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UFC president Dana White celebrated the landmark $21 billion deal to merge his mixed martial arts promotion with the WWE by sitting ringside (Octagonside?) with a trio of WWE hall of famers at UFC 287, which was held at the Kaseya Center in Miami on April 8. White was the center of attention, thanks in no small part to who was sitting with him: on one side, former President Donald Trump, now facing criminal charges in New York; on the other, the boxer Mike Tyson, no stranger to legal troubles of his own, and the controversial musician Kid Rock.
In a corporate world where caution can be king, the UFC, which is owned by Endeavor, throws it to the wind. In combat sports, controversy is good TV (the polarizing podcaster Joe Rogan has long been the UFC’s color commentator), and the WWE-UFC deal creates what could be the most controversy-friendly public media company in the world.
The pending merger of the WWE and Endeavor’s mixed-martial arts juggernaut UFC may be, in the words of Bank of America’s Jessica Reif Ehrlich, a financial “heavyweight tag team,” but beyond the numbers, the deal is also a merger of egos.
While Endeavor, led by Ari Emanuel and Mark Shapiro, will control the combined company, the new venture (still unnamed, but with the stock ticker “TKO”) will bring with it two veteran executives known for their brash personalities and no shortage of baggage. There’s White, who took the UFC from a small, niche combat promotion to an MMA giant, and is also the face of the sport, serving as a sort of ringmaster for the events. Early this year, the exec was filmed in an altercation with his wife at a Mexican resort over the holidays, with his wife seen slapping him and White slapping her back. Ultimately, no legal action was taken. “We’ve had plenty of discussions internally, with Ari [Emanuel], with ESPN. Nobody is happy about this. Neither am I. But it happened, and I have to deal with it,” White said at a Jan. 11 press conference for UFC Vegas 67, after the video was released.
Vince McMahon, who turned what was a small wrestling business founded by his father into an entertainment company valued at more than $9 billion in the deal, is also the face of his sport. Not only has McMahon served as CEO or chairman for almost all of the WWE’s past 40 years, but he appeared in the ring in many of them, as the villainous “Mr. McMahon,” a reliable foil for hero WWE superstars. McMahon retired from the company last year, after the WWE board investigated alleged personally funded hush money payments and misconduct allegations, but he used his controlling stake to return earlier this year.
“Let me just say, I’ve made mistakes both personally and professionally through my 50-year career,” McMahon told CNBC April 3 after the UFC deal was announced. “I have owned up to every single one of them, and then moved on.”
Now, McMahon and White will be working together, under one roof. And it will fall on Endeavor to manage the clash of egos that could follow. Shapiro tells THR that after the deal closes, “We will be involved in those areas we believe have the most opportunity to generate significant profit and profit potential.” He adds, however, that he and Emanuel would leave the day-to-day creative and fight operations to the UFC and WWE teams. This would be following the playbook established after Endeavor acquired a majority stake in the UFC in 2016. White, speaking on sports personality Pat McAfee’s podcast April 7, said he met McMahon the last time he was in New York. “[Emanuel] is one of those guys that lets you run your business, that lets you do what you do,” White said. “If you need him, you pick up the phone and call him and he can make anything happen.”
Morgan Stanley’s Ben Swinburne wrote in an April 4 report that he believed Endeavor “will have effective control in our view,” thanks to its ownership stake. In other words, if either the UFC or the WWE needs more direct management, Endeavor is positioned to do so, not that it appears in the cards.
While Emanuel has in the past spoken out about controversial public figures (last year he urged companies to stop working with Kanye West after his antisemitic rants), managing big and occasionally controversial clients has been a part of the job.
Emanuel, in the post-deal CNBC interview, said, “I would have body slammed [McMahon] if he thought he was going to leave. … I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I got Vince McMahon, a visionary that sees around corners; I’ve got Dana White and what we’ve built — that’s pretty unstoppable,” Emanuel added, noting that he has worked successfully with White for the last seven years.
For now, at least, White and McMahon appear essential to the combined company’s success, controversy be damned. And White clearly believes that he’s critical to the success of UFC. “Me leaving hurts the company, hurts my employees, hurts the fighters. It doesn’t hurt me,” White said at a January press conference after the altercation with his wife was reported.
But while White appears committed to the UFC at 53 years old, McMahon’s commitment to the WWE is tempered by the fact that he’s 77. Luckily for Endeavor, the WWE already has potential successors in-house with Nick Khan, who will be WWE president after the deal closes, and WWE head of creative Paul Levesque, better known by his ring name, “Triple H.” Shapiro was sure to note that Levesque will be sticking around.
Those successors could come in handy sooner rather than later, as McMahon’s legal troubles may not be done just yet. While the WWE board closed its investigation, and McMahon reimbursed the company for its expenses, McMahon’s exposure for the undisclosed payments could have further repercussions given SEC and U.S. Attorney’s Office investigations.
In December, when McMahon initially told the WWE board that he wanted to come back to the company, the board responded with a letter suggesting that he stay retired. “This determination is based on a variety of factors, including non-public information the Board has become aware of and the risks to the Company and its shareholders of placing a greater spotlight on these issues,” the letter adds.
McMahon, it should be noted, signed a new contract with the WWE on March 29. According to a copy viewed by THR, “McMahon’s continued employment shall be conditioned on” compliance with the company’s “Conflict of Interest and Code of Conduct,” as well as its “Equal Opportunity and Non-Harassment Policy,” among other terms.
But one thing is clear: Endeavor isn’t concerned about the combustible personalities joining forces. And neither is Wall Street. In her note on the deal, BofA’s Reif Ehrlich outlined a number of “downside risks” to the UFC-WWE deal, including a slowdown in content spend, lower-than-expected rights fees and “general macro exposure.”
Neither White nor McMahon made the cut.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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