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The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 249 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
Close your eyes and picture a global pandemic sweeping the planet. Thousands around the world are dead, with nearly the entire population enduring some form of social restrictions, as doctors and scientists do their best to handle the threat of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the man in charge decides the best way to fight this non-sentient being is by defiantly puffing out a prideful chest and choosing audacity over all else. Open your eyes and tell me who you pictured in that scenario. If your answer was President Trump you’d only be half right.
The bold persona of Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White has been credited as one of his greatest assets. At a time when mixed martial arts was nearly pushed into complete obscurity and irrelevance in North America, the Boston native made his presence felt and boosted the marquee brand and a struggling sport. Whether he was lashing out at boxing promoters who complained about the new “uncivilized” type of fighting or boisterously making sure you knew the UFC was in town, it worked.
However, the challenge facing the promotion now is far worse than mean words from a rival promoter or a pearl-clutching critic screaming, “What about the children?” The threat posed by COVID-19 cannot be yelled at, shouted down, humiliated in the public eye or absorbed as the latest Zuffa acquisition, so why is White treating it as such? With the total of confirmed cases and deaths across Asia and Europe, nations around the world took notice and began to act accordingly. In the realm of combat sports, that included One Championship postponing events and closing another off from the general public. The UFC wisely moved strawweight champion Weili Zhang to several locations ahead of her defense at UFC 248 to avoid the virus’ increasing number of hot spots around the globe. Unfortunately, that same proactive approach seemed to vanish once the virus became a problem in the Americas. As numerous conventions and festivals decided cancelling or postponing their plans was the wisest path for public health, White did not entertain the possibility of it affecting future dates. After ESPN’s Marc Raimondi was booed by fans for asking the question at a press conference, White even seemed to revel in the reaction. Not even the NBA’s decision to suspend its season when several players tested positive for COVID-19 swayed White’s energy. As other major sporting entities like the NCAA and MLB decided to follow suit, the UFC persisted.
After the Brazilian government banned mass gatherings in an effort to stop the rapid spread of the virus, the UFC moved ahead with UFC Fight Night 170 in an empty arena in Brasilia. Granted, fight week had already begun when these changes were made, so even though moving ahead with the 12-fight card can certainly be frowned upon, there is a case to be made for the show to go on. If the UFC machine had stopped there, we wouldn’t have much about which to complain. With traveling fighters and coaches already in the host city and with the venue set up, it’s possible to objectively see the merit in continuing with the altered plans. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.
As state and city governments began to impose restrictions in the United States, the UFC insisted on operating with the same maverick spirit that carried the company through the North American dark age. White announced that his company was moving the upcoming stateside cards to the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, while the London event would remain in its original form. Had it stopped there, once again, there would not be a whole lot about which to complain.
White on SportsCenter claimed the UFC was working closely with officials in the United Kingdom and with the Nevada Athletic Commission to make sure the upcoming events would be safe. Yet again, it didn’t stop there. Despite White using his direct line to the White House as validation for dogmatically sticking to his guns, Trump’s announcing massive travel restrictions soon afterwards threw a huge monkey wrench into a UFC machine that already had a huge monkey wrench in it. Additionally, Nevada dropped the axe on any hopes that the Apex would be the safe haven for the busy schedule. So where would the fights take place now? How would fighters from around the world be able to make their dates? How would they make it back home afterwards? Evidently, those questions didn’t need to be answered. The fights were still going to happen. Anything else was cast aside as complaints and bellyaching from “wimps and weaklings.” Hey, Leon Edwards, do you still want to headline this card? Well, you and your team have three hours to make it the airport. By the way, we don’t know where the fight is going to be held, we’re not sure where you’ll stay when you land in the United States and we don’t know how you’ll make it back home to your family, either, but the show must go on.
Over the past week, White has made the rounds on several outlets to reiterate his intention to deliver UFC 249 on April 18. With the United States officially surpassing every other country in confirmed cases of COVID-19, there seems to be even less desire to slow things down in the interest of keeping fighters and staff safe. Instead, it has increased the levels of Vintage Dana. From proudly stating that no one should bet against him to proclaiming his indifference to catching the virus himself and then comparing precautions to “hiding from cancer,” it’s reminiscent of the man who profanely demanded respect and bucked at his enemies in the early 2000s. However, standing tall seems foolhardy in this instance. The coronavirus isn’t negotiating for pay-per-view points or looking to place a sponsorship logo on the Octagon floor. Yet White is challenging it as if there was a Spike TV series documenting his training ahead of the boxing match.
While everyone who loves MMA wants to see Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson finally meet one another and make good on their fifth booking together, at what point is that scheduled 25 minutes no longer worth it? Is it worth it to potentially risk the long-term health and safety of either man or anyone in their camps to make this happen? If a UFC staff member or an ailing relative of an involved party were to find themselves in a dire medical situation, would it be an even trade? Considering the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, those are questions that White, his bosses at Endeavor and every stubborn fan clinging to the seemingly cursed bout need to ask themselves. Looking at the fallout of the Brasilia card should raise even more red flags. Randa Markos and John Makdessi had to self-quarantine with no access to adequate medical care, so it’s clear the UFC didn’t have a good plan in place. White even publicly stated he didn’t know about any plans to isolate fighters after events as a precaution. Additionally, fighters weren’t tested for COVID-19 in Brasilia despite loud boasts about going above and beyond for safety. White shut down questions about fighters being tested for the virus ahead of UFC 249. If the recent past is a reliable look into the future, there may not be plans for quarantines and tests. His insistence that the media doesn’t need to know any details is the exact opposite approach taken by the NBA, where testing of athletes and staff have been reported.
In White’s eyes, the sports leagues that decided to err on the side of caution were “panicking” while the UFC was instead working with governments and health officials to ensure the opening bell would ring. In reality, governments and health officials have consulted with the other leagues, but they handled the information differently. The presence of a team in an era of social restriction gives one-on-one contests a bit more room on which to stand, but not much. The need for two fighters, coaches, cutmen, commission officials and cameramen make it nearly impossible to seamlessly televise a fight without violating Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines or sacrificing quality in some way.
White’s bravado has gotten the UFC a long way, and it probably can continue taking the organization to new heights if the ascension from sideshow to ESPN darling is any indication. However, this situation is much different. It’s time to sit down and humble yourself. Hubris is not a vaccine.
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