Home News Dana White and UFC finally get put in their place

Dana White and UFC finally get put in their place

In the mixed martial arts bubble, UFC president Dana White is the master of the universe.

White has been wildly successful over the years. Sure, he’s always had deep-pocketed backers to help institute his vision, from the Fertitta brothers to Endeavor. But there’s no denying how White’s drive, energy and enthusiasm have built his company from a $2 million scrap-heap acquisition in 2001 to a worldwide juggernaut that sold for $4 billion in 2016.

It also means that, when you’re accustomed to always getting your way, eliminate most of your competition and have unilateral power to make or break people’s livelihoods, you end up with no one left in your inner circle to check you when your idea is really, really bad.

This sort of unaccountability led directly to the fiasco that was White’s attempt to move UFC 249 – originally scheduled for April 18 in Brooklyn, N.Y. – onto Native American tribal land in California as a way to bypass the statewide stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic.

And it took about 72 hours from the news leaking that the event would be held at Tachi Palace Casino near Fresno for major players outside the MMA bubble — the Disney corporation and California’s state government — to put the UFC back in its place and shut down a foolhardy attempt at a risky event.

Back on Feb. 26, President Donald Trump proclaimed that the nation’s 15 coronavirus cases would soon be close to zero. By the time UFC 249 was canceled once and for all Thursday, there were nearly 17,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., the equivalent loss of life to five 9/11s. That number, the medical experts tell us, will continue to climb at least for weeks to come.

The entire sports world has gone into a standstill during the pandemic. The longer this goes on, the worse the effects will be on not just the athletes who participate, but everyone who makes a living in the industry – from the people who sell you beer and popcorn at the arena to people who work on the staffs of leagues, teams, and fight promotions to, yes, the media who cover it all.

But long after the other major sports leagues — and most of the combat sports world, too, including Bellator, PFL, Top Rank, and Matchroom Boxing — had shut down indefinitely, White pressed onward. And if anyone at Zuffa or Endeavor told him this was a horrible look, they clearly weren’t persuasive.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home orders on March 19. The California State Athletic Commission had already made it clear it would have nothing to do with UFC events on tribal land. The New York Times reported Thursday that Gov. Newsom had reached out directly to Disney executives to express his misgivings about the UFC running at Tachi Palace. ESPN has a vested financial interest as the UFC’s pay-per-view provider in going ahead with shows, but they did the right thing and pulled the plug.

Dana White badly wanted the UFC to continue during the coronavirus pandemic but fell short.

Yes, White is the guy who brings you the sickest, most badass fights, bro, but California is the fifth-largest economy on earth. The UFC needs those multi-million-dollar gates at Staples Center in Los Angeles and Honda Center in Anaheim and Chase Center in San Francisco and Golden1 Center in Sacramento a hell of a lot more than the state needs the UFC. If the UFC had persisted, Newsom could have had the commission pull its promotional license and never given it another thought.

The rock-bottom dumbest takes out there are the trolls who think the media is actively rooting for the UFC to fail. Guess what? We want life to go back to normal, too. We have empathy for the fighters who need to make a paycheck. We don’t blame fighters who live and breathe their sport for wanting to get back at it.

But here’s another thing: If the company who signs the fighters’ paychecks can pay out a $300 million dividend to celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and Gisele Bunchen, neither of whom have ever set foot in an octagon, and if that company still has the means to secure a private island and charter people from all over the world to continue with events after making that payout, it can probably afford to pay fighters a living wage between their fights. The UFC doesn’t have to make it so that fighters have to risk their families’ health in a pandemic in order to be able to pay rent. Does it?

If the trolls truly wanted what’s best for fighters, perhaps they should advocate for a better pay structure instead of selfishly wanting to funnel them back in the cage during a pandemic for their momentary entertainment.

We’re seeing the first signs, at least in states whose governments didn’t pretend the virus was a hoax and went into stay-at-home orders early, that the curve is starting to flatten on COVID-19’s spread. But reopening society is going to be a long road full of starts and stops. While we all miss sports, they’re low on the totem poll of what’s important in the big picture, as Gov. Newsom and Disney quite pointedly reminded the UFC.

Maybe now that bigger forces from the outside world have intervened, cooler heads will prevail, and the UFC can fall in line with the NBA and NHL and Bellator and Top Rank and everyone else exhibiting at least an ounce of common sense.

The UFC’s behavior over the past month has undone a lot of the hard work put into the mainstreaming of the sport over the past two decades. How the company responds from here will determine whether the UFC can bounce back or whether the reputational damage is permanent.

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