The novel coronavirus has forced the world to a standstill for over three months as businesses, schools and communities have transitioned to a new lifestyle amid the pandemic.
While sports should be the last thing people are concerned about, there has been an undeniable void in the lives of many around the world. For many, sports serve as an escape from the stresses of everyday life, and the world-wide suspension of play has been challenging.
Stateside, it has been over 50 days since professional sports have been played, but that is set to change Saturday when the UFC returns with an action-packed card for UFC 249.
UFC 249 was originally scheduled for April 18 with the main event bout between Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson and Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov. Unfortunately, travel restrictions forced Nurmagomedov to pull out of the card shortly before the scheduled date.
Instead of scrapping the event, UFC President White scrambled to find someone to replace Nurmagomedov and wound up booking Colorado-based fighter Justin Gaethje (21-2) in his place. Logistics ultimately forced the UFC into the same position as the other major sports leagues, and UFC 249 was eventually postponed.
For a moment, there was no clear path back to normalcy in the sporting world, and many leagues have still yet to announce a plan regarding their futures.
That said, while the rest of the world was at home in quarantine, the UFC was developing a plan to hold events, fueled by White’s relentless pursuit to continue business as usual.
“While everybody was f—— lying out by the pool, hanging out and doing whatever the f— they’re doing in quarantine, we were in here f—— grinding, man,” White told Sports illustrated. “Fighting crazy wars every day to put on this first event. We pulled it off. We were gonna be able to hold this thing earlier, and they asked us to stand down.”
For a moment, it appeared that UFC 249 would go on as planned, which would have come as a surprise to no one given White’s ambitious leadership.
White is no stranger to controversy. UFC Fight Night: Lee vs. Oliveira on March 14 was the last event held by a North-American based sports league, and that came three days after the NBA and NHL suspended play.
Over the last two months, White has doubled-down on his promise to bring fighting back as quickly as possible by securing the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, for the next three UFC events.
In addition to UFC 249 on May 9, there are two UFC on ESPN events scheduled for May 13 and 16.
White’s decision to not just to return, but hold three separate events within a week of each other is being labeled as reckless by many, including UFC fans and media.
Still, the show must go on in White’s eyes, even if many people view him as a COVID-19 denier or a money-driven individual.
“That’s what I’m always painted as,” White said. “Corporate greed. … I’m a f—— money monger. I’m this and that. I’m like: Do you f—— people understand that I don’t have to do this? I could’ve f—— retired five years ago. I’m not doing this because I need the money. I haven’t laid off one employee. Everybody is getting paid. Fighters that were supposed to fight: If they didn’t get their fight, they’re getting some money, too.”
The upcoming UFC events will be held without fans, and extreme safety precautions will be taken.
“Let me put it this way: We’re gonna go so overboard making sure everybody is healthy and safe that I just don’t see how we can possibly f— this up.” White said.
“We need to go overboard on safety now. We go overboard on safety every weekend. We always have to figure out how we can make the next event as safe as possible for our fighters, the fans, our employees. … This isn’t anything new for us. We have relationships with labs all over the country, hospitals and doctors. The coronavirus didn’t make us start worrying about f—— safety. We’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
There is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. While things have appeared to stabilize around the world, there is no telling when the sports industry will fully return.
White, along with the other commissioners of major sports leagues in the United States, have spoken with President Donald Trump three times since the coronavirus swept across the nation. White described the calls with President Trump as productive and transparent but also felt other leagues were hesitant to resume operations.
“Getting off the last call, I felt like: Some of these bigger leagues are literally gonna take the year off.” White said.
Despite the reluctance of major sports leagues to transition back to normalcy, White has gone ahead with plans to get the UFC back to normal by booking the three fights in Florida and also developing a “fight island” for future UFC events.
The island will act as an MMA oasis where fighters will live, train and compete while the world recovers from the coronavirus.
All in all, the last two months have been an episode of organized chaos, an environment where White thrives.
“All the rules and all the plans, I actually found it fun [figuring out],” White said. “I like chaos, man. I like trying to figure things out. I’m into that s—. I’m a weirdo.”
White is a modern-day mad scientist. He’s already disliked by many for his brash opinions, political affiliations and questionable decision making. Nonetheless, White is once again raising the middle finger to his critics by moving forward with the scheduled UFC events.
“If this thing is that deadly, it’s gonna get us no matter where we hide or what we do.” White said.
When Saturday rolls around, the UFC will become the first North American-based sports company to return to action after nearly two months without a live sporting event. The event will be available for purchase on ESPN+ PPV.
The decision to hold these events is undoubtedly questionable but inspiring in its own right. Rather than sitting around waiting to be told things are fine, White is taking a proactive approach to getting the UFC back on track and sports back in the lives of people around the world.
“Somebody has to be first, right? ” White said. “Eventually. You just can’t hide forever. Who gets to determine how long we go without sports? It’s a really weird situation, in a weird time.”
– Aniello Piro is a founding member of The MMA Plug and can be followed on Instagram @MediaByAP @TheMMAPlug303 and @MileHighSports.