As we roll into 2021, I just wanted to remind everyone there’s ALWAYS a solution to every problem! So, cut through all the bullshit, and don't let these people that don't matter tell you how to live your life. pic.twitter.com/HPMbtojjJx— danawhite (@danawhite) December 21, 2020
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In the middle of March, the sports world began to shut down.
Rudy Gobert, the towering center for the Utah Jazz who had mockingly touched every microphone and recorder in his path during a media session days earlier, became the first prominent professional athlete to test positive for the coronavirus on March 11. It wasn’t long before the NBA put its schedule, which was in the middle of the playoff stretch run, on hold.
What followed was a domino effect: March Madness was canceled. The NHL halted its regular season. Major League Baseball scrapped spring training. The NFL put all operations on hold. Meanwhile, UFC President Dana White was defiant.
“I don’t give a shit about the coronavirus,” White told TSN. “As far as I’m concerned we’re gonna continue to run our business. We’re always looking out for the safety of our fighters, whether it’s coronavirus or any other thing that could hurt our athletes or our fans.”
During a week that will undoubtedly live in infamy for many, the promotion trudged dutifully onward, holding its UFC Fight Night 170 event behind closed doors at Nilson Nelson Gymnasium in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 14 due to a government order prohibiting large gatherings in the country. Not long after Charles Oliveira submitted Kevin Lee in the evening’s main event, the UFC began scrambling to keep the following week’s UFC London offering alive.
"Unless there's a total shutdown of the country, where people can't leave their houses and things like that, these fights will happen,” White said. "We're gonna move on. These fights will happen. These guys will compete. We will find venues and we will figure this thing out. I mean, the only thing that's gonna stop us is a complete government shutdown, where everybody is confined to their homes.”
UFC Fight Night 170 would be the promotion’s last event for nearly two months.
That same week, MMA organizations all over the world began suspending operations out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic. Bellator MMA notably canceled Bellator 241 on the day of the event — which ironically, fell on Friday the 13th. Some promotions, such as Professional Fighters League and Combate Americas, would eventually decide to call it a year. Regional MMA, particularly those organizations without crowds, television contracts or streaming deals, have struggled to find a foothold in the past nine months.
Even as sports gradually returned — and to its credit, the UFC was a dogged as any organization in forcing its way back — the spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large and will continue to loom as MMA moves forward into 2021. Social distancing, safety protocol and contact tracing aren’t going anywhere — at least not until a vaccine becomes more prevalent all over the world.
“Yeah, it’s funny because every time we've been talking through this year I've been telling you, ‘I can't wait for this year to be over,’” White said at the UFC 256 post-fight press conference on Dec. 12. “I don't know what I expected for 2021, but it doesn't look like it's going to be any different. It's going to be a lot of the same sh-t next year.”
That immediate impact of the coronavirus pandemic was significant enough in relation to the MMA world, but the long-term ramifications make it a slam dunk choice for Sherdog’s 2020 Story of Year. Nothing else comes remotely close in a year that will be unforgettable for many people for all the wrong reasons.
The UFC had one blatant false start as it attempted to get back to business. A plan to hold its scheduled April 18 card at Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California, was met with great scrutiny and was not supported by the California State Athletic Commission. Around that same time, White created a furor by revealing he had secured a "private island” to hold events for international fighters who were unable to travel to the U.S. It sounded like something straight out of a kung fu movie.
The promotion’s brazen plan to move forward in spite of Center for Disease Control recommendations, government orders and athletic commission regulation hit a snag at the top of the company. A little more than a week before UFC 249 would have taken place on tribal land, the promotion was forced to indefinitely postpone its event schedule.
"Today, we got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney, and the highest level of ESPN. And one thing that I’ve said since we started our relationship and partnership with ESPN that’s been an incredible one, it’s been an amazing partnership. ESPN has been very, very good to us, and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event next Saturday,” White said.
