UFC CEO Dana White on ‘Misconceptions’ About His Friend Donald Trump, ESPN Renewal Talks, New Roku Docuseries and More

Dana White, chief executive of UFC, is one of the stars of the new Roku original docuseries “Fight Inc.: Inside the UFC,” touted as an “unprecedented” insider’s look at the company, marking its 30th anniversary.

Earlier this month, White — a well-known supporter of Donald Trump — played a starring role in different production: Trump’s first TikTok video. Following footage of the ex-president greeting fans at UFC 302 in Newark, N.J., on June 1, the video shows White with Trump backstage at the fight. “The president is now on TikTok,” White says. “It’s my honor,” says Trump.

More from Variety

White, in an interview with Variety to promote Roku’s “Fight Inc.,” didn’t answer a question about why Trump — who is running again for U.S. president in 2024 against President Biden — is the best candidate for the office. Instead, he spoke about Trump as a longtime friend, going back to 2001 when Trump agreed to have UFC 30 hosted at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

“There’s lots of misconceptions about Donald Trump,” White said. “I’ve had this incredible relationship with him for many years… You know, when we first bought [UFC], the stigma was so bad with the UFC that venues didn’t even want us. He reached out, cut a deal, showed up to the first fight, stayed to the last fight.”

“You know, politics is very dirty. A lot of bad things are said about him, and all I can tell you is in my almost 25-year relationship with Donald Trump, he’s been an incredible friend,” White said. “Amazing. He’s as stand-up as you can get, and I’m obviously a huge supporter and a very close friend of his.”

White spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention (after having done so in 2016 as well), where he said in part that “it’s critically important to re-elect President Trump,” whom he praised as “one of the most loyal human beings I have ever met” and claimed that, “Before the pandemic, President Trump built the greatest economy in our nation’s history and created opportunities for all Americans like no one before him.” Trump was accused of trying to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and instigating his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Among his other legal issues, Trump was found guilty of 34 felony fraud charges by a Manhattan jury in late May.

Today, mixed martial arts is a mainstream sport and the UFC is a billion-dollar business, posting $1.3 billion in revenue last year. Since 2019, UFC’s pay-per-view fights have been exclusively available in the U.S. through Disney’s ESPN+ streaming platform. ESPN also has linear TV rights to UFC events. That deal runs through 2025. Regarding the prospect of renewing the ESPN deal, White said, “We’re obviously in talks and figuring out what’s next. You know, what’s the next chapter for UFC as far as television goes.”

“I love being with ESPN right now. I like the working relationship that we have with them, but you never know,” White said. “We’ll see how this thing plays out as we get into negotiations.”

White said, “I’ve had my battles with [ESPN] over the last however many years we’ve been in business together and I think because of that, the relationship has gotten incredibly stronger.” He explained, “It was our first run with ESPN getting together, you know, two massive machines coming together and the thing that’s different about us than the other sports that they have is every we do everything in-house. I do my own production. You know, when you do a deal with ESPN, Fox and some of these other networks, they come in and do all the production… We’ve run into some roadblocks. We butt heads a little bit here and there [but] I feel like I’ve been through all of that with ESPN now and we are in a incredible place. We work very well together.”

About “Fight Inc.,” for which White served as one of the executive producers, he said, “There’s no storyline. It was our 30-year anniversary. It’s literally just basically reality TV… Everything that went on was real.” After months of shooting, “there was tons of of behind the scenes stuff that was cut out of it because you only have so much time. But there was nothing that I was really like, ‘Oh god, let let’s not air this.'”

“Fight Inc.” is the first time the UFC has allowed filmmakers to show its behind-the-scenes matchmaking process of pairing fighters, according to White. “It’s almost like the secret sauce that I don’t like people really looking into, but it’s the coolest part of the business,” he said.

The Roku docuseries shows only a small portion of UFC’s scope, according to White. “We have 562 employees worldwide, 412 of them are in Vegas,” he said. “So what you saw in this Roku doc is a sliver of how big this company is and how it really operates.”

In 2016, Endeavor (then called WMG/IMG) acquired UFC for $4 billion. At the time, “all the majors, all the big players out there, came and kicked the tires” on UFC, White said. “Ari [Emanuel, CEO of Endeavor] was just the one who ended up getting the deal done.”

Last year, Endeavor merged UFC and WWE under the publicly traded TKO Group Holdings. Meanwhile, Endeavor has set a $13 billion go-private deal with Silver Lake, expected to close in early 2025, while TKO will remain public.

Asked how the different ownership structures have changed — or will change — the way UFC does business, White said, “None of that stuff affects us at all… We do the exact same thing we did before TKO.” The advantage in pooling UFC and WWE is they can gain economies of scale, and the UFC team has helped WWE boost its sponsorship deals, he said. “Ari now has this powerful machine that we can come in on Saturday and do a UFC event, and Sunday or Monday the same city could do WWE. Two totally different demographics,” White said.

In March, TKO disclosed that it will pay $335 million to settle two class-action lawsuits filed by former UFC fighters alleging the company violated antitrust laws by paying UFC fighters less than they were entitled to receive and eliminating or harming other MMA promoters. Asked about the settlement and whether UFC treats its talent differently now, White said, “This type of lawsuit is what happens when you become successful… I run my business exactly the same as I always have.”

“Fight Inc.,” which premiered June 7 on the free, ad-supported Roku Channel, comprises three 48-minute episodes. The series chronicles key storylines featuring the UFC’s biggest stars, including former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, as he prepared to return after a three-year hiatus; the rise of Sean O’Malley, as he fought for the bantamweight title; and the “greatest female fighter ever,” Amanda Nunes, as she headlined an event “fraught with challenges for the UFC team.”

Why didn’t UFC release a documentary about itself on its own platforms, or through ESPN? White said the company could have done so, but that Roku had reached out about the project. “We flew out there and met with those guys” — including Roku Media president Charlie Collier and head of originals Brian Tannenbaum — “and I liked them, and they’re the guys I wanted to do it,” White said.

The docuseries logline says it follows White and UFC amid “the euphoric highs and crushing lows of the fight business.”

Asked what the “crushing lows” were, White said, “Injuries. You plan a big fight, you spend a lot of money on marketing, the whole machine gets into motion. Then a fight falls out — and you see how we have to scramble… We have to go backwards now and redo everything that was already built, tear stuff down, remake posters, and, you know, billboards and commercials have to be redone.”

Said White, “The highest of the highs are when you build a great card, it’s super successful and it goes off exactly the way you planned it to go. The lowest of the lows are the things you saw when a fight falls apart.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.