The two young light-heavyweights competing for a six-figure contract, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, had just brought celebrity fans such as Busta Rhymes and Kevin James roaring to their feet with a bloody, evenly matched slugfest. (Related video: Clips from 'The Ultimate Fighter')
This was the first time White's mixed martial arts operation had aired live on basic cable TV. Should the president and co-owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship hand out one contract? Or was a little showmanship in order during the UFC's coming-out party with many sports fans?
"There is no loser in this fight," White told more than 2 million viewers on Viacom's network for young guys as he handed both fighters deals.
White is a former amateur boxer turned Las Vegas entrepreneur behind the improbable comeback of "ultimate fighting," which pits boxers, wrestlers, karate and jiu-jitsu artists in often-brutal matches inside a caged, eight-sided ring known as the "Octagon."
Attacking the then-out-of-control sport as "barbaric" and "human cockfighting," critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., virtually drove UFC events off pay TV in the 1990s. The league was on the mat. But White, after joining with partners to take it over in 2001, cleaned it up and brought it back from the dead in just four years.
Now, at a time when federal decency hawks are on the warpath for sexual or violent programming, White has managed to make his first-season reality show of extreme fighting and scantily clad "Ring Girls" into must-see cable TV for an army of young men.
Despite an 11:05 p.m. ET/PT Monday slot on Spike TV, the average audience grew 19% to 1.98 million through the first 12 weeks of the 13-week show, according to Nielsen Media Research. The elusive, advertiser-coveted audience of men ages 18 to 34 is up 55% since the Jan. 17 opening. Viewers are 73% male, with an average age of 30. Advertisers include Miller, Nintendo and the U.S. Army.
White now is negotiating with Spike for second and third seasons. He also has signed a deal with News Corp.'s Fox Sports Net to replay taped UFC fights four times a year. Revenue for the league's flagship pay-per-view live events in the USA and 36 countries is up twentyfold in four years.
White's long-term goal: supplant boxing as America's martial art. "Boxing has become your father's sport," he says in an interview from his Las Vegas headquarters. "We're what the new generation is watching. We're the most extreme of extreme sports."