How true are UFC owner’s claims that Dana White’s ‘courage’ saved the company from demise?

Ari Emanuel credited Dana White for supposedly saving the company, but were they really in danger?

By: Milan Ordoñez | 1 month ago
How true are UFC owner’s claims that Dana White’s ‘courage’ saved the company from demise?
IMAGO | Louis Grasse / Zuma

The UFC’s business as usual approach during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is something Dana White has always been vocal about. The bossman refused to fold as cases and deaths due to the illnesses spiked up and the entire world shut down. At the time, the UFC was the only sports entity in operation. 

This unyielding attitude supposedly kept the company afloat, at least according to co-owner Ari Emanuel

Dana White’s attitude during the pandemic

Despite the advice from medical experts, Dana White remained defiant in his stance to keep the show going. Here’s one of his quotable quotes during an interview on the Schmozone podcast. 

“The entire world has turned into pussies overnight and it’s unbelievable and it drives me crazy. I don’t know what to say, it’s embarrassing.”

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Azure vs Kelleher, May 13, 2020; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; UFC president Dana White (left) talks to Brian Kelleher (blue gloves) after Kelleher defeating Hunter Azure (red gloves) during UFC Fight Night at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports, 13.05.2020 19:48:56, 14306830, NPStrans, UFC Fight Night, UFC, VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, Dana White, MMA, TopPic PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY Copyright: xJasenxVinlovex 14306830
IMAGO | Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports

Right at the beginning of the shutdowns in early March 2020, here’s what he had to say

“I don’t give a shit about the Coronavirus. As far as I’m concerned we are gonna continue to run our business.”

Of course, White never failed to hit at his favorite targets: the MMA media

“Listen, the media can talk as much shit as they want. They don’t feed families. They don’t take care of f–ng people. They don’t have people that count on them. They don’t have people to support. 

“We’re doing the right thing as far as medical testing goes and everything. That’s all we f–ing do. That’s nothing new. We were doing that shit way before the coronavirus. 

UFC owner admits being “scared” to operate

While Dana White remained determined to keep the status quo, UFC owner Ari Emanuel admitted to being fearful of the situation. But as he said in a recent guest appearance on the Jay Shetty podcast, Dana White downright refused to close shop. 

I thought we had to shut everything down. And Dana White at the UFC said to me, ‘Uh-uh. We’re not shutting down.’ I got scared, and he slapped me across the face, saying ‘We’re going.’ 

White then came up with a contingency plan, which at the time, was bordering the realm of outrageous. Despite his strong apprehensions, Emanuel trusted the UFC president. 

“And then he said, ‘Get me an island.’ I was, like… my brother’s a doctor, he’s telling me where the world’s going. And (Dana) was, like (No). And he was just driving that train. 

“So we got him an island, and he did everything else. It kind of just reminded me, like, yeah, it’s nerve-wracking. But don’t be scared. And he was amazing. And I was on the other side of that fence.” 

Emanuel credits Dana White for saving the company from demise

Looking back on their dealings at the height of the pandemic, Emanuel has nothing but praises for Dana White. As far as he’s concerned, the longtime UFC executive’s ‘courage’ saved the company from demise. 

“That’s why I have a great partner. He’s an incredible partner,” Emanuel said of White. “But I, for the first time, got really scared. And he just said, ‘No, we just have to go.’ And we’re gonna take all the heat for it. And it was a lot of heat against him. But we did it.”

Emanuel also admitted that the driving factor for bullishly trying to skirt the government mandates at the time was as expected, fulfilling the ESPN event quota and getting several hundreds of millions from that deal.

“If we didn’t have that, the whole company would’ve tanked. Because we needed the ESPN deal to continue going, we needed to put on fights. And his courage, dragging me along… It was incredible.” 

Dana White also went against masks and vaccine mandates and promoted anti-parasitic drug ivermectin instead, something he likewise got praises for.

Were they really in danger though?

There was obviously a lot of anxiousness and uncertainty at the time, but was the UFC or Endeavor really in danger of folding as Emanuel claims? Or is he just exaggerating to tell a much grander story about how they successfully navigated a difficult time?

Bloody Elbow’s Managing Editor Anton Tabuena adds more context on the business side and Emanuel’s curious claims:

If Dana White listened to government mandates and UFC restarted at the same time the NBA and other sports did, that would’ve been a difference of just two months and eight UFC events. Could the UFC have ramped things up to make up for those events and still reach the ESPN quota? It would’ve been a challenge either way, and it could’ve cost them millions. If they restarted later, it could’ve been more costly as well.

It’s worth noting though, that UFC generated an estimated 695 million in 2018, 860 million in 2019, and 890 million in 2020, all with massive, increasing profit margins every year.

If UFC narrowly missed their quota, perhaps they wouldn’t have broken as much financial records in 2020, or eventually broken through over a billion dollars in revenue as quick after. Maybe Ari Emanuel also wouldn’t have gotten his $308 million pay package the following year too. Either way, while he framed Dana White as a savior, it seems like the only thing they were in real danger of at the time was not making as much money.

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About the author
Milan Ordoñez
Milan Ordoñez

Milan Ordoñez has been covering combat sports since 2012 and has been part of the Bloody Elbow staff since 2016. He’s also competed in amateur mixed martial arts and submission grappling tournaments.

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