Dana White had pushed and planned and been pilloried for even trying. Right in the teeth of the coronavirus pandemic, White was trying to keep the Ultimate Fighting Championship going, trying to stage UFC 249 on April 18.
Everywhere he turned, he was met with slammed doors, governmental restrictions and critics arguing that he should just sit this out, just take a break. White, love him or loathe him, has never been one to listen. He was going to do this, he promised.
He’d found a hotel and casino on tribal land in California, outside of the purview of a regulatory body. He’d reshuffled fights and dealt with near impossible logistical challenges.
He saw it not simply as keeping his business going, but as a victory in the face of the virus, a symbol that with proper precautions (no fans, for example) anything was possible.
Then it wasn’t.
Nine days before the event, ESPN, the UFC’s American broadcast partner, asked if he’d stand down. Out of respect for the company and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, he did.
UFC 249 was done.
White wasn’t though.
“I was exhausted, man,” White told Yahoo Sports of his mood after the postponement. “I was [expletive] mentally, physically exhausted. My soul was [expletive] tired, OK?”
He went home and crashed. Then came the next morning.
“I woke up and I felt like a million [expletive] bucks,” White said. “I called [UFC Chief Business Officer] Hunter [Campbell], and I said, ‘We’re going to give ESPN the weekend off. They’ve had a rough [expletive] week, OK?’
“Then I said, ‘On Monday, we’re booking another [expletive] event. So on Monday, we booked May 9. I told Hunter, ‘Call [expletive] Florida, get this [expletive] [expletive] dialed in. Monday, I called Jimmy Pitaro, and said, ‘We’re going May 9.’ ”
Which means this is fight week, with White 100 percent confident that UFC 249 is happening Saturday. ESPN is on board. The State of Florida has sanctioned it. It — and two other UFC events over the following week — will be held inside a 15,000-seat arena in downtown Jacksonville.
There will be no fans. There will be a full, 12-bout card, though. It includes two title bouts on the pay-per-view portion and a preliminary lineup featuring a number of popular stars on ESPN.
This isn’t just a big-time fight card. It’s the first significant live sporting event in the United States since the virus caused widespread shutdowns.
White won’t reveal all precautions the company is taking but noted there will only be about 150 people from the company in the building on fight night. Distancing will be a priority. He says health and safety has always been a focus, so this is just more of the same. And, he reminds, the production has some experience here, staging a March 14 event in Brazil with no fans in attendance.
“The Brazil event went off great,” White said. “The fights were great. Nobody got sick. Think of how much smarter we are now and how much more money we’re going to spend to throw at this thing to make sure everybody’s safe.”
The stakes are bigger. More eyes watching. More doubts that this should even be attempted. If this leads to an outbreak, the public relations blow would be considerable.
White is undeterred, although he acknowledges this will be unlike any card he’s run in over two decades.
“It’s going to feel great,” he said. “I’m excited.”
White continues to push on the concept that if a business (any business) can operate safely, then it should. He isn’t scared, especially of public criticism.
“Nobody wants to be first, man,” White said. “Nobody wants to be first and take that chance. We’re talking about fighters who want to go in and want to compete. Everybody who is involved in this event wants to be involved in this event. From my employees on up.
“I am still paying all of my employees,” he continued. “No one is living in fear of, ‘Oh my God, if I don't show up or if I say no, I am not going to get paid.’ There is none of that here. You can talk to any of my employees. Nobody has been forced to work or, ‘You have to do this or you have to do that.’ Nobody.
“Somebody has to be first. And the one thing about us is, we’ve always been willing to spend money and go overboard to make sure everything is safe. So you can imagine what we are doing for this one.”
White aggressively pushed back on the perception, and some media reports, that the UFC is recklessly moving forward because it needs the money.
“If that was the case, and you want to go with the whole ‘corporate greed, this guy has to do this, this guy has to do that’ … first of all, me personally? I don’t have to do a [expletive] thing, OK?” said White, who was part of a $4 billion sale of the UFC to Endeavor in 2016. “I could have stopped doing this five years ago, OK.
“No. 2, if that was the case with this company, do you realize how many [expletive] people we would’ve laid off by now,” White continued. “The first thing you do is start whacking people, right? You save millions and millions of dollars, right? Then I go to my executive team, and I’m like, ‘Here’s the pay cuts you guys are going to take. You’re still going to work, but we’re going to cut your salary in half.’ Where are any of these guys going to go and make this kind of money right now? They’re not.
“None of that has happened at the UFC.”
This will be a fight week like no other. No fan events. A virtual media day. No roar of the crowd, mostly just customers huddled in their homes watching on ESPN and ESPN+ Pay-Per-View.
In the wake of the April cancellation, White vowed to be back first. He’s days from making it reality, just ahead of the scheduled returns of NASCAR (May 17) and the PGA Tour (June 11).
“It’s not even about being first.” he said. “I was ready to continue rolling. If it were up to me, we would have kept going this entire thing. [Expletive]. I can’t wait, man.
“My team are a bunch of [expletive] savages,” White continued. “That’s the team that I have here. This is where you find out. It’s all great when everybody’s making money, the economy is [expletive] booming and we have big Christmas parties at the end of the year. I’m like, “I [expletive] love you guys, and yeah … ” You know what I mean? This is when you [expletive] find out, who do you really want to be in the foxhole with when [expletive] goes down?
“The UFC is back,” White said. “Our schedule is back on, and we’re rolling right through the rest of the year.”
That will please UFC fans. It might not please some other people. White’s long over being influenced by that.
“I’ve just come to the realization that there’s people out there that are just negative, [expletive] pieces of [expletive],” White said. “And no matter what you do, they’re never going to be happy. Ever.”
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