UFC president Dana White was recently in Australia to present middleweight champion Robert Whittaker with a GQ Man of the Year Award.
White sat down with ESPN to discuss the UFC's growth in Australia, Fight Night Adelaide, a Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov rematch, his favourite fights of 2018 and plans for the UFC in the future.
How have you seen the growth of the UFC Down Under?
It's been phenomenal. This is a rough and tough country, so they love the UFC here. And every time we've had an event here, the buzz and the energy is insane and the fights are always so good and I believe that it's the fighters feeding off the energy in this country.
Absolutely. I took a shot on the women's fight and doing them out here and they obviously exceeded expectations. It was phenomenal and the event that night was incredible, the crowd was insane; it couldn't have gone any better.
At the same time, we've had a couple of cards in Australia since then that haven't really taken off, namely Fight Night Sydney in 2017 and then UFC 221 in Perth, where Whittaker had to withdraw and then Romero missed weight; so do you recognise that Aussie fight fans won't be taken for a ride either?
That's the type of stuff that happens everywhere we go. When you're dealing with 350 fighters and different personalities and egos, there's always stuff that happens. But one of the things that we always do well is we deliver; we pull something out of the bag of tricks and make it happen. So I think that people who are fans of the UFC have come to learn that no matter what happens with a card, we deliver.
UFC Fight Night in Adelaide is almost upon us. Tai Tuivasa is headlining, he's a guy who's going places. How have you seen his career so far?
I think that he's a talented guy, he's got a ton of potential and this is a big fight for him. Junior Dos Santos is a legend in this sport, he's a former World Champion and if he [Tuivasa] can win this fight it's a big deal for him.
Can Tuivasa win the heavyweight title?
Yeah, I think anything is possible when you hit as hard as he does. He's a powerful guy and has a hard chin, and that's all you need in the heavyweight division.
It's a great card, the thing's almost sold out. That tells us that we delivered the fights that the people want out here in Australia; there's so much up-and-coming talent in this country. It's awesome.
Why do you think that is?
I think that the sport absolutely makes sense here and the people love it. Like I said, this is a tough country and you have these athletes that possibly could have been rugby players or soccer players or whatever it might be, and they decided to become fighters because they love the sport and you're going to see more of that. I think you're going to see so much talent [emerge]; if you really look at how small this country is and the percentage of talent that's coming out of it and into UFC, [it's] very impressive.
How much of it do you think it has to deal with the fact that you allow your fighters to be themselves, where perhaps in our other Australian sports the media bubble prevents that?
We don't do that here, we don't tell anybody how to act. You are who you are. Whether it's a very quiet, humble guy like [Robert] Whittaker or Israel Adesanya, who's very outspoken and confident or whatever you want to call him. But we don't tell people how to act, you are who you are, and people know when somebody's being real. I think the fans appreciate that.
What about Mark Hunt then, he's a guy who's had some issues in with the UFC; but inside the Octagon surely you realise his role in growing the sport in this corner of the world?
I've never had any problem with Hunt, inside or outside the Octagon. I like Mark Hunt and I've always said good things about Mark Hunt. He goes a little bit off the rails every now and again, but I've never done anything but respect Mark Hunt.
You mentioned Israel Adesanya there before, he's fresh off another impressive win, how do you see his progression from here?
I think this kid has incredible star potential and I think he's going to be one of the biggest stars in the world. His fighting style is incredible; he's a good looking kid; he speaks really well and he's fun to watch.
With Idesanya fighting out of New Zealand, is that another market you are hoping to grow?
Absolutely, and Australia and New Zealand are aligned, they're very supportive of each other and I think he'll be big in Australia as well.
What about the chances then of a Whittaker-Adesanya match-up?
Yeah, obviously everything has to line up. But if things align, then I'm always looking to put the best against the best and break records, and do the biggest events that we can possibly do.
Does it have to be at an indoor stadium, or is there a way to construct an Octagon outdoors?
Outdoor stadiums scare me to death. I was here yesterday, I flew in yesterday; the weather was perfect. Today it's rainy and terrible out; the weather is too scary to do an outdoor arena.
You've just announced Whittaker's title defence for Melbourne early next year. Whittaker helped put the UFC on the map down here; how have you seen his progression?
Definitely, I've like him since I saw him on the Ultimate Fighter. I always believed in him and that he had the potential to become a world champion. He has a fighting style that people love; he loves to stop the takedown and he likes to stand and bang, and every punch he throws has bad intentions. He's a fun guy to watch and he's the perfect style for the Australian market, too.
