As the year and the decade come to a close, the UFC is in the midst of perhaps its most successful run ever. And that momentum looks like it will continue in 2020 with Conor McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone headlining UFC 246 on Jan. 18 in Las Vegas.
UFC president Dana White sat down with ESPN's Brett Okamoto recently to discuss the year that was, as well as what the future will hold for the promotion over the next 12 months. In a wide-ranging interview, White addressed topics such as McGregor's future, the potential of a Nick Diaz return, plans for light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and what's ahead for Floyd Mayweather.
Editor's note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.
What's getting harder as time moves on and the sport keeps developing? What's getting harder as a fight promoter?
Nothing's getting harder. The great thing about our business is as we've gone [up], technology has gone [up], and technology has actually made this a lot easier. I can run a whole show from the office now. There's so many different ways to look at fighters. Back when we bought the company, if I wanted to see some up-and-coming talent, probably had to fly there, go to the fights and watch the fights. Most of these smaller organizations now are on UFC Fight Pass. I can watch all of it on UFC Fight Pass, or it will be on social media, immediately after the fight happens. It's a lot easier to run this business than it was 20 years ago.
Fighter pay is always a topic. I think it probably always will be. It is in every business.
As the sport continues to go [up], so do the numbers. Ask some of these world champions the difference in the last year, and they'll feel it.
Can you give an idea of what a star in the UFC is capable of making these days?
It's crazy money. I think a lot of people would be shocked if you heard what some of these big stars are making. But I don't ever talk about that.
Tell us what's going to happen over the next year, two years, three years. What should we be preparing for in 2020?
You can prepare for what you prepare for every year when we go into a new year. We're going to go into new territories. ... I can sit here right now and lay out the fights for you that we're looking at for 2020, [then] there will be a Diaz-Masvidal that will pop up out of nowhere and be one of the biggest fights of the year. ... You're going to see big things out of UFC Fight Pass in 2020. I will eventually do my boxing, my boxing press conference. It's coming.
What's been the hold up?
In any business there are always things that you don't see coming. Things that you don't expect that you have to deal with, and I've been dealing with that for the last couple of months. I didn't think it was going to be easy to get into boxing, I knew it was going to be tough. That's why I told everybody I'm kind of sticking my big toe in, I'm not diving in head first. I've got my guy ready, he's chomping at the bit to go. I'm just waiting for the right moment.
Still don't want to reveal who that guy is?
Here we are, for the fifth one.
You feeling confident?
Tony keeps doing what he's doing. You can't deny Tony this fight, Tony deserves this fight, and hopefully this one happens.
Khabib has said it's the most important fight in UFC history. His father has said the same thing. How would you characterize the significance of a fight between Khabib and Tony?
The way that you can gauge how big and how meaningful a fight really is is through the fans. The fans are going crazy for this fight. The fans want to see this fight, so it's a big one. Very important. A lot of people believe that Tony Ferguson is the guy to beat Khabib, we're going to find out.
A few months before that, you have Conor McGregor coming back and fighting Cowboy at 170 pounds. That surprised a lot of people. Why is this fight at 170 pounds?
Because Conor wants to fight three times this year. He's hoping that if he beats Cowboy, he can turn right around and fight Khabib, but that timing and math isn't going to work out. But you know Conor. Conor thinks the way Conor thinks. His thing is, I'll fight Cowboy, I'll beat Cowboy, and I'll be ready to fight Khabib at 155 if anything happens, because we're going into Khabib-Tony again. So Conor would be ready for that fight.
If the (Nurmagomedov-Ferguson) fight does stay together, the timing might not work out, because Khabib has Ramadan and he wouldn't be available till summer, would Conor be looking at another fight before then?
I don't know. We're getting through this one first. We're getting through the Cowboy fight. And the level of disrespect shown to Cowboy through this whole thing, apparently people forgot .... Cowboy's lost two in a row before and come back and gone on unbelievable runs. So let's not count Cowboy out.
The reaction I saw, and I saw it from fans, and I definitely saw it from Justin Gaethje, he said, "Why is Conor McGregor going to get a 155-pound title shot if he fights at 170 pounds?" How does that fit in if the fight is at 170 and you're talking about a potential rematch (with Nurmagomedov) at 155?
C'mon guys. Look what Conor has done over the last however many years. And then he loses to Khabib in a fight that was, when you talk about bad blood, it's like next level of bad blood. And Gaethje was on his way up, too. We've offered Gaethje a lot of fights that Gaethje hasn't taken either. So Conor is in line next for this fight if he beats Cowboy.
Do you almost look at it like this is a 155-pound fight but they're just not cutting weight?
One hundred percent. That's exactly what it is. It's a 155-pound fight that they're not cutting weight for. And realistically when Conor said I want to do this fight at 170 and then gave me the reasoning he wanted to do it, I was like, there's no way Cowboy is going to argue with that. Why cut the weight if they both agreed they don't want to cut weight?
Do you think it makes the fight more difficult for Conor, fighting Cowboy at 170?
The other thing is is that Conor has this idea too that if things don't go his way and he gets the fight he'll have had a 170 fight in his pocket again and considering the Masvidal fight.
What do you think about that?
I think everybody knows what I think about it. I think it's a bad idea, but Conor gets pissed off when I say it is a bad idea. He's like "you think I can't beat Masvidal?" and that whole thing. I'm not saying that you can't beat Masvidal, anybody can beat anybody on any given day, but why? Why go after that fight when you could possibly just wait. This is the reason that Conor McGregor is so intriguing and why so many fans love to watch him fight. And you've got to love the fact that a guy is willing to fight anybody. I've said this a million times, I'll say it again, I've been in the trenches and when we're standing in the living room and fights pull out, Conor McGregor will fight anybody.
