Dana White addresses UFC's critics, provides outlook for 2018

UFC president Dana White. Brendon Thorne/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Several months ago, during a news conference in New York, UFC president Dana White told media members the company was "on track for the biggest year ever" in 2017.

The statement was widely met with skepticism. The public generally viewed 2017 as a mishit -- especially in comparison to the two previous years, when the UFC produced megastars Ronda Rousey (2015) and Conor McGregor (2016).

A handful of potential future stars emerged, but an established new draw did not. Meanwhile, neither Rousey nor McGregor fought in the Octagon. The UFC does not release its pay-per-view numbers, but they were reportedly down overall.

When challenged on his declaration the company was enjoying its best year, White said, "If you don't know what's going on in our business, how can you speculate we're having a bad year? This is our best year by a long shot."

White, WME-IMG happy with 2017 results

So where's the disconnect? Why has 2017 been generally characterized as a difficult year by many, but the "best by a long shot" by White?

"I think the [2016] sale has everything to do with it," White told ESPN. "Everybody is looking at that $4 billion sale and asking, 'Did they deliver?'

"F--- yeah, we delivered. We deliver every single year. And still, every year, if you listen to the media, we're f---ed."

The UFC, a private company, declined to provide details on total revenue in 2017, or reveal where it ranked financially all time.

White strongly denied, however, any idea the company fell short of lofty financial expectations during its first year under new ownership.

"WME-IMG Endeavor bought us for $4 billion, and obviously they need to hit certain numbers for the banks," White said. "Right now, I'm spending another $1 million [at UFC's Las Vegas headquarters] on another wing I want. That's how bad of a year we're having.

"[Endeavor CEO] Ari Emanuel wants to buy the building next door and build more s---. We're still growing."

Many are quick to point out the biggest event the UFC was associated with last year was not even a mixed martial arts fight, but a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and McGregor in August. That event drew 4.3 million PPV buys according to Showtime, and White claims that internationally it was the highest-selling event of all time.

That payday surely went a long way in helping the UFC reach its financial quota last year, which White doesn't deny. He's proud of it, in fact. The UFC, after all, played a significant role in creating that event.

"Who cares if it was a boxing match?" White said. "Do you think we knew Floyd Mayweather was going to fight Conor McGregor in 2017? F--- no. We still had our year lined out, a budget and everything else.

"This is the fight business. You have no f---ing idea what's going to happen. If that fight hadn't happened, Conor would have fought twice in the UFC and who knows who he would have fought or the fights it would have set up. This s--- doesn't just happen. We create this s---."

As far as McGregor's plans in 2018, White said, "It's looking good to get him back," but admitted he doesn't know when. Rousey, meanwhile, is effectively, albeit unofficially, retired.

No Rousey, no McGregor, no problem?

Speaking of "creating," how about new stars?

White said the UFC and Endeavor will continue to push and invest in the athletes who show breakthrough potential, but some of it is out of the company's hands.

He pointed to Cameroonian-French heavyweight Francis Ngannou as potentially "the next big thing," and expects a huge jump in his popularity if he's able to dethrone defending champion Stipe Miocic at UFC 220 later this month in Boston.

"But you've got to f---ing win," White said. "Look at what we did with Conor. Can anybody say we didn't build Conor McGregor the way he needed to be built? But he delivered."

White provided another example in 23-year-old bantamweight Sean O'Malley, who scored a highlight-reel knockout last summer on the UFC's new show, "Dana White Contender Series."

According to White, more than 263,000 viewers have watched O'Malley's performance on the UFC's Fight Pass service -- plus thousands more who saw the highlight on social media. O'Malley's social media followers on one platform swelled from 2,000 to 70,000. Not yet a PPV draw by any means, but to White, that's "building talent."

"I hear that all the time, but who the f--- builds more stars than we do in combat sports?" White said. "Nobody."

That need to create stars could build a rift between the "sport" and "entertainment" elements of the UFC, as 2017 can attest to. Some of the UFC's matchmaking in high-profile spots could be seen as valuing star-building over respecting rankings.

UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein acknowledged those individual spots, but strongly denied any notion the UFC's matchmaking has fundamentally changed.

