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Volume 23 No. 14
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UFC president: ‘I’m not done’

After nearly a week of working through the night on what has been billed as the largest sports sale ever, WME-IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel told one of his new business partners that he intended to be in Las Vegas to watch UFC 200 and then head off to Europe on vacation.

“He’s called me 44 times since he’s been on vacation,” said UFC President Dana White, who will retain his high-profile role under terms of the sale. “Ari is going to come in and change everything with this new [rights] deal. I think Ari is going to sell this deal in ways that we wouldn’t have. He’ll monetize it all in ways we wouldn’t have.

“We put on fights. This is what Ari does. Even though Ari was our agent, this wasn’t Ari’s company.”

It wasn’t until two days before UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta signed off on the sale that White became convinced that it would become Emanuel’s company.

“In deals that massive, with all these things connecting, one little term in the sheet can blow the whole deal,” White said. “That’s why it hit me so hard when it did happen. Because I really didn’t believe it would.”

While the UFC’s owners have spoken of suitors offering upward of $1 billion for the company for the last five years, the offer that they finally accepted far exceeded previous ones, White said. Initial talks stemmed from the UFC’s interest in adding investors who would help it expand internationally, White said, a description Lorenzo Fertitta confirmed in an email informing employees of the sale on July 11.

In that email, Fertitta explained that, while always willing to listen to offers, the brothers never had been presented with one that would compel them to step away entirely: The right price, from the right suitor at the right time.

In recent weeks, that offer came from the agency headed by Emanuel, who has represented the UFC in all its U.S. TV deals since 2005. About a month ago, White said, talks intensified to the point that Fertitta stepped away from the daily operation of the company. When news of the talks leaked, White dealt with the internal fallout while trying to put on what he hoped would be the most lucrative event in UFC history.

“We had UFC 200 coming up, plus I’m trying to deal with all my employees as they’re hearing the rumors,” he said. “It was very disruptive. Awful. The worst.”

Though well compensated through the sale of an undisclosed percentage of his 9 percent of the company, along with a lucrative five-year contract to remain in his role, White said he initially struggled with the sale, deflated by the breakup of a trio that dates to his days as a high school classmate of younger Fertitta brother Lorenzo.

It was White who convinced the casino-operating Fertittas to buy the then-struggling mixed martial arts promotion for $2 million in 2001. The brothers offered him sweat equity to run it. In 2004, with the company bleeding out, Lorenzo Fertitta phoned White with news that his brother Frank wanted them to find a buyer. When the best offer White could find was for $4 million, Lorenzo convinced his brother to allow them one last Hail Mary: A reality show called “The Ultimate Fighter” that they would pay to produce and air on Spike.

The show connected with a hard-to-reach audience of young males, setting the UFC — and the two old friends — off on their meteoric rise.

White’s public persona — street-tough, brash and combative — turned out to be the ideal yin to the yang of Lorenzo Fertitta, who was schooled not only in martial arts but at NYU’s business school. White lit up the airwaves and the Twittersphere. Fertitta made sure the numbers added up and got the sports business world to take the upstart property seriously.

White said he never envisioned continuing in the venture without Fertitta until the deal took that turn in the days leading up to UFC 200.

“Lorenzo knew that I was having a hard time with it emotionally,” White said. “The whole game-changer was when he looked at me … and said, ‘Be happy for me. This is what I want. I’m done.’ That was when I changed my whole way of thinking about it. Why would I want my partner to hang around when he’s done? I’m not done. I’m so far from done.

“Me and Lorenzo are in different places.”