Opinion: When Us vs. Them Doesn’t Cut It

By Jacob Debets Mar 27, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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As the global COVID-19 death toll continues to rise, it is surreal to see leading countries close their borders and entire economies grind to a halt on account of government-mandated shutdowns. Meanwhile, in the world of mixed martial arts, there is a cadre of denialists vying to return to business as usual.

Chief among this group is Ultimate Fighting Championship Dana White, whose attitude from the beginning of the crisis was aptly summarized in a quote he produced during an interview with TSN earlier this month: “I don’t give a s--- about the coronavirus. As far as I’m concerned, we’re going to continue to run our business.”

Since that time, the pandemic has managed to thwart three of the UFC’s shows, with UFC Fight Night 171 (March 21), UFC on ESPN 8 (March 28) and UFC Fight Night 172 (April 11) being postponed after Nevada banned all combat sports events. However, the promotion is barreling ahead with the flagship UFC 249 card on April 18, anchored by a main event featuring lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and former interim titleholder Tony Ferguson. White announced in an Instagram Live interview with Yahoo’s Kevin Iole that the promotion had locked down a venue in an undisclosed location and was currently sorting out travel arrangements for the 26 athletes slated to compete. Beyond that, White has committed to resuming the UFC’s regular schedule and re-booking the postponed shows in short succession—a move which could see the promotion attempt a mind-boggling 12 events between now and the middle of the year.

It has rightly been pointed out that mixed martial arts, at its core, only requires three individuals in physical contact at any one time—the athletes and the referee—and is in that way theoretically safer vis-à-vis viral transmission than a game of football or basketball. However, the logistics of getting fighters from different countries into the Octagon come fight time—for the UFC 249 card alone, athletes would be flying in from the United States, Russia, British Columbia, Germany and Moldova—and then back home to their families afterwards remains a fundamentally fraught one.

Case in point is Leon Edwards. Earlier this month, as the promotion scrambled to relocate UFC Fight Night 171 from London’s O2 Arena to the UFC Apex in Nevada, “Rocky” was asked to get on a short-notice plane from London and fly to the United States, where his headlining fight opposite Tyron Woodley was to be re-booked. The only problem was that the United Kingdom had just imposed a travel ban, leaving Edwards and his team not knowing when or how they would be able to re-enter the country. The fourth-ranked welterweight recounted to BT Sports that the UFC “didn’t care about [me] getting back … they just cared about me getting there”—a fairly damning demonstration of the UFC’s disregard for its fighters once they have served the promotion’s purposes.

In addition to the enormous obstacles standing in the way of getting athletes from their homes to the Octagon and back, it also remains to be seen how they can undertake adequate training and preparation for the bouts themselves. With many countries restricting all forms of social contact and many preventing persons from leaving their homes for non-essential purposes, most fighters will be unable to rely on the usual host of coaches and sparring partners, much less access proper gym facilities. Is the expectation that fighters will revert to punching a heavy bag in their basement and lifting weights for months as an appropriate replacement for the usual regimen?

More likely, White’s insistence of rolling on in the midst of the pandemic requires government directives to be broken and for fighters to observe their conventional training routine in the knowledge it will put their families and their fellow citizens in peril and may ultimately be unlawful. In the aforementioned interview with Iole, White hinted as much in claiming that attempting to avoid coronavirus infection was like “hiding from cancer” and rebuking the idea that persons would need to self-isolate for months on end—assertions that are blatantly inconsistent with the medical consensus.

White has always thrived in an environment where he can pigeonhole people into allies and enemies. Whether it’s the UFC versus boxing, the UFC versus the New York Legislature or the UFC versus a skeptical mainstream media, he’s most comfortable taking the offensive, proselytizing about the UFC’s virtue while going scorched-earth on his adversary’s shortcomings. However, this approach doesn’t work when the “enemy” is an infectious disease and persons who observe government protocols and medical advice in relation to that disease are decried as haters and losers. It doesn’t work when you’re making fighters choose between their livelihoods and the health and security of their families and compatriots for the sake of maintaining a few dates on the calendar. It doesn’t work when you’re characterizing a global pandemic as a challenge to your ego and making it seem like journalists who call for the UFC to join the global moratorium on professional sports are the real problem.

By contrast, by defining itself in opposition to the global fight to flatten the curve and save lives, the UFC is showing itself to be the real enemy.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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