(This story first appeared in USA TODAY.)
When Dana White and his business partners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, bought the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2001, they followed a simple formula to build their mixed martial arts empire around television.
“We basically used boxing as a model of what not to do when we built UFC,” White says. “Whatever boxing did, we did the opposite.”
So it would might come as a surprise, then, that White, who has been oft-quoted as saying boxing is a dying sport, is the brainchild and co-producer of a boxing reality show.
The eight-part series, “The Fighters,” premiers Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel. It takes place in South Boston, where White grew up boxing and once co-owned a gym. One of the show’s main characters, trainer and gym owner Peter Welch, is a longtime friend. They are trying to resuscitate boxing in the notoriously tough neighborhood.
“When I moved to Southie,” Welch says in the show’s opening, “I had to learn to fight or I had to learn to run. I learned to fight.”
White, the UFC president, is producing the show with Craig Piligian, a longtime TV producer who has created such reality hits on Discovery as American Chopper and Dirty Jobs.
People mistake him as a hater of the Sweet Science, White says, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I love the sport of boxing,” he told USA TODAY Sports by phone. “People always think I’m out to get boxing, or don’t like boxing. It couldn’t be any more opposite. If it wasn’t for boxing I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
White acknowledges the failure of other boxing reality series, most notably The Contenders, which ran for four seasons on NBC and ESPN. The man who helped create the UFC’s long-running reality hit, The Ultimate Fighter, was sure TV did not need another competition-based boxing show. But the sport’s “characters” have always intrigued him.
“If you go to a boxing event, it’s the same characters everywhere you go,” he says. “If you think back to the heyday of boxing, when (Mike) Tyson was coming in … All these amazing personalities, that’s what we’re going after in this thing.”
In Thursday’s first episode, characters abound. From the trainers, including Welch, and his thick South Bahston accent, and Joe Ricciardi, who sounds eerily like “Mick” from Rocky, to the boxers they are charged with getting in fighting shape — one, Anthony McKenna, 25, whose parents emigrated from Northern Ireland and who has battled alcohol and drug abuse for years; the other, Matt Phinney, 28, has been living in his car. Both fighters see this as their last chance.
“What I wanted to do was take a look inside boxing at these characters,” White said. “In reality television, we’re driven by characters. We’re driven by competition … by conflict and battle, all these things that happen.”
White, Piligian and Discovery are betting that viewers will be as absorbed by the cast of characters as they have been.
“With The Fighters we really wanted to get back to the roots of boxing in Southie, where the sport is so integral to the culture,” said Piligian. “These fighters put everything on the line, and I believe this show will breathe new life into boxing.”
Said White: “Everything I hear at Discovery, they love this show.
“(If) we get through Season One and people like it, we’re going to switch it up and start building these characters, the fighters, and create and build talent.”
Then, he says, they can think about moving to different cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, even London. But for now, South Boston will get its 15 minutes of fame.
“And in a little while,” White said, “we’ll see if I was right or if I was wrong.”
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