BOSTON (AP) — Dana White is looking for a staircase. He remembers there are steps leading to the gym he once rehabilitated, around the corner from the justice building where Will Hunting made a mockery of the court. Had you not known White was UFC’s maestro of mayhem, he’d be mistaken for just another Southie. Bald, Patriots jacket and T-shirt, poking around for a way into a building without an invitation. But it’s Boston, so of course, White knows a guy.
The keys soon arrive — and so do a few stragglers who notice the UFC president, take snapshots and lobby the leader of a $4 billion company on future fights.
White could be one of them, because for 10 years he was one — a Southie just trying to stay afloat in his adopted hometown. He worked as a bellhop, wheelbarrowed asphalt and busted up bar fights as a bouncer. A 20-something White even scrapped his way out of a job at the Black Rose.
“I actually got fired for fighting over there,” he said, laughing.
But the path from barroom brawler to blossoming businessman started at McDonough Gym. White had befriended a former Golden Gloves champion named Peter Welch and together they turned barren space into a boxing gym. They sparred and trained kids and White knew a better life was ahead.
They are still close and Welch has since opened his own boxing gym.
“He’s done very well for himself. He’s got a huge gym a couple of blocks down the street,” White says.
“Please,” Welch said. “Pale in comparison to what this guy did.”
All White did was use his street-smart Boston savvy to turn UFC from a dying brand to a multibillion dollar industry. Much like in his early jobs, White did the heavy lifting.
White’s triumphant return last week to Boston for the UFC pay-per-view event at TD Garden was a sublime blend of his roots and present day reality: Eating steak tips with his “goons” at a Southie pub then sitting courtside at a Celtics game with the team owner.
But as he walked into McDonough for the first time in 23 years, White’s mouth was agape when he saw how the gym he built had become a community rec center.
White was just a wannabe boxing trainer begging for a break when he was introduced to Welch by a mutual friend.
“I just figured it was another guy who was interested in getting punched around until they feel what it was like to get hit,” Welch said. “This guy, he wasn’t that guy. He took his first beating and kept coming back.”
White’s taste for the squared circle dried up the day he saw a punchy pugilist stumble around a heavy bag.
“I remember looking at him thinking … what if it happens to me,” White said. “The minute you think that to yourself, you’re not a real fighter.”
White sits in an SUV when his phone rings. Sure, UFC 220 is a sellout, but there’s room for three-time New England Patriots Super Bowl champion Willie McGinest.
“No problem,” White responds.
White calls the person who will actually leave McGinest tickets, then finds out when he should be at TD Garden for the ceremonial weigh-ins.
The press conference turns testy when White is prodded about why sidelined superstar Conor McGregor hasn’t been stripped of his lightweight championship. Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic stirs the pot a night later by snatching his belt from White, refusing to let White wrap it around his waist as tradition dictates.
Even homecomings have headaches.
Still, the 48-year-old White never considered cashing out on the company he ruthlessly built into a juggernaut that sold for $4 billion in July 2016.
“Why would I do anything else?” White asked. “The day I walked out of the Boston Harbor hotel, it wasn’t about the money. That’s the job guys die for. It still isn’t about the money for me. But the money came.”
White bristles at criticism that UFC has leveled off with the absences of stars such as McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones by noting — thanks in large part to its hefty cut of the crossover McGregor-Floyd Mayweather Jr. boxing fight that grossed more than $600 million — the company had its best financial year in 2017.
“And now we’re having the best first quarter,” White said. “When you look at the growth of the sport, we haven’t even scratched the surface of how big this thing can be.”
White used to tour newsrooms to plead his case for more UFC coverage. Now, the promotion gets more people to fork over $70 for a weekend pay-per-view than fans who watch a typical NHL game or IndyCar race for free on the same night.
White might have never split for Las Vegas had he not been the target of a shakedown by a reputed Boston mobster named Kevin Weeks. Weeks, a longtime confidant to notorious crime boss Whitey Bulger, barged in on White’s training session at the Boxing Athletic Club seeking protection money.
When the crew called White at his home and demanded cash in 24 hours, he decided to bolt Beantown.
“I hung up the phone, picked it back up and got a one-way ticket back to Vegas,” White said.
White was back in his element with a seat to watch the Patriots play in the AFC championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He pulled out his phone to show a video of the entire White family sitting among Patriots fans who never left the stadium when they trailed Atlanta 28-3 in the Super Bowl last year. He’s raised his kids as Boston sports fans, and the Super Bowl is just one more title to add to the collection.
“They don’t know what losing is,” White said.
Neither does White, anymore.
Unlike the Patriots, he just had to leave New England to find out.
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