Dana White is making his big plans for UFC 249 and beyond a reality
It was a little over a decade ago, just a few days from when 2009 rolled into 2010, that Dana White made one of his boldest and most bombastic claims.
Even back then, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was known for talking big, but this was a doozy.
“UFC will be the biggest sport in the world,” White told the Las Vegas Sun. When? “By 2020.”
Well, 2020 is here, and is already locked in as a year we will never forget. And, over the next couple of months, there is a chance that White’s prediction, in a certain sense and partly by default, will come true.
The fight is signed and is 100% ON LIVE on ESPN somewhere on EARTH!!!! 😃@TonyFergusonXT vs @Justin_Gaethje is LIVE on @espn+ PPV April 18th for the interim lightweight belt! pic.twitter.com/aH44zg5K30
— danawhite (@danawhite) April 6, 2020
For in the absence of virtually every other form of meaningful athletic competition, the UFC appears set to not only resume combat but to actually ramp up its event schedule. For a while, at least, the UFC may become the biggest sport on earth, because all others have their gates locked and bolted.
Plenty of people think the UFC should also have its doors closed until the COVID-19 crisis reaches a more manageable level. White, needless to say, is not one of them. Ever since three of his organization’s events were called off due to public safety fears and state athletic commission enforcement, he has sought an alternative.
As of now, it seems he has found one. According to independent mixed martial arts journalist Jeff Sherwood and a later report by The New York Times, White is planning to stage multiple events over the coming weeks at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort near Lemoore, Calif., about 45 minutes’ drive south of Fresno.
— UFC (@ufc) April 7, 2020
The casino has been closed for the past three weeks. However, because it is on Native American-protected land belonging to the Tachi-Yokut tribe, it is bound by neither California’s official stay-at-home order nor the auspices of the California State Athletic Commission, which has blocked all fight events until June.
“This place where this fight is going to be on Apr. 18, I have locked up for two months, so I’m going to continue to pump fights out,” White told ESPN.
The Apr. 18 date is when White plans to stage UFC 249, a significant pay-per-view card that was originally poised to be headlined by the long-awaited showdown between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. With Nurmagomedov stuck in Russia due to a border lockdown, Ferguson will now take on big-hitting Justin Gaethje, part of a 12-fight bout sheet.
For fights that were due to be held internationally, White claims to have secured a private island, possibly in international waters. where fighters can be flown in and out and where sanctioning issues would presumably be moot.
— UFC (@ufc) April 7, 2020
When White said the UFC would take over the planet all those years ago, he meant it. His belief was based on the fact that American football, despite the National Football League’s enormous popularity in the United States, remains behind soccer in terms of public interest in most other countries. But “we all ‘get’ fighting,” White reasoned.
It is a little spooky that White picked out 2020 as the year when the UFC would ascend to the peak of sports, though he likely selected it as a nice round number roughly 10 years into the future from his time of prognostication.
As things stand, the UFC has indeed exploded in popularity and was sold to the entertainment giant now known as Endeavor for $4 billion in 2016. It boasts a passionate and engaged fan base, but under normal circumstances, it is not the top sport in the world, not by a long shot.
What White has conjured is an opportunity to be in the spotlight when other sports simply have no options open to them. The NBA can’t operate, nor can the NHL. Major League Baseball is reportedly trying to navigate a logistical jungle to find enterprising ways to put on games. Even sports like golf which operate in wide open spaces are impacted by the ongoing rules around groups congregating in public. The NFL can stage its Draft remotely, but dodged a bullet when the Super Bowl concluded just weeks before the pandemic exploded.
As sports shut down all around him, White refused to accept he was out of options, an approach that is partly admirable and, in truth, partly unsettling. America needs entertainment, no question. But do we need it this badly?
The pause from (@Justin_Gaethje) and then this honest, fire response. Oh boy.
“I have 18, 19 minutes of pure hell, pure fury, and I know how hard I can hit … humans recognize effort and I will give you max effort.” pic.twitter.com/XYe97VGJDe
— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) April 7, 2020
White’s argument is that his athletes are in prime condition and want to earn themselves a paycheck, and that putting on entertainment is good for both the morale and the economy of the country. On the flip side, MMA, by its nature, is essentially the opposite of social distancing.
Regardless of your stance, it is time to get used to the fact that UFC 249 and more bouts are going to take place. Is this the first step towards a return to sporting normalcy, or an ill-conceived plan with the potential to backfire?
We will see, but Dana White is not backing down. For now, in the weirdest way possible, his prediction — kind of — is about to come true.