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Column: Why Dana White is staging UFC 249 amid coronavirus

UFC President Dana White at an Aug. 31, 2019, news conference in Shenzhen, China.
UFC President Dana White, shown at an August 2019 news conference in China, will stage the first live major professional sports event in the U.S. in nearly two months.
(Zhe Ji / Getty Images)

UFC President Dana White was typically unapologetic as he prepared to travel from his home in Las Vegas to Jacksonville, Fla., for Saturday’s UFC 249 pay-per-view.

“Critics have never built anything,” he said in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I really don’t care what the critics have to say. Somebody has to be first, and it will be cool to be first and share this with our fans and people who will be watching for the first time.”

The first White was referring to was Saturday’s show, which will be the first live major professional sports event in the U.S. in nearly two months.

White was included last month when President Trump announced the formation of several panels designed to help reopen the economy when danger from the COVID-19 pandemic subsided. White was part of a group of league commissioners, executives and owners.

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The other members have mostly kept quiet about the work, but White, who has publicly supported Trump, spoke about it. “It was great,” he said. “I thought the president did a great job on that call. Everybody involved and all the powers-that-be had great input, great ideas and great questions.

Dana White and President Trump at a Feb. 20 rally in Colorado.
Dana White appears on stage with President Trump during a rally on Feb. 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
(Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

“A lot of times, you could be involved in something like that and feel like you wasted an hour and a half of your life, but that that was not the case when I got off that call. I was proud to be a part of it, and it was very informative and very well done.”

White said his big takeaway was that Trump wanted sports to return as soon as possible. White is committed to do what he can to make it happen.

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“The president’s take on it was we have to get live sports back first,” White said. “Show everybody how to do it safely. Give people who have to stay home some entertainment so they’re not bouncing off the walls. From there, we can figure out how we get people back to work and how we get kids back to schools.

“That’s really what the president laid out to us that day on the phone and how he would like to see it happen. I’m going first. … hopefully after I do this, other leagues will start looking and say, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’”

“Somebody has to dive in and take the lead on this thing and I’m going to do that. When my event is over people will see that it can be done safely.”
Dana White

From what White heard on the conference call, however, he isn’t optimistic other professional sports leagues will rush back even after the UFC stages three events over 10 days in Jacksonville, on Saturday, Wednesday and May 16.

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“I think a lot of these other, bigger leagues are afraid of criticism, to be honest with you,” White said. “You can’t be afraid of criticism.”

Although he acknowledged he didn’t know the intricacies of other sports, he said NASCAR or golf could have been first, since those athletes are in cars or easily able to keep distance between themselves on a course. He might be right about that, but those sports aren’t far behind; they’re scheduled to come back in the next few weeks. He might be right, too, in feeling team sports could be concerned about jumping back in based on the criticism the NBA took over the optics of coronavirus tests being given to entire rosters when the tests were still scarce for the general public.

“Somebody has to dive in and take the lead on this thing, and I’m going to do that,” White said. “When my event is over, people will see that it can be done safely.”

And, of course, he stands to reap a big profit by being first with a pay-per-view when millions of sports fans are yearning to watch live sports.

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UFC 249 was originally scheduled for April 18 at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, which sits on tribal land about 40 miles south of Fresno. The location would have allowed UFC to skirt stay-at-home orders in California and most of the rest of the U.S. at the time. Those plans were thwarted, White said, by Gov. Gavin Newsom a week before the event was to be broadcast by ESPN.

Two years ago, UFC agreed to a five-year, $1.5-billion deal with ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., and White said he got a call from the “highest level” at Disney and ESPN to postpone the event.

When producers of “The Last Dance” announced a new date for the series to debut, they had finished only three of the 10 episodes. The final episode still is not complete.

“I figured out a way that I could put on an event where the state government wasn’t involved,” White said. “I literally told my lawyers, ‘Get me into a spot where I cannot be stopped by the state government.’ That was where we were and the governor called in a favor for that event not to happen. He’s doing what he has to do and I was doing what I have to do.”

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We’re at a different point now in the battle against COVID-19. Major League Soccer camps have opened this week for voluntary individual workouts, and in some states NBA teams are starting to bring players into their training facilities. Timelines are beginning to form for many sports.

White said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry had been supportive. DeSantis deemed all sports, including professional wrestling, “essential services” last month.

“Obviously this COVID-19 thing is real, it’s serious, and it’s a problem, but let’s figure out solutions. Let’s figure out how to fix this,” White said. “How do we get live sports back? How do we get people back to work? … How do we do it safely? We should be working with our government, not fighting against them.”

White would like to stage another UFC event at the company’s training center in Las Vegas on May 23, but Nevada’s stay-at-home orders are in place through at least May 15. White submitted the same proposal to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak as he did to DeSantis. It outlines the UFC’s plans to hold the events in a controlled environment, without fans, and with diagnostic swab COVID-19 tests and antibody tests administered to all fighters, corner people and officials upon arrival to one hotel that would house all essential personnel.

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Some Las Vegas sportsbooks will be back in business this week, providing an opening for one burgeoning enterprise: esports.

White said he thought Gov. Sisolak “was impressed by it and liked it.”

“I’m confident we’ll be able to do this event in Vegas,” White said. “I built a $100-million facility over here so I could do these types of things for my staff and my fighters.”

White said he also planned on holding cards on “Fight Island,” a private, undisclosed location outside the United States. He said the infrastructure was being put in place and the island would be ready to host its first UFC event in June.

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“Everybody wants to be a part of this,” he said. “I talked to Conor [McGregor] yesterday and he wants to fight there. Khabib [Nurmagomedov] came out and said as soon as Ramadan is over, he’ll be back training and he’ll be back this summer.

“All of our athletes are ready to compete. Hopefully this weekend kicks it off and we get everybody back and give the world some sense of normalcy.”


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