“Oh, I’m so pumped for this fight. So pumped.”
Dana White is on the phone from Los Angeles, a couple hours before boarding his late-night flight to New York City for UFC 230. Weigh-ins and staredowns are forthcoming at Madison Square Garden, but the lead-up to Saturday’s main event—reigning champion Daniel Cormier vs. knockout artist/meme enthusiast Derrick Lewis for the heavyweight belt—has been cordial and uneventful, save for Lewis’s half-baked insistence that Cormier disrespected fried chicken.
Certainly, there has been none of the same venom spewed prior to UFC 229 in Las Vegas, where Khabib Nurmagomedov defended his lightweight title by submitting Conor McGregor before defending his honor by leaping into the crowd to attack one of McGregor’s cronies. Later that night, White appeared in the press conference room looking fatigued and embarrassed. “This is not what we’re about,” the UFC president told reporters. “This is not how we act. It’s unfortunate that the night the most people are watching, this s—show goes on.”
Looking back—predictably enough, of course—the cage-side skirmish kept UFC in the mainstream discussion long after it would’ve disappeared if McGregor had simply tapped and that was that. Then there was the post-fight interview given by Lewis, who first went viral for knocking out Alexander with 11 seconds to spare, and then for telling everyone about the temperature of his testes. No doubt this helped him score the short-notice opportunity to fight Cormier, a UFC legend who plans to retire after his 40th birthday next March 20.
Three days until the card kicks off, White spoke with SI.com about Cormier’s cemented legacy, Lewis’s unique knockout power, the ongoing ramifications of the McGregor-Nurmagomedov brawl and the story that he always tells about now-deceased Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger.
Sports Illustrated: Break it down for me.
Dana White: The main event?
DW: Well, Cormier, obviously, coming off his win over Stipe [Miocic], and he’s undefeated as a heavyweight, going against Derrick Lewis. This guy is always in the fight, man. He swings for the fences, tries to knock you out. And if he catches you, he usually does.
He’s very fun, tough, durable. I think it’s going to be interesting.
SI: Is it nice to have a main card where the biggest beef is about fried chicken?
DW: Yeah, that is hilarious. That is funny. Popeyes should be loving that s—, right? I mean, come on. Incredible.
SI: It does seem that there’s a respect between these two guys, that they recognize how each came up.
DW: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think everyone respects Daniel Cormier. He’s such a good guy, such an intelligent guy, and just so badass. His only loss ever in his career is to Jon Jones, who I believe is the best ever, and he’s never lost at heavyweight.
SI: Two questions, then. First, what is his legacy as it stands today? And what does it become if he defends the heavyweight title twice and then retires by his birthday, as he’s said?
DW: I think Cormier’s one of the greatest to ever do it. Two-time, two-division world champion. Not only what he’s accomplished in the octagon, as a broadcaster I think he’s incredible, calling the fights with Rogan in the booth. I think this guy’s talented on so many different levels.
SI: I think it’s amazing that he’s also a high school coach.
DW: That too. When you talk about somebody being your world champion, you couldn’t ask for a better human being than Daniel Cormier.
SI: What do you think that says about him?
DW: Like this guy doesn’t have enough s–t to do, being the champ at the UFC and all the broadcasting stuff, for him to carve out time away from his family to do that too, just again speaks about him as a human being and a world champion.
SI: Put his career arc into context. How unique is it to have gone from heavyweight to light heavy and back, championships in both at the same time, at his age?
DW: I was going to say, forget all that other stuff, just the fact that he’s still competing at this level at his age and still is one of the absolute best in the world in two weight classes is incredible in itself, let alone all the other s–t he’s accomplishing.
SI: Is this a risky fight for him?
DW: Every fight’s risky. But at the end of the day, he’s doing what a champion does. He’s fighting the number two guy in the world. He’s faced everybody at light heavyweight, then comes to fight Stipe Miocic, finishes him in the first round, and he’s fighting the number two contender right now, a guy who just knocked out Volkov the way that he did.
SI: At what point was it decided that this was going to be the date Daniel defended?
DW: We were having trouble with that New York card. And he is and always has been my go-to guy. I needed him and he said absolutely, I’ll fight, let’s do it.
SI: And how does Derrick get picked?
DW: Derrick wanted the quick turnaround too. I think that’s what makes the fight so fun too, these guys are both so badass taking this fight on a month’s notice.
SI: What was your reaction to the Volkov knockout?
DW: Holy s–t, like the rest of the people watching when he caught him. But you could see that Derrick was loading up, trying to do everything that he could to land that big punch.
SI: Given where Derrick came from, and how he fights, would he be the most unlikely heavyweight champ that UFC has seen, if he won?
DW: Yeah, yeah. I think so. At the end of the day, when you’re dealing with heavyweights who can punch, anything is possible. When you’ve got a big heavyweight who has knockout power, anything’s possible. Look at what George Foreman did to Michael Moorer. No matter his age, he hits so hard that he’s always in a fight.
SI: Do you remember when you first caught wind of this fighter named Derrick Lewis?
DW: Off the top of my head, when these guys get into UFC and I start to see them fight, that’s when I really notice them. And I can’t remember exactly what fight it was, but I said, wow, this guy’s fun.
SI: Do you have a “My Balls Was Hot” T-shirt?
DW: I do not. [laughing]
SI: Do you think that contributed to his appeal for this fight?
DW: Um, his interviews are always interesting. And he does have the best Instagram on Instagram. The guy has a great personality. He’s fun to watch, and fun to listen to interviews.
SI: Why is this fight appealing on a technical level?
DW: People love the heavyweights. There’s no way in hell this fight isn’t exciting. You can’t ask for anything more than a heavyweight fight. Sometimes you can have guys whose style isn’t very appealing, but both of these guys have appealing styles with knockout power.
SI: Is the plan still for Brock Lesnar to fight Cormier down the line?
DW: Eventually, yeah.
SI: Is that locked down yet? Got a date targeted?
DW: I don’t. Next year, for sure.
SI: What were the final pay per view numbers from UFC 229?
DW: Yep. Did very well. One of the biggest pay per views of all time, and not just UFC. I mean ever.
SI: Where does it rank?
DW: Number four or number five. Over 2 million pay per view buys.
SI: What’s the latest on the Khabib Nurmagomedov investigation from the athletic commission?
DW: December is the hearing.
SI: What are your expectations?
DW: I don’t know. I know what I’m hoping. Six months is what I’m hoping.
SI: Did the UFC also levy any internal penalties?
DW: No, it’s all in the hands of the commission.
SI: Last one. Did you get any closure with Bulger’s death?
DW: [Laughs] No, no, my thing wasn’t with Bulger. It was with one of his guys.
SI: You showed up in a lot of headlines yesterday.
DW: Did I really? That’s hilarious. People love that f—ing story, but it wasn’t with Whitey.
SI: What’s the story?
DW: The story was this guy Kevin Weeks, who was Whitey’s right-hand man. … Did you see the movie? So remember when the movie starts and the bouncer out front fights those three or four guys, and Whitey’s impressed with him so he becomes Whitey’s right-hand guy?
That was him. They were shaking me down for money.
SI: Then you had to leave Boston?
DW: So they eventually called me on a Saturday afternoon and they said, you have until tomorrow at 1 o’clock to pay us. And I said, or what? They said, you’re going to find out. So I literally booked a ticket to Vegas and bounced.
SI: Wait, is that responsible for why UFC is in Vegas?
DW: Yeah, I definitely got to Vegas a lot quicker than I would’ve been. It’s crazy. I’ve told the story so many f—ing times. I’m tired of the story. But people love that story.