"Competitive matchmaking is one of the hallmarks of the UFC," Epstein said. "Yeah, you might do a Mayweather-McGregor fight here or there, or something the fans are dying to see, but at the end of the day, competitive matchmaking is what we do. I think it's a bit of a misnomer to say we've gotten away from that.

"In boxing, you've got to be 20-0 before you become somebody, and yet you haven't fought anybody. That's not our model."

UFC working to expand global reach

According to Epstein, the UFC sold out 13 events in 2017. Perhaps none of those were bigger than a November event at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai.

The company views that event as a major milestone, as mainland China is a notoriously difficult market to host an event -- but one with immense upside.

While the outward effects of Endeavor's 2016 takeover have arguably been tame thus far, UFC executives say that event in Shanghai exemplifies Endeavor's influence behind the scenes.

"We're building an infrastructure in China to find and train these guys," White said. "We're working on a deal to build a gym there. The key is finding real f---ing talent in China. And it's there."

The UFC's 2018 schedule will include several new international markets, including Perth, Australia, in February. That event, UFC 221, will be headlined by Australia's first UFC champion, middleweight Robert Whittaker.

Epstein was recently in France, where MMA is banned. The UFC is in support of the recognition of an amateur federation that could hopefully lead to the approval of professional events there. That would, of course, lift the potential star power of someone like Ngannou.

And internally, there is strong optimism the promotion will host its first event in Russia in 2018.

New television deal 'getting more interesting by the minute'

According to documents distributed to potential investors in late 2016, which have been obtained by ESPN, the UFC will receive $168 million from its domestic television deal with Fox in 2018. That deal is set to expire later this year.

The UFC is reportedly looking to increase that annual rights fee to $450 million. The Sports Business Journal reported in November that Fox Sports' initial offer to the UFC was well short of that, around $200 million per year.

The report also stated the UFC has taken meetings with CBS, ESPN, NBC Sports and Turner Sports, along with streaming services Amazon and Oath, parent company of Yahoo.

UFC officials declined to discuss any specific offers, only confirming there has been interest among a changing industry.

"It's getting more interesting by the minute," White claimed. "ESPN buys Fox Sports' [regional sports networks], which the UFC is perfect for. And you look at Fox, they have a load of cash from the [sale to Disney]. You've got powerhouses like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube."

Live sports rights continue to command top dollar, even in an uncertain media climate. According to recent report by MMAFighting's Dave Meltzer, the UFC's television ratings were slightly down in 2017. It's possible, however, the UFC will place some of its stronger draws on television as part of its next deal with one or multiple broadcast partners.

The UFC's next domestic media rights package is the most significant element of expected growth this year, which means whatever deal it signs will greatly shape the narrative surrounding the company in 2018.

White interested in adding boxing to portfolio

In early 2018, White plans to meet with a handful of boxing promoters at UFC headquarters. For now, it is unclear what effect those meetings will ultimately have on boxing or the UFC.

White says the experience with the Mayweather-McGregor event opened his eyes to potential opportunities in boxing. White has been coy about exactly what that means, only saying he has two possible plans on what his involvement may look like.

How welcoming the sport will be remains to be seen. He publicly ruled out working with Showtime again, and has publicly butted heads with Golden Boy Promotions' Oscar De La Hoya and Top Rank's Bob Arum.

He apparently hit it off with Mayweather's longtime adviser and influential boxing manager Al Haymon, as well as Mayweather Promotions' Leonard Ellerbe.

It's difficult to handicap how White's foray into a new sport will go, but his natural reaction to any doubt has always been to double down. That continues to be the case as the UFC moves on from what many thought (right or wrong) was a trying year.

"Whoever an athlete is, I don't care who it is, I want to fly you to Las Vegas and we're going to meet," White said. "I'm going to walk you through this new facility, show you the gym, the trainers, all the amenities. Free supplements, physical therapy, we'll cook your food exactly how you like it three times per day. You'll get health insurance.

"Who can offer you a better deal than me in combat sports? F--- boxing, MMA, whatever it is. Who can offer a better deal than me? The answer is nobody.

"This is what we do. Keep doubting us."