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For Dana White and UFC, today it’s Sacramento – tomorrow the world

Dana White
Dana White AP

Dana White sees the world and everything in it, and he knows he’s got a product that has flipped the lids of fight fans in the Americas, and now he wants to expand it beyond the seven seas, to Russia, to China, to India. As president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, White knows that no matter the continent or the national cuisine, people just can’t seem to get enough of the reverse guillotine choke hold.

Before he makes his move on the world, White first has a little card set up for Saturday night in Sacramento, at the Golden 1 Center. His people at the UFC think it’ll pack the joint to its maximum capacity of 15,000 fans, with a national audience on Fox Sports, to see Paige VanZant headline against Michelle Waterson. On the undercard, Urijah Faber will call it a career against Brad Pickett.

Maybe you thought that White might slow down after July’s $4 billion friendly takeover of the UFC by a group led by William Morris Endeavor and the International Management Group. By the time the cash transfers were made to White’s old bosses, some $360 million was set aside to be deposited in his own account. Many would have taken the dough to spend the rest of their days in a Tahitian or Caribbean paradise, or an Alpine retreat, or on a ranch in Wilton where a casino may soon be opening up nearby. Not Dana White. His life has been consumed by combat sports for the past 28 years. Now, with so much talent flooding to his version of the fight game and with so many new commercial opportunities having been created by the UFC/WME-IMG merger of sport and entertainment, he agreed to stick with the new program as its president.

Rather than seeing the buyout as the end of the world as he knew it, White pitched his brain forward. Globalization has been a poisoned word the past several months in the political economies of America and Europe, but his vision of a UFC future encompasses a landscape that ranges from St. Petersburg to Shanghai to Calcutta, and it is littered with octagons. UFC matches, of course, are conducted in an eight-sided cage.

“There’s a lot of things I plan on doing with Russia, China and India,” White said.

His worldview took a turn for the optimistic with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. White endorsed the candidacy of President-elect Donald J. Trump and even spoke on his behalf at the Republican National Convention. Trump, you may have read, is something of an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As for the relationship between those two, “It’s not going to hurt me,” White said.

White is a New England guy who quit his job working at a Boston hotel at age 19 to seek out his guru, Peter Welch, a legendary Southie boxing figure who ran a neighborhood gym. White, who boxed a little, learned at the feet of Welch before heading off to take up jiujitsu. It was a martial art that touched White’s soul, and he became a trainer in the discipline. He handled a couple of fighters who did pretty well for themselves right about when cage fighting began to fascinate younger fight fans across the country. He took a wider view of the game. He saw the possibilities that have since made him rich.

“I realized these guys are really educated, they’re good guys, their sport is dynamic and exciting where anything could happen at any given moment,” White said. “I started to think, man, if they just changed this and they did that and they tweaked this, this thing could be big.”

It helped that he had an an old high school buddy, Lorenzo Fertitta, who co-founded Station Casinos with his brother, Frank. White shared his MMA passion with the brothers and they bought into it, and into UFC, for a song, in 2001, and they put White in charge. Fifteen years later, they became billionaires and got out. White, who is well on the way to becoming one, stuck around to run the show for the new guys.

There is nobody in sports quite like White. He is the commissioner, the matchmaker, the promoter, the president. He is now the boss of 500 fighters, each of whom wants to become as rich as White. Surely any of them could do the same thing, as long as they have the unremitting passion of the 47-year-old business genius. They’d also have to be willing to work, oh, close to 365 days a year. Friday, for instance, White was getting ready to take off on vacation. All of a sudden, he had a chance to put together a Christmas Eve show on Fox. So he spent his morning in a studio spinning out promotional ideas.

“The only thing I can really say is, I love this sport, I love this company,” White said. “This is what I love to do. This is who I am.”

The UFC, White says, “is like a little baby, and you wouldn’t leave a baby alone for too long. I’m going to tell you, every day when I wake up, crazy (stuff is) going on, and it has to be dealt with.”

Since UFC went Hollywood, it’s come under a bit of criticism from old-schoolers who think the sports has gone too heavy on glitz and glamour. A case in point might be VanZant, the very attractive strawweight out of Faber’s gym who competed on “Dancing With The Stars” and on Saturday night is fighting another gorgeous young woman in Waterson, whose nickname is “The Karate Hottie.”

White fends off the criticism by saying these girls can fight, too, that VanZant came under criticism by an opponent recently who blasted her as all looks and no hooks. The result? “Boom,” White said. “Paige VanZant knocked her out.”

No matter what they look like, if any fighter “could throw a head-kick knockout the way (VanZant) did in her last fight, you’re damn right she’ll be fighting here, and she’ll be headlining.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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