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November 28, 2014

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Two sides of the octagon: White, Fertitta are opposites who’ve built UFC into something big

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Steve Marcus

UFC President Dana White, left, and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta were acquaintances in high school, but became fast friends years later at chance meeting at a wedding when they bonded over their enjoyment of combat sports.

Framed pictures showing fighters before and after competition line the main hallway in the executive wing of the UFC’s offices. The shots illuminate the character contrasts required to excel at the highest level of mixed martial arts.

Five ways the UFC is ahead of the curve of other leagues

The UFC has changed the face of fighting — and sports in general.

Last year, Sports Business International gave its esteemed Sports Innovator of the Year award to UFC President Dana White, adding to a collection of accolades hailing White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta as mixed martial arts visionaries.

What makes them so cutting-edge?

• 1. A network television contract. The UFC in 2011 signed a seven-year deal with Fox worth a reported $700 million. Fertitta had said that fight promoters’ biggest failure was failing to find a way to “sell their content in bulk.”

• 2. Debuting Fight Pass. White and Fertitta launched the UFC’s own digital network late last year. For $7.99 to $9.99 a month, fans can access tons of content, including the UFC’s fight library and live streams of commission meetings. UFC Fight Pass also will show six exclusive live events this year and a variety of original programming.

• 3. Embracing gambling. While most professional sports leagues go to drastic lengths to distance themselves from sports betting, the UFC showcases it. Within the past year, the UFC incorporated betting lines into its fight broadcasts.

• 4. Providing insurance for fighters. The UFC three years ago became the first promotion ever to buy insurance for its entire roster of fighters, covering both in- and out-of-competition injuries. The UFC pays all of the premiums for hundreds of policies through the Houston Casualty Insurance Company.

• 5. Banking on reality TV. “The Ultimate Fighter” reality television show saved the UFC from near extinction when it debuted in 2005, culminating in an all-time great fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. Although some say the format has grown dull — White himself said the latest season, No. 19, was the worst in the franchise’s history — it still has managed to survive nearly a decade.

Former champions and current employees Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin flash unblemished expressions in one set, then strike the same pose in an adjacent portrait, only this time with faces tarnished from battle.

The greatest display of the sport’s yin and yang, however, comes in the two offices the wall helps divide. There’s the space that belongs to Dana White, the UFC’s brash president, and the space for Lorenzo Fertitta, the UFC’s reserved CEO.

“That’s one of the secrets to our success,” Fertitta practically whispered as he lounged on his couch at the UFC headquarters. “We are opposite on everything. He literally can’t sit through a meeting. I’ll sit down and have four straight meetings.”

White scooted up to the edge of his chair and finished Fertitta’s thought for him.

“And truthfully, all the (expletive) he can’t stand, I do,” White’s voice boomed. “It’s not like we sit down and say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do, and here’s what I’m going to do.’ It just sort of all falls into place.”

Together, White and Fertitta — along with Lorenzo’s older brother Frank Fertitta III, who also co-owns the UFC but rarely involves himself in day-to-day operations — have pulled off something no one thought possible when they purchased the UFC for $2 million 13 years ago. They have built a multibillion-dollar, worldwide sports franchise in Las Vegas.

Although they’re both quick to acknowledge those who have helped along the way, White and Fertitta also believe it never would have played out this way without the balance of each other.

“What’s really truly rare in a relationship like this, with ups and downs, egos and everything that goes into it, is we never fight,” White said. “We never fight or argue. We don’t ever get to that point. Nothing is worth it.”

White and Fertitta often are referenced as high-school buddies. That’s an over-simplification of their teenage relationship, though.

Both White and Fertitta described themselves as having been “cool” with each other as students in the mid-1980s at Bishop Gorman High where they ran in the same circles, but they were never close. There was a reason they hadn’t spoken in nearly a decade before a chance encounter at a mutual friend’s wedding highlighted their shared passion for combat sports.

“To be honest, we had a lot more in common after school than in school,” White said. “I (expletive) hated school. I wasn’t going to college no matter what. I got kicked out of Gorman twice. Lorenzo was the role model, A-student, football player going on to college and college after college.”

Fertitta can’t remember a day when they haven’t spoken since their random run-in. More often, they chat multiple times a day.

If White and Fertitta aren’t together, as often is the case with their globetrotting schedules, they call each other after every conversation with a fighter or partner.

“There isn’t a single thing I don’t tell him, even the stupid stuff,” White said. “I just think about if something were to ever happen to me, I want him to have all the information.”

Communication has worked that way since the first day they started running the UFC together. White and Fertitta noticed the complementary nature of their skills and experiences immediately.

“I learned a lot from him on how to deal with fighters, how to put fights together, because I came from a different path,” Fertitta said. “And from a business and strategy standpoint ...”

White picked up mid-sentence for Fertitta.

“I learned everything from him,” White said. “I was running gyms. I was dealing with a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, and then I go to billions.”

White and Fertitta consider foresight one of their strongest shared attributes. They’ve spent most of the afternoon planning the future ­— not the next couple of fight cards but where they envision the UFC standing in 2017 and 2018.

They raved over confidential ideas they trust could continue to revolutionize mixed martial arts, ideas that began on conflicting ends from radical points of view but slowly converged.

“People see the surface stuff, but people don’t realize how hard we worked to get there,” White said.

This time, Fertitta finished.

“We both bring something very different to the table, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a great dynamic,” he said. “We bounce stuff off each other, respect each other’s opinion and come to a consensus.”

INTERNATIONAL FIGHT WEEK

Fertitta rattled off a laundry list of martial arts-centric events taking place next week during International Fight Week: Amateur MMA at the Cox Pavilion, professional Muay Thai at the Palms, open workouts at Fashion Show Mall.

“The vision for this and the way it’s starting to evolve is making this week the epicenter of martial arts around the world in Las Vegas,” Fertitta said.

The UFC fights always will serve as the linchpin for the Fourth of July weekend in Las Vegas, especially this year. For the first time, the UFC will stage back-to-back cards Saturday and Sunday.

To get a sense of how big the event projects to be this year, consider that many people call women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey the biggest star in the UFC, and she’s not in a headlining role. Rousey will try to defend her title for a fourth time in the co-main event of UFC 175 against Alexis Davis on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

Chris Weidman, who defeated Anderson Silva for the first of two times in the headliner of last year’s Fourth of July pay-per-view, faces Lyoto Machida in the middleweight championship main event.

The octagon will stay intact Sunday, when a trilogy of fights between B.J. Penn and Frankie Edgar will conclude in the headliner of “The Ultimate Fighter” 19 finale.

With at least 18 more fights scheduled across the two cards, plus the UFC Fan Expo and other outings, International Fight Week is turning into the “fight fan’s dream” Fertitta intended.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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