How about Masvidal? He won the BMF, and you said that was a one-and-done, you had some fun with it, it seemed like it really popular. Would you consider bringing it back, especially if Conor got that fight?
Conor wants that belt from Masvidal.
So we might be looking at more than a one-off?
I don't know. I did it as a one-off, it was fun, it was awesome. We'll see what happens.
Nick (Diaz) came out and did an interview, his first interview in a while, he expressed some interest in fighting. Have you heard from Nick?
Well I haven't, but I know that our matchmakers have. But I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't think Nick Diaz wants to fight. I don't think Nick has that love and that passion for fighting. I think it's sort of a love-hate relationship for him. All the things that Nick has and has done is because of fighting, but I don't think he loves to do it.
If you get the sense or your matchmakers get the sense that he is serious, do you want him to come back? Do you think it's a good idea for Nick Diaz to come back?
That's up to Nick. Nick knows whether he wants to fight or not. There's guys I think should be finished, like I think should retire, because I don't want to see them get hurt. Maybe I feel they can't compete at this level anymore, and there are guys they know whether they want to fight or now. They have to make that decision on their own. This isn't baseball or basketball or one of those sports where you can go out and just half-ass it. You have to be 100 percent in if you come, especially here. If you come to fight in the UFC, these guys are the best in the world, and they're savages that want to become world champions. If you're not in the right mindset, this is not the place for you.
I asked you last month when we were talking about a potential Conor fight -- the New York Times reported that he is being investigated or is the subject of an investigation into sexual assaults in Dublin, and I asked you how does the promotion look at that. He hasn't been charged with anything, but what impact does that have on your decision to book him a fight?
He hasn't been charged with anything. You can't stop a guy's ability to make a living when he hasn't been charged with anything. Has Conor made a lot of bad decisions over the last few years? Unbelievable amount of bad decisions. But everything that he was involved in, the cell phone slapping incident, he pleaded guilty and he paid the guy. The guy that he punched in the bar in Ireland, he pleaded guilty and he settled with the guy. Everything that he's been accused of, he's handled and done, or charged with, I should say. Everything he's been charged with. He hasn't been charged with anything here. How you going to stop a guy from making a living when he hasn't been charged?
Changing gears to look at the other divisions, got a fight for Israel Adesanya yet?
We're looking at Yoel Romeo. He wants that fight. He wants to fight Yoel Romero. Nobody wants to fight Yoel Romero. Nobody's screaming I want Yoel Romero. He is.
Any time frame on that?
Yeah, but we're not announcing it yet.
If Jon Jones gets past Dominick Reyes, do you see anything else at light heavyweight or do you think it's time for Jon Jones to go up to heavyweight?
That's such a massive fight for Jon Jones. Dominick Reyes is a bad boy. And young, hungry, this is going to be a very interesting fight for Jon Jones. Dominick Reyes isn't this big name guy that you know, but if you know fighting, Dominick Reyes is the real deal. And a very tough challenge for Jones. If he gets through this fight, and wins again, Jones is a freak of nature. ... And I don't know about him going to heavyweight, I think he's comfortable at light heavyweight, and every time that you think there's not another challenger for Jon Jones, there's another challenger for Jon Jones. I don't know, we'll have to see how this thing plays out. He has to get through Dominick Reyes first before you even start thinking about heavyweight or anything else.
At heavyweight you have Stipe and DC. I think that's obviously the plan, right?
Incredible fight, the first two were awesome, and we'll button up that trilogy, and then we'll figure out where we go from there.
What was the significance of Zhang Weili winning the belt, coming from that area of the world?
Huge. And she continues to grow over there and become a star. She'll fight and try to defend her belt here in Vegas, is what I want, so we'll see how that plays out. When you have somebody who's from another country and they're on the rise, when you start fighting in Vegas, it makes a big impact on them at home. She just did this show in China where 1.3 billion people watched it. If she can continue to defend that belt, she's going to be a massive star. Maybe one of the biggest stars ever in UFC history.
Floyd Mayweather, what kind of details can you give us on that? You guys sit down at a basketball game, overtime in Los Angeles, who starts the conversation and how did the conversation go?
We both started talking. The easiest way to explain it to you is Floyd and I both feel that we add value to each other, and we're going to figure something out. Some things have to play out, and then I'm going to start talking to [Mayweather's promoter Al] Haymon maybe this summer and then I'll have something for Floyd in the fall.
For him to compete or be a partner?
Compete. The money is in Floyd competing.
In the UFC?
We'll see. We can do some crossover stuff here or we can do something in boxing. Our last experience, Floyd was actually pretty easy to deal with. Haymon is incredible to deal with. Floyd and I got a handshake deal at the basketball game, and we'll get the rest figured out.
What is your general opinion on crossover fights?
I don't love them.
When will Dana White as a promoter put on a crossover fight?
When the demand is there. I felt the demand for McGregor vs. Mayweather, felt it, I knew it would be big, so we started talking. I bumped into 50 Cent in New York, and he said, "Floyd wants to fight your boy." I said, "My boy who?" He's like, "The Irish kid." And I'm like, "He'll kill him," because I'm thinking MMA. He said, "We'll box him." I said, "You guys are crazy." He said, "He's serious. I'll call him right now." And then that's how it all really got started. And then everywhere I went, it was all anybody asked me about. Then once I started to really feel it, that's when I started to take it serious, and I made an offer.
So it would take that kind of demand to ever do it again?
Yeah. The biggest pay-per-view ever, in pay-per-view history. It will be interesting to see if we start to see that kind of demand again with any kind of crossover fight.