Few soundbites have haunted Dana White so regularly throughout his tenure as UFC president as a 20-second TMZ clip captured outside an LA restaurant back in 2011. In the video, White answers a question about Cain Velasquez’s return from injury, before getting asked “When are we going to see women in the UFC?” His answer, delivered with a laugh, could not have been more succinct.
Two years later, the UFC hosted its first ever women’s MMA bout. A main event fight between newly minted champion Ronda Rousey—her title ported over from Strikeforce with the UFC’s acquisition of the rival promotion—taking on Liz Carmouche. The years since have seen the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion host hundreds of women’s MMA matches. Today the Endeavor-owned fight organization hosts four women’s divisions and more than 100 female athletes.
On a recent episode of the BASIC! When Cable Was Cool podcast, White sat down with former Viacom and Spike TV executive Doug Herzog to talk about the UFC’s rise to TV prominence. Along the way he got onto the topic of women’s MMA and the journey White went on, in going from ‘never’ to making female athlete’s a cornerstone of the UFC brand.
“So, one of the things that you have to remember at the time—there’s a very famous clip of me on TMZ, I’m getting out of a restaurant in LA, and they’re asking me, ‘When are women going to fight in the UFC? And I look in the camera and I say, ‘Never,’” White explained, setting the stage for his story on the UFC and women’s MMA. “At this time, I’m trying to get people to accept man fighting in a cage! Right?”
“I went to a fight up in northern California, once, where there was a horrible mismatch between women. And I was like, ‘Oh, my god.’ And listen, I’m not gonna lie, there’s a little bit of that—being a man—little chauvinistic; in that, ‘Women are pretty, women are—bwah, you don’t wanna see women get beat up, you don’t wanna see—’ In a million years, I never saw this coming; where these women would be so technical, and so tough, and so badass. I mean, the women that we have now, in the UFC? There’s a lot of things I saw coming, I didn’t see that one coming. That’s for damn sure.”
White may not have been at all prepared for the idea of women competing inside the Octagon, but—as he’s often repeated—the rise of Ronda Rousey in Strikeforce was a major game changer.
“But the thing that changed everything was, I met Ronda Rousey,” White explained. “Ronda Rousey manifested all these things that have happened. And I had a meeting with her one day, and halfway through the meeting I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I think I’m gonna do this. And I think she’s the one to do it with. And thank god I was right.”
Surprisingly enough, after that meeting and White’s growing interest in bringing women to the UFC, the longtime promoter revealed that he got no push-back whatsoever from FOX executives or anyone else in the UFC front office. According to him, it was fans who held all the resistance to the idea.
“No,” White answered when asked if he had trouble convincing other top brass to bring women to the UFC. “But, I think that you hear these things about—and this is coming from a man’s point of view—you know, ‘Women aren’t treated the same as men. Women aren’t this and that.’ All this other stuff. And I was always like [chuckles] ‘You know, maybe there’s some of this and some of that.’ Until I headlined Ronda Rousey above Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida and people lost their fucking minds. I was getting these messages from people, like, ‘You piece of shit. You dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I never realized this existed because it’s never happened to me, you know what I mean?
“So once I headlined Ronda Rousey I was like, ‘Wow, man.’ I never realized there would be this kind of blow-back from these lunatics out there. Then, that night, we were in Anaheim; when she walked out of that tunnel in that arena, I knew I made the right decisions. Sold out, two women fighting in a main event.
“If you look at women’s boxing—before I did my first women’s fight, you looked at women’s boxing and it was more sort of a sideshow type thing,” he continued. “When Ronda Rousey walked out of that tunnel that night? The entire arena erupted. I get goosebumps even telling the fricking story. The entire arena erupted. And the fight, it was incredible. She was one her way to not only being the biggest superstar in the sport, but the highest paid. Pretty badass.”
Beyond just coming around on one star, or simply the idea that female athletes could be a profitable presence in the fight business, White admits that the whole experience gave him a new perspective on the sexism that women face in their everyday lives.
“I have learned my lesson, believe me. I have learned my lesson,” White admitted. “We live and learn, and I have learned. It’s true.”