The grit is part of his charm, part of his story, part of what makes him so very real - that he's a kid from Boston who became an unmitigated success, that he's evolved even if his choice of words never has. He curses. A lot - a fact he is well aware of. "Really, can I be in an airline magazine?" he jokes, referring to his often blue lexicon. I tell him he can but that I'll have to redact the racy parts. (Use your imagination and sprinkle a few, or a bunch of, throaty curse words into the rest of his quotes.)
"He's a great guy, but he's not going to pussyfoot around," says Forrest Griffin, who will fight on the UFC 62 undercard and who, like Liddell, is a hugely popular figure in the sport. "Dana lays it out there. He can be harsh. He doesn't always pick his words carefully. It's the truth, but he doesn't always package it in a polite way. He tells it the way it is. Society in general - it's not 'you're fired'; it's 'we're going to have to let you go because we're downsizing.' Dana isn't like that at all. But you know what? The way he is, the way he talks? It's why we respect him. Look at what he's done."
White moved around a lot as a kid, hopping from Maine to Vegas to Boston and back. He went to UMass Boston (a satellite campus of the University of Massachusetts) for a while, but he didn't last very long. School wasn't for him, so he dropped out. Neither were the sundry jobs that he worked to pay the bills while he was trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He hauled cement for a construction company. He was a bouncer at a bar. He was a doorman at a hotel. None of them felt like his life's work, the kind of thing you just know you're put on the earth to do. He'd always been a fight fan, though, and one day he decided to take boxing lessons. He was a quick study. Before long, he was giving the instruction rather than taking it, and he started a youth program in Boston. What it really taught him, though, was that he wanted to be involved in the business side of boxing, in the fight promotion.
When White was 26, he moved to Vegas and opened a gym. He started working with Liddell and Tito Ortiz, another guy who's a boldfaced name in the UFC. Before long, he and some high school friends, the Fertittas, had purchased the nearly defunct UFC - a fight organization that some states were banning and that couldn't even get on pay-per-view. Read that again. When White came along, UFC couldn't even get on something you have to pay to see.
"I spent my first few years screaming at people over the phone and threatening to sue them," White says. "It was horrible."
Through patience and a series of deft moves, like embracing the Nevada State Athletic Commission's rules (weight classes, fight doctors, no more head-butting), White transformed UFC from something resembling Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (two men enter; one man leaves!) to a legitimate sport broadcast on Spike TV and pay-per-view, with an ever-expanding fan base and sanctioning in major states that also allow boxing (including California and New Jersey).
"If it weren't for Dana White, there's no way this sport would be even close to where it is now," says color commentator Joe Rogan. Yes, that Joe Rogan, from Fear Factor. Trust me, he's much funnier and erudite than you might expect. "No one else would have had the dedication to stick with it. No one else would have brought it to where it is."
Today, Ultimate Fighting Championship is a huge brand that regularly outpaces other sports organizations. The fourth-season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter (UFC's reality show, a masterstroke that has built faceless fighters into recognizable, marketable stars) destroyed a baseball game on ESPN that same night. Among men ages 18 to 49, 1.1 million viewers tuned in to watch UFC, as opposed to the 239,000 who decided to watch baseball. But the true test, the real apples-to-apples comparison, comes against boxing. UFC 61 sold out the Mandalay Bay; 12,400 people attended, with ringside seats going for as much as $750. Conversely, one of the biggest boxing fights of the year happened at almost the same time: "Sugar" Shane Mosley fought Fernando Vargas at the MGM Grand. That fight drew fewer than 10,000; the most expensive tickets went for $800. You may not think that's a huge win for UFC, but it is. For a sport that was marginalized, UFC is not only being taken seriously now but is also excelling.