Exec cited CTE, Dana White replacement in WME evaluation of UFC business

The UFC lender presentation that paved the way for the promotion’s 2016 buyout by WME was a top-to-bottom look at its business operations and plan for the future.

Among financials and promises of steady profits for the new owners, the presentation emphasized the UFC’s work with athlete health and safety, boasting its partnership with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, work with the Cleveland Clinic on a head trauma study, and investment in what eventually would become the UFC Performance Institute.

The presentation also advertised the continued involvement of then-UFC President Dana White, who would roll over “a significant portion of equity” from the old company into the new organization led by WME/IMG, later rebranded to Endeavor. White would also stay on with a new deal until 2021.

A confidential email provides a more blunt look into the UFC leader’s future and the challenges the promotion faced, however. Titled “Risks and Mitigants,” the email was authored by an executive at WME in March 2016, four months before the sale proceeded, and gives a look at issues the UFC’s new parent was thinking about moving into the sale — among them CTE and White’s future as an executive.

The email was recently unearthed by order of a federal judge in the ongoing UFC anti-trust lawsuit. Although the executive, Brent Richard, wrote that his observations were “for the deck,” it’s not explicitly clear they were for the lender presentation.

In a five-topic list, the No. 2 topic behind the antitrust lawsuit was a short entry: “Injury, death, CTE, etc.”

“Discuss,” Richard wrote.

Then, as in now, CTE had not been formally diagnosed in a UFC fighter, though one well-traveled octagon vet, Gary Goodridge, said a doctor had diagnosed him with the disease despite the fact that it can’t be definitively found until a person has died. Since Goodridge, CTE has been found in the brain of deceased UFC vet Tim Hague, and other veterans such as Renato Sobral and Spencer Fisher have revealed their struggles with trauma believed to be linked to CTE.

Earlier in the UFC’s history, White repeatedly touted MMA as safer than boxing and, in 2012, declared it “the safest sport in the world when you know you’ve got two healthy athletes stepping into the octagon to compete against one another.” In recent months, he’s taken a similar tact with Power Slap, touting pre-bout medical screening and officials oversight during the matches as a way to lessen the danger of injury. Medical experts have expressed grave concerns for the well-being of slap participants.

White has also acknowledged MMA “isn’t kickball,” and in the wake of Fisher’s revelations of his health issues in 2021, said the retired lightweight is “not the first and he’s definitely not going to be the last” to suffer serious health complications from fighting.

“This is a contact sport and anybody who’s done this younger, myself included, is dealing with brain issues,” White said. “It’s part of the gig.”

The email also addressed competition with the UFC, which is likely why it was included as an exhibit in the antitrust lawsuit, which could to go to trial in April 2024. Richard wrote there were “small operators” around the world promoting MMA, but he also noted that while “technical” barriers to entry were “relatively low, practical barriers to entry are extremely high.”

“UFC controls the best fighters, on staggered contracts, and has the revenue model providing ability to pay fighters the most in the market, by far,” he wrote.

Richard also noted that the risk of “decentralization,” or that the “best fighters go the way of boxing – individual promotion and PPV … we think is limited.”

The fighters currently suing the UFC believe the business practices cited by Richards as a benefit of being in business with the promotion are the root of an anti-competitive scheme to cut out competitors and reduce fighter pay. The flurry of documents made public in the antitrust lawsuit came after a federal judge certified them as a class, exposing the UFC to potential damages over $1 billion dollars if a court found they had, among other things, conspired to depress the pay of UFC fighters between 2010 and 2017.

Now-UFC CEO White has defended the promotion’s pay to fighters as much or more than he has touted its safety record. He has also belittled competitors such as Bellator and PFL, though he recently acknowledged that the latter’s acquisition of the former was bad for the sport. The UFC, meanwhile, has continued to break revenue records, and Endeavor has continued to grow with the acquisition of WWE.

White reportedly signed a new seven-year deal in 2019 to remain with the company. In Richard’s email, however, the idea of White leaving the promotion was the last on his list of issues.

Simply, the WME exec wrote: “Need to develop a retention, transition and ultimately replacement plan for Dana.”

See the full email below.

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