How does he line up against Adesanya, if that fight was to come to fruition down the road?
You never know, obviously Israel is a freak talent. His style is unbelievable. But anything is possible in a fight, you don't know until the best fight the best who wins.
Is Whittaker a tougher fighter to promote from your side of things, given that he doesn't typically run his mouth off like many other fighters?
I'd like to see him do a little more PR than he does. But I get it, he's a humble guy, he's quiet, he's a family guy; he likes to stay home and take care of his family. I think that there's a lot of people who respect that, too. But listen, people don't tune in to watch him talk. People tune in to watch him fight, and tell me the last boring fight you saw Robert Whittaker in? The guys brings it, his style is exciting and he tries to take you out. So I'll take that over talking any day of the week.
What about his fight with Kelvin Gastelum in Melbourne then, what excites you about UFC 234?
I am, I'm very excited. Stylistically, it's a great fight because everything that I said about Robert Whittaker, his opponent fights the same way. Gastelum stops the takedown and likes to throw punches with bad intentions, and likes to knock people out. So there's no way in hell this fight is boring.
What about globally? Who do you think can really step up and really go to the elite level in 2019?
I think that we have a lot of up-and-coming guys. We're talking about the middleweight division; just from the middleweight division you have Robert Whittaker; you have Israel Adesanya, you have Jared Cannonie, who just looked incredible in his last fight; you have Paulo Costa; Jacare Souza just won in impressive fashion. That's just the middleweight division alone and then we were talking earlier about the heavyweights that are up and coming right now; there's a lot of exciting stuff going on in the UFC in every division.
What about a favorite fight of 2018 then?
Well I just got done with Korean Zombie [Chan Sung Jung] versus Jair Rodriguez in one of the sickest fights you'll ever see and the most incredible finish in combat sports history. And now I'm looking forward to Jon Jones coming back and fighting at the end of this year. We're finally lining the women up, the two best women in the world, the two baddest women in the world: The 135-pound champion Amanda Nunes is taking on the 145-pound champion in Cris Cyborg. The fights that we've had this year have been amazing and the end of the year is incredible, too.
What about a standout performance or victory from 2018?
I think you'd have to look at the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov fight; [it] broke records, incredible fight, Khabib wins, which sets up possible fights with Tony [Ferguson] and [Dustin] Poirier and Conor [rematch]; like I said in every division I could crack out two or three different things that are fun and exciting for either the end of this year or next year.
Conor's coach is already out there saying the rematch will happen, how important is it for you to get that fight done?
I don't know if the immediate rematch happens because we got to see what the Nevada State Athletic Commission hands down in December when that hearing happens. So I'm not even thinking about that, I'm thinking about possibilities in the future but, right now, not even worth thinking about until we find out what happens in Nevada.
You say you don't tell guys how to behave, but surely there would have to be some sort behavioural guidelines set for a Conor-Khabib rematch to ensure there wasn't a repeat of the dramatic scenes from Vegas?
Well my philosophy on this stuff is that this a fight. Since the beginning of time people have said mean things to each other in a fight, no matter what. Muhammad Ali called Joe Frazier an Uncle Tom, back when that was one of the worst things you could say to a guy. He called him a gorilla; 'it's gonna be a thriller and a chiller when I get the gorilla in Manilla,' and things like that. And for the rest of his life, he [Frazier] hated Muhammad Ali, hated him for the things that he said about him. This is not the nice business, this is the fight business, this wasn't the first time that mean things were said to another person and it won't be the last.
What about boxing, Dana? Do you want to take out boxing, do you want to be completely dominant in the combat sports arena?
Yeah, I'm looking to get into boxing. But I love that there's fights like that [Jeff Horn vs Anthony Mundine] going on out here like that and a guy like Horn has the ability to make some money and fight in his home country in front of his countrymen. I love stuff like that. So would I like to get into boxing? Yeah, because I know I can do it better than its being done right now and I know I can create more opportunities for fighters.
What does UFC look like then, say, 10 years down the track?
We're going to continue to go into markets that we've never been in, continue to grow the sport, continue to cultivate talent and the whole landscape of television is changing and I feel like we're ahead of the curve on that, too. And people are impressed by what we've done in the last 18 years, wait to you see what we do in the next five.