Talk about viral denial. White’s nutty insistence on staging UFC 249 from a casino located on tribal land in California’s Central Valley — beyond the reach of a state ban on mass gatherings — was shut down only when television partner ESPN and its parent company, Disney, realized the public relations nightmare that awaited them if they gave the green light to mixed martial arts fighters knocking each other silly in the midst of a pandemic.
But White isn’t backing down from his ludicrous idea of setting up an octagon on “Fight Island” — a private arena somewhere offshore (he hasn’t said where it is) that could be used to stage small fight shows while the rest of the world is on lockdown.
“Fight Island infrastructure is being built and will be up and running ASAP,” White said. The UFC moved to ESPN in 2019 with a reported $1.5 billion deal, so the coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly been a huge financial blow to White’s ultimate-fighting empire.
No wonder White keeps insisting that UFC will be “the first sport back.” He’s certainly not doing it for philanthropic reasons or to boost the country’s morale. This is all about restoring what had been an ample bottom line for White's pseudo-sport, which has become wildly popular for no apparent reason beyond the blood-lust of its fan base.
White would have us all believe he’s the smartest guy in the room, that he's somehow figured out a way to carry on with a pursuit that requires vicious combat and the closest of physical contact at a time when nearly every other sport has shut down indefinitely because of the highly contagious virus.
“I have an obligation to my employees, my fighters and the fans,” White said in an interview last month with CNN. “I have built all this infrastructure around crazy stuff happening. I have my own venue. I have my own arena where I can literally put on fights and keep this thing going.”
In the early days of the world finally coming to grips with the full-fledged pandemic, White did carry on with a full fight card in an empty arena in Brazil. He wanted to hold more cards in an empty arena the UFC owns in Las Vegas, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission put the kibosh on those plans by temporarily banning combat sports.
Thankfully, he’s been stifled at every turn since then. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California was among those who weighed in on White’s plans for UFC 249, noting all the potential harm of holding an event we can all do without in such troubled times.
“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 wrote. “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.”
Don’t expect White to give up on his plans to stage fight cards long before anyone else deems it safe to return. In all likelihood, it’s going to be up to the fighters to shut down a guy who doesn’t go into the octagon himself but has collected a major financial windfall.
Already, we’ve seen some promising signs. Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to headline the main event at UFC 249, but those plans were scrapped because he was either unable or unwilling to leave his native Russia due to the pandemic.
Then, shortly before the card was canceled altogether, former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, who is known for her shaved head and “Thug Rose” nickname, announced she was withdrawing because of two deaths in her family related to the virus.
Through it all, White continues to act like everyone is overreacting to this pandemic. He insists he could stage his pay-per-view cards without endangering the fighters or anyone else by having minimal personnel around the cage and implementing extensive screening and other health measures.
Most ludicrously, he would have us think he's merely trying to be a good Samaritan by providing his fighters with a much-needed paycheck and the fans with some long-overdo entertainment. “I’m going to take care of as many people as I possibly can,” White said.
Rest assured, he'll be starting with himself.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com
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