There was plenty of questioning and criticism for Dana White, to the point where the UFC president felt like he was a fighter taking “unnecessary punishment” for barreling ahead at a time when other sports leagues are on pause.
Being the first sports league to get back to business – or second, if you buy a recent promo for NASCAR – during a global pandemic brought plenty of headlines, good and bad. But at the end of the day, they happened. And for now, White is declaring victory.
“10.5,” White told reporters following UFC on ESPN 8 in response to a question of how he rated a trio of events that wrapped on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. “It was awesome. The key to this week was not a lot of people testing positive for COVID-19 or nobody getting sick. It was a home run, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Of course, some people did test positive for COVID-19 – three to be exact. News of UFC middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornerman contracting the virus – after he broke what should have been a self-quarantine – sent a shiver of concern through fighters and personnel on site in the beachside town, coming at a time when it seemed like the promotion was gliding toward a drama-free kickoff with UFC 249. While the episode brought into question the effectiveness of the protocols the promotion had painstakingly crafted after getting the green-light from the state to proceed, White’s interpretation was that the system had worked by identifying and excluding the sick. But as workers broke down the octagon in Jacksonville, even he had to admit the game wasn’t over yet.
There weren’t any additional positives after Souza and his teammates (that we know of). The virus’ incubation period of up to 14 days will deliver the final verdict on whether the additional precautions – and blatant departures from those safety protocols – worked as intended.
“Nobody’s gotten sick, and hopefully that’s the case – there’s no guarantees in life – but hopefully that’s the case when we go home,” said White, who during the week posted videos of his brain getting tickled for the diagnostic coronavirus test. “I think we picked the perfect place to do it, too. This town was perfect for it; the governor, and the mayor and the athletic commission and the arena, they were great to us. … I’m glad we did it here first. I’m ready to go home, though.”
White’s first choice for a May 30 event is in the UFC’s home city of Las Vegas. But with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak recently extending current restrictions on sporting arenas until the end of the month, that seems pretty optimistic. The second choice, he said at the press conference, is Arizona, which is in the process of reopening its economy after letting a stay-at-home order expire.
The procedures in place in Jacksonville, which included sanitizing of microphones, distancing of commentary tables, masks for just about everybody, and between-fight spritzes of disinfectant for the octagon, are the new normal as the UFC rolls on during the pandemic. Other sporting leagues are asking White for advice. But he made up his mind a long time ago that he would listen to his own instincts when it came to the decision to move forward. Doctors and experts would help smooth the ride, but no one would bring it to a stop.
“This is what we’re going to do,” he said. “You guys have dealt with me long enough…when we’re doing what we’re doing and you’re just taking unnecessary punishment, you know I’m going to f*cking snap eventually, and I do. But we worked hard to pull this thing off and get here.
“Nothing means more to me than the safety of everybody that was involved in the event, not just with COVID-19, but a fight that wasn’t stopped soon enough. Every time we finish an event, I want everyone to go home safe, and it’s not any different with COVID-19. And we’ll do everything in our power – we’ll spend the money, we’ll talk to doctors and experts in the field and figure out how to beat it.”
White has snapped at several points, mostly at reporters, whether they were within the MMA bubble or worked for mainstream news reporters and, in his opinion, made up “lies” and valued clicks over accuracy. He was also forced to defend an unusually restrictive contract his attorneys required media and fighters to sign prior to the event. For those who’ve dealt with him long enough, they shed light on a familiar hostility toward those who don’t act in tandem with the UFC as promoters.
Even if there isn’t a happy ending in Jacksonville, White will continue to look at the UFC’s path as a fight with allies and opponents, the latter of which he must defeat by being successful. Only those deeply intertwined in the promotion’s business interests will be able to tell him otherwise, and only to a certain point.
Telling White he couldn’t promote during a pandemic ensured he would move heaven and earth to prove doubters wrong.
“I believe nothing is impossible and everything can be done, especially in 2020,” he said. “You just have to work hard enough, spend some money, and come up with solutions, and that’s what we did this week.”