Opinion: The Impact of COVID-19 on British MMA

By Guy Portman Mar 20, 2020

It was not so long ago that the coronavirus seemed a distant threat to Britain and its flourishing mixed martial arts scene. For those in this country, as was the case with much of the world, the first association between the virus and MMA was Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s much-maligned social media meme back in January, which led up to her UFC 248 strawweight title clash with China’s Weili Zhang. The mock-up poster depicted the divisive Jedrzejczyk posing behind her Chinese adversary in a gas mask.

Fast forward two months, and the China-originating virus is now endemic across much of the globe. The consequence has been that spectator sports have been put on hold for the foreseeable future. Here in the United Kingdom, soccer has been suspended until further notice; and the annual Six Nations rugby tournament is also off. Not only have these staples of the British sporting calendar disappeared, but there is no tennis, no horse racing and no motor sports, such has been the fear that the virus could spread in the confined stands. In this post-Apocalyptic sporting landscape, it was with bated breath that MMA fans awaited the fate of UFC Fight Night 171, which was scheduled to take place at the O2 Arena on Saturday in London.

In defiance of the virtual disintegration of professional sports, outspoken Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White gave British MMA fans a modicum of belief that the event might go ahead. After all, UFC Fight Night 170 on March 14 in Brasilia, Brazil, did so, albeit without media or spectators present. Any hope that the same would occur over here were dashed when White stated the show would be moved stateside due to travel restrictions announced by United States authorities. In the immediate aftermath of his statement, Birmingham, England-based Leon Edwards, who was poised to headline opposite Tyron Woodley, cited the virus in announcing his withdrawal. From there, matters rapidly headed south, with more fighters pulling out. When America banned flights from the UK, White was forced to cede and cancel the event altogether. The consequence for British MMA? There is a real possibility that the Las Vegas-based promotion will not be visiting the UK in 2020.

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. To the surprise of many and the consternation of some, Cage Warriors Fighting Championship moved forward with its closed-doors event on Friday at the BEC Arena in Manchester, England. While the impact of the virus has taken its inevitable toll—three fights were cancelled—Cage Warriors 113 was bolstered by a new headliner comprised of athletes transferred from the cancelled UFC Fight Night 171 card: a middleweight clash pitting Darren Stewart against Bartosz Fabinski. While some will view the organization’s decision to go ahead in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic as foolhardy and irresponsible, it is an opportunity for these athletes to earn paychecks. It could be their last for quite a while. With more draconian measures pertaining to containing the virus are being decreed by the UK government daily, one envisages that hosting sporting events will be impossible—and illegal—within days.

The implications for the British MMA industry are obviously potentially severe, though the extent of the damage will depend on the duration of the pandemic. Fighters who were scheduled to compete are going to be out of pocket. MMA does not offer a “work at home” scenario. The trickle-down effects are that the teams and gyms will not receive their dues from their charges’ fight purses. These establishments are already suffering with the cancellation of classes and students staying away of their own volition because of concerns over the virus. After all, social distancing and MMA do not mix, especially when it comes to the grappling element.

Then are the people who work for or are associated with the shows: the media, reporters, security, bartenders, other event staff, insurers, the list goes on. They will be feeling the pinch, too; and what about the intangibles? Take the fighter, for example, who was poised to put on a sterling performance with a small promotion that would have seen him or her invited to the big leagues. Their career aspirations are on hold. Smaller organizations, with no guaranteed revenue on the horizon, could conceivably go under in a worst-case scenario. While only time will tell what the ramifications will be for the industry in this country, one thing seems certain. There is no money to be earned in British MMA for the conceivable future. Two months from now on May. 16, the Bellator MMA promotion is scheduled to visit Belfast in Northern Ireland. Fingers crossed that the worst will be over by then and it can go ahead with those plans.

It remains to be seen how BT Sport, the UFC broadcasting rights holder in the UK, will fare. It currently boasts virtually no live sports, with soccer and motorsports in forced hiatus. The three announced forthcoming UFC cancellations—starting with UFC Fight Night 171—while far from the biggest cards of the year, will be a bitter pill for the network to swallow. Up until 2019, BT Sport subscribers had all UFC events included in their not-inconsequential monthly fee. The decision to put some numbered UFC’s behind a second paywall last year was met with revulsion by many British fans. One wonders what impact COVID-19’s untimely intrusion will have on the network’s PPV plans. UK fans will have missed out on a minimum of three UFC offerings because of the pandemic, and that is assuming future events go ahead as planned. White remains adamant that UFC 249 on Apr. 19 will take place, but this is far from certain. When the scourge that is COVID-19 begins to die down, sports-starved Brits will presumably not take kindly if they are asked to pay for PPVs when BT Sport has provided them for several months with next to no live sports.

We will have to wait and see what the wider implications for the MMA industry look like. For today, it equates to fighters being unable to earn, fans having nothing to watch, MMA afficionados being unable to train and gyms struggling to pay their rent. The expectation is that this pandemic will eventually blow over and normality will be restored. COVID-19 is proving to be a kick in the shins for British MMA, but it will not be a mortal blow.

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