Dana White and the UFC Refuse to Tap Out

Brooklyn. A casino south of Fresno. A private island in international waters. While every other major sport has shuttered for the foreseeable future, UFC President Dana White searched for anywhere he could hold a fight — coronavirus be damned. Yet in the midst of an international pandemic that threatens many thousands of lives, White’s flippancy in desperately trying to skirt necessary social distancing regulations has been profoundly disappointing to see from the de facto leader of a $4 billion fighting empire.

UFC 249, the next edition of the UFC’s flagship event, had been scheduled for April 18 in Barclays Center in Brooklyn and featured a long-awaited matchup — which had been delayed four times before — between the top two lightweight fighters in the world: the champion, Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov, and his top challenger, American Tony Ferguson. But as cases of COVID-19 stacked up in New York last month, the New York State Athletic Commission refused to allow the fight to go on; soon after, due to restrictions on international travel, Nurmagomedov pulled out of the fight. That should’ve been the end of the story for UFC 249 — any public health official would recommend that, even without a crowd, the event would be ill-advised. But, then again, White is about the direct opposite of a public health official.

White’s next escapade involved holding the fight at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, around 40 miles south of Fresno. Crucially, the resort is on tribal lands, so it does not have to obey either the California State Athletic Commission or the state’s stay-at-home order. Needless to say, the plan was full of holes. There is only one top-level trauma hospital near the resort, all the way in Fresno; a hospital spokesperson told the New York Times that the UFC had not contacted them about emergency care for fighters. Furthermore, the plan required that the large number of people needed to run a UFC event fly across the country to run the fight, another significant safety risk. The event even drew condemnation from California Senator Dianne Feinstein. 

“This event would involve dozens of individuals flying to California and driving to a casino for a purpose no one can honestly claim is essential,” Feinstein said. “… At best this event ties up medical resources and sends a message that shelter-in-place orders can be flouted. At worst, participants and support staff could carry the virus back to their home communities and increase its spread.”

Thankfully, with just nine days to go before the fight, cooler heads prevailed. California Governor Gavin Newsom reportedly called executives at Disney — whose subsidiary, ESPN, has a $1.5 billion deal with the UFC to air fights, including UFC 249 — to pressure the UFC to call off the fight. So, that’s it for White’s quixotic attempts to hold unsafe, unsanctioned cash grab MMA fights, right?

Nope. White’s newest scheme is for the UFC to hold events on a private island — the working title is “Fight Island” — to skirt international travel regulations, with infrastructure being built with the aim of starting fights in mid-May. Sure, “Fight Island” does have a “Mortal Kombat”-esque thrill to it and the world is starved for sports, but if the outskirts of Fresno are too far from a good hospital, then an island is many orders of magnitude worse — not to mention the possible coronavirus transmission risk and wasted resources. But, as of now, plans for the island continue, and White, ever the promoter, is already bragging that “we’ll be back first.” 

White seems to cast himself as the ultimate showman, looking at a bleak world and declaring that the show must go on. But White doesn’t seem to understand that COVID-19 is real, fatal, and much, much bigger than the UFC. Just hours before UFC 249 was called off, fighter Rose Namajunas’s manager announced that she would withdraw from the event. The reason? Two of her family members had passed away due to the coronavirus. That is the world we’re living in today, and only time will tell if White will join us in it.