I’m totally kidding. I had nothing to do with this deal. We go out and we put on a great fight. I would like to say that our contribution to getting Fox Sports 1 was we had a great card, and we had people calling Time Warner and Dish and DirecTV saying, “Hey, can we get Fox Sports 1 so we can see this UFC show?” So I like to think that was our contribution to getting it done.
UFC has become very valuable as a television product, as most people tend to believe sports is the last great DVR-proof programming on cable. But some think the bubble is close to bursting. What do you think of the current state of cable, having spent much of your TV life on it?
I don’t know. I don’t know where this whole thing’s going. It feels like we’re sitting at a great place, but the hard thing about being on television and being in the fight world is you’re only as good as your last fight. There’s never a time when you let your guard down. We did what we needed to do, we just delivered the big number to launch the Fox Sports 1 deal. But now we got fights the rest of the year that need to deliver just like that one did. We got people buzzing right now because that last Fox Sports 1 fight was great. Our competitors are anybody who takes away the attention of 18- to 34-year-old males, whether it’s the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, a good movie that’s coming out on Saturday night, or a great TV show that just got launched. We’re always competing with all of that, and we’re only as good as our last fight.
UFC is celebrating its 20th anniversary this fall. You didn’t come into the fold until 2000, but you watched UFC 1 way back in 1993. That show feels so far away from what the product has become, but do you see the connection in what you’re doing now?
There’s no doubt about it. That first show had to happen. That first show not only created a new style of fighting, but a completely new martial art. Back then, you had karate, tae kwon do, aikido, boxing, wrestling, all these martial arts, and there was always the big question: Which martial art was the best? And traditionalists were very against the combining and mixing of martial arts. The best that night was Brazilian jiu-jitsu, because nobody else knew how to fight on the ground. So everybody else started training in jiu-jitsu and then jiu-jitsu guys started training in striking and everything started to come together. Since 1993, martial arts have evolved more than they have in 10,000 years. Guys who are really superior athletes that would have become football players or NBA players are becoming mixed martial artists, so the level of competition just keeps getting higher and higher. And this thing works in every country in every language all over the world because it doesn’t matter what color you are, what country you come from, or what language you speak — we’re human beings and fighting is in our DNA.
Is it true that when you took over the UFC in 2000, the shows had been banned from Pay Per View?
People thought we were nuts, and why wouldn’t you think we were nuts? We bought this thing that wasn’t allowed on Pay Per View and we were going to get it on free television.
You were already working with Chuck Liddell then. Could you tell that he was going to be a crossover star?
No doubt about it. I had watched professional wrestling when I was a kid and I was a huge boxing fan my whole life. What really got me was when I started to meet some of these fighters, they were really educated guys, and they all had different stories. Chuck Liddell looks like this axe murderer, but then you hear about him and the guy graduated from Cal Poly with honors in accounting. Every boxing story is, “I came from the mean streets of such and such, and if it wasn’t for boxing I’d be dead or in jail.”
Outside of putting on great fights, what other goals do you have for the UFC?
Every time we do something, I want to beat it. I know you can’t please everybody, but I don’t want one person to turn off that TV or to walk out of that arena and go, “I wish I did something else tonight.” I can’t tell you how many fights I’ve put on in the last 13 years and sat and watched, and it will f— me up for two days if we put on a bad event.
Yeah, your Twitter after a bad fight is always kind of amazing. Bad fights seem to really devastate you personally.
It personally bothers me. Every time we do a weigh-in at the venue, I go in the back with every single fighter and say, “I don’t give a f— how big of a superstar you think you are or if you’re the first guy in the card, we’re going to deliver to the fans.”
Speaking of fans, you’ve been getting more and more celebrity fans at the events — Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Justin Bieber, LeBron James, and a lot more. Who is your favorite?
My favorite? I’m not really into that stuff. I would have to say my favorite is Mike Tyson. To this day, I’m a geek for Mike Tyson. I’ve been friends with the guy for a long time and I still see him and go, “Holy sh–, Mike Tyson’s here!”
Let’s assume that the season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter will be somebody’s first real exposure to the UFC. What’s your sales pitch to newcomers?
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the UFC. If you see UFC you might think, “Oh, that’s not for me, I’m not into combat sports.” The Ultimate Fighter is so much more about combat sports. It’s about the human spirit and the desire to win, and about taking these young athletes and pushing them harder than they ever have. This is the hardest competition in all of sports and all of television. This is the first season ever where women are coaching, and the first where women will be competing and training and living with men. I’ll be honest, I said women would never fight in the UFC, and here I am telling you how amazing this is. This is a huge moment for women — not only are they competing in combat sports, but they’re also coaching men, and the men respect them.