Dana White, Donald Trump and the Rise of Cage-Match Politics

Dana White’s diplomatic ambitions were clear, if complicated: Un-cancel Bud Light.

He had some calls to make.

As the chief executive of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Mr. White was the arena-filling, Trump-loving, perpetually smirking public face of a multi-billion-dollar sport.

But in completing a reported nine-figure deal last fall to make Bud Light the U.F.C.’s official beer sponsor, Mr. White suddenly stood accused of selling out: Much of the political right — and, not incidentally, much of the U.F.C.’s audience — had been pulverizing Bud Light for months over a promotion featuring a transgender influencer. The brand, which first worked with the U.F.C. more than 15 years earlier, was plainly hoping that a renewed affiliation might help its cause.

Publicly, Mr. White appealed to friends across the conservative media, defending Bud Light’s parent company in interviews with Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Charlie Kirk. “The fact that Anheuser-Busch wants to be in business with me?” Mr. White said, arguing that this alone demonstrated the success of the backlash.

Privately, Mr. White presented the lucrative sponsorship as a matter of principle (“We don’t cancel people,” he told one confidant) and helped hasten a détente. During a fight night at Madison Square Garden last November, Kid Rock — who had been savaging Bud Light — had “a great conversation” with Anheuser-Busch’s chief executive in Mr. White’s green room, the musician later said. The boycott was soon off.

When a final holdout, former President Donald J. Trump, continued hammering the company in February, Mr. White spoke to him by phone, according to people briefed on the conversation, and Mr. Trump was sheepish about causing any headaches. Within days, Mr. Trump suggested on social media that Anheuser-Busch deserved “a second chance,” ticking through talking points that sounded suspiciously like Mr. White’s.

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