Though the UFC did have to stand down, White did live up to his vow to be the first sport back, and “Fight Island” would become a reality as well — though perhaps not in as romantic a sense as many envisioned when it was first revealed.
It took approximately another month for the UFC to find both a new venue and approval to move forward with its schedule, which was already ambitious enough when given a full calendar with which to work. When the Florida government updated the list of essential services in the state to include professional sports, the Octagon set up shop at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, for a trio of events on May 9, 13 and 16.
The first of those was UFC 249, a loaded offering that included Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson, Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz, Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Calvin Kattar vs. Jeremy Stephens and Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone, to name a few. Along with that card came a list of safety protocols to deal with an unprecedented situation, including COVID-19 testing.
The promotion’s best laid plans nearly came crashing to a screeching halt, however, when Ronaldo Souza and two cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus one day prior to the event. That news, along with subsequent images of “Jacare” in close proximity of others at the fighter hotel, led to rampant concern that the entire card could be canceled. Ultimately, the show went on with no further catastrophe.
“Without sounding like a jackass, we’re really good at what we do,” White said following UFC 249. “The way that this week went, will just get better. We’ll get better by Wednesday. Then we’ll be better by Saturday. Then after Saturday we’ll start to catch our stride and really get this thing dialed in and get it figured out.
“The longer this goes, the better the testing technology is gonna get and the faster it’s gonna get. We’re gonna prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”
It took some time before other professional sports — or most MMA organizations, for that matter — would return to operations, but in the meantime, the UFC was full speed ahead. After a three-event stay in Jacksonville, the promotion took a week off before setting up shop at its own venue, the UFC Apex in Las Vegas on May 30. From that date through Dec. 19, there was a UFC event almost every weekend — with the lone exception being the Fourth of July holiday.
During that time, the oft-discussed "Fight Island revelation proved to be something of a letdown: the location of Yas Island in Abu Dhabi was a venue utilized by the UFC as recently as September 2019. That made it no less useful, however, as it provided a viable alternative for the UFC to hold fights. It was so valuable, in fact, that White would boast that Abu Dhabi had surpassed Las Vegas as the fight capital of the world during the pandemic era. Heading into 2021, that still appears to remain the case, as the UFC will kick off its campaign in Abu Dhabi with a Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier rematch as the centerpiece of the “Fight Island” series on Jan. 23.
Tragedy would strike before the UFC made its maiden voyage to “Fight Island.” Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, the father and longtime coach of lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, died of complications related to COVID-19 in early July. Khabib would announce his retirement following a victory over Gaethje at UFC 254 in October, citing a promise he made to his mother before the fight. Though some believe the champion will return to the Octagon eventually in an attempt to push his record to 30-0 to fulfill a dream of his father’s, it’s also possible that Abdulmanap’s death hastened his son’s exit from the sport.
Through it all, the pandemic has loomed large over the grind of weekly fight cards. Positive COVID-19 tests remained prevalent, particularly in the latter portion of 2020 as cases surged, and resulted in a multitude of withdrawals and cancellations — though none caused quite the panic as did Jacare’s initial positive test. Over time, such news simply became the cost of doing business during a global pandemic, even when it involved numerous headliners falling by the wayside.
Elsewhere, Bellator took a little bit longer to get up and running after canceling its event schedule through June. The Scott Coker-led promotion wouldn’t return until July 24 for Bellator 242 at a fanless Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. That would remain Bellator’s home base for 15 events through Dec. 10. PFL, which controversially postponed its season early on in the pandemic, is set to resume in 2021 and has added intriguing new faces to the roster like Fabricio Werdum and Claressa Shields. Numerous other promotions like One Championship, Rizin Fighting Federation, Cage Warriors, Legacy Fighting Alliance and KSW held events in the second half of 2020, as well.
Though MMA as a whole has been impressive in its resilience and perseverance through the pandemic, it’s clear that COVID-19 has changed the sport, perhaps permanently. It’s a reality that cagefighting shares with the rest of the world.
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