Dana White was relaxed as he talked to a small group of masked, socially distanced reporters huddled in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Jacksonville, Fla. on Friday afternoon. Relaxation isn’t a state the UFC president often embodies – especially not recently.
On the eve of a historic UFC 249 that represents the first major American sporting event to take place during the global coronavirus pandemic, White’s voice echoed throughout the scarcely populated ballroom. Moments prior, it had served as the space for the UFC’s first weigh-ins and faceoffs in almost two months. While the circumstances were far from usual, there was a sense of normalcy.
“Everything is good,” White said. “It’s been a good week. We’re right there. We’ll get in there tomorrow and make sure everybody is good and healthy and put this behind us.”
Getting here has been a long and winding road filled with roadblocks and detours. For two months, an ever-evolving situation – because of stay-at-home orders in states throughout the country – saw the UFC, like other businesses worldwide, make a tremendous amount of unforeseen, pandemic-induced adjustments that all have led this point.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in early March, uncertainty flooded the sports world. With so little known, leagues began suspending operations one by one. First the NBA, then the NHL – the two biggest mid-season sports organizations – and so on down the line.
The UFC took a different approach, however. Even though seemingly every other MMA organization, including Bellator, called timeout, White dug his heels in. He was determined in his approach to push forward. The decision was met with blowback from the get-go from government officials, health experts, and even large portions of the media and fans.
UFC on ESPN+ 28 happened as planned on March 14 in Brasilia, Brazil – but the promotion took a precautionary measure by not allowing fans or media in the arena. There, in an arena set to hold thousands, 24 fighters competed in an eerily unusual environment. Upon reflection, White said the event bolstered his confidence.
“Everybody got through that weekend safe,” White said. “… There were a lot of people down there, and they were all OK. We knew we could figure this out.”
As international concern mounted and the COVID-19 death toll began to rise, a UFC event in London was next on deck. Days before, local government officials placed a ban on large gatherings. The UFC pulled the plug altogether.
The postponements continued with the UFC’s shows in Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore., being next – but they served as collateral. The UFC’s prized April 18 pay-per-view, UFC 249, remained on the schedule. White was determined to keep the event afloat, but it couldn’t happen in it’s originally scheduled location of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. It also didn’t matter that the original headliner, a highly anticipated clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, fell apart after the champion was stuck in his native Russia because of travel restrictions.
Unwilling to give the media any details, White kept much of his business dealings under wraps. The secrecy seemed to light a fire. An abundance of questions built, but no answers were given. White had a location, but where? The answer turned out to be tribal land in Leemore, Calif. With uncertainty aplenty, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued an open letter, requesting the event be shut down.
“Listen, I’ve got over 350 employees with families – the fighters,” White said. “This thing with the media that was going on, what is wrong with continuing to do what you do if you continue to do it safely? I never understood. … If you come out and say you want to figure it out and do it, some of these guys out there … try to terrorize you and shame you. There would be media members, if I came out and gave any information, they would just start hammering the athletic commission or the hotel or the venue that we were going to with all this. It was a pretty crazy time. It really made me dislike the media big time.”
Days after the news surfaced, White announced the event was off – but it wasn’t because of Feinstein’s statement. The UFC’s broadcast partner, Disney, which owns ESPN, intervened at the urging of Gov. Gavin Newsom. For White, his business partners are a different story.
“When you’re talking about the woman who wrote the open letter, it was already determined that the fight wasn’t going to happen by then anyway,” White said. “That really didn’t have any (impact). They definitely had some impact on it, because they were reaching out to ESPN, who eventually came to me and said, ‘Let’s do this another weekend.’”
After one cancellation, White wasn’t ready to give up on fighting for fights. He joined the rest of the UFC brass in scouring the country for options – trying to keep up with laws being instituted by the hour.
“Everyday we’d go into the office and figure stuff out that whole day,” White said. “We’d go to bed that night and wake up the next morning: Everything would change literally. … Every day for three weeks this would happen to us. Literally, (Hunter Campbell) and I would get on the phone from our houses and go, ‘This is (expletive) insane. This just happened again. Now what?’ (We) started looking at what the major problems would be if this continued to happen – and how long this was going to go on for.”
Enter “Fight Island.” As soon as the idea surfaced, it went viral. It was the talk of every interview White did. An island – just for fights? Really?
“We knew that was going to be our biggest problem,” White said. “If we don’t have international fights, we’ll smoke the U.S. talent in two months. Then we’ve got nothing. We needed to figure out how to put on international fights. Where can you fly people in and out of without a problem? An island. That’s how.”
“Fight Island” aside, White said he was still seeking a place to hold fights in the U.S. – a place that checked all the boxes. The UFC encountered numerous problems but kept pressing. The solution to what at one point seemed like a never-ending chase, Jacksonville has etched its name in MMA history forever.
“I have to thank the governor of Florida and the mayor in Jacksonville and the commission for working with us,” White said. “When you have the government working with you, it makes everything so much safer and easier to do.”
According to White, it wasn’t about being first for the UFC. It was about doing what he thought was possible. Like it or not, White’s determination and stubbornness got him what he ultimately wanted.
“Nothing bothers me,” White said. “Nothing anybody says bothers me. I literally couldn’t give a (expletive) what anybody thinks. Nobody who is associated with this event had to come. Fighters don’t have to fight. My employees haven’t had to (come). Everybody that’s here wants to be here. I never doubted that we would pull off an event. I know my team. I know these fighters. I know how these guys are. These people who fight are a different breed of human beings. They’re not like everybody else.
“… It all worked out good. I can’t explain to you enough. This is what we do, and we’ll figure it out. You just have to be willing to spend money. It’s going to cost you a lot of money. It’s not cheap. You just have to be willing. You have to be committed to making it happen.”