Why Delaying UFC 249 Makes Sense for Both UFC and Dana White

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 31, 2020

UFC president Dana White
UFC president Dana WhiteJohn Locher/Associated Press

With the coronavirus tightening its vice grip on the whole of humanity, we're all relearning an important truth: There are some things we simply can't outrun. That applies in its own way to the relatively tiny world of mixed martial arts, where Dana White and his quest to stage UFC 249 in mid-April are running out of road.

The UFC president suffered another setback Monday in his increasingly quixotic-looking pledge to hold the event on its originally scheduled date of April 18. UFC 249 was first set to take place in Brooklyn, New York, but then fate intervened, setting off a mad scramble that has seen its share of twists and turns. Now, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has indicated that travel restrictions in his native Russia may derail his title defense against Tony Ferguson in the card's main event.

In explaining the situation, Nurmagomedov appeared to semi-inadvertently provide a window into the UFC's ongoing search for a location, which appears to be encountering an ever-higher number of "no vacancy" signs.

"The UFC told us that the fight 100 percent isn't happening in the States. And they said that 99 percent that it will happen in the [United Arab Emirates], in Abu Dhabi," Nurmagomedov said in a video chat (h/t Ariel Helwani of ESPN).

"After talking to the UFC, we decided to fly over to the Emirates a month before the fight ... But when we landed in Emirates, we learned that they are going to close [the] borders and no one will be able to leave or fly in with [the] exception of residents.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

"So, we had to fly back to Russia. Currently, I am in Dagestan and I am training and preparing every day, although I don't know what am I preparing for, because after we came to Russia we also learned that the borders are going to be locked. Same like in the States, same like in Europe, Emirates, everywhere. The whole world is in quarantine right now."

White and the UFC are soldiering on as best they know how. After the Nurmagomedov news, White took some time Monday to offload some blame and tension onto the "scumbags" of the assembled media and reassure (if that's what you want to call it) everyone that UFC 249 is going to happen, mark his words, consarn it.

"I woke up this morning and the whole world f--king changed again," White told the Heavyweight podcast (h/t MMA Fighting). "So, back to the drawing board, and we're figuring this out right now as we're speaking right now, I have people working on this thing as we speak. Listen, I am absolutely f--king relentless and I said that this fight is going to go on and it will."

Certainly, the UFC could slap some band-aids on the lineup and find a Hail Mary venue, but the MMA community may need to gird itself for the chance that there just might exist an infinitesimally tiny chance that April 2020 passes with no UFC event. 

To be honest, that possibility is not only safer but smarter than the alternative. At this point, it makes sense to bite the bullet, swallow the pride and make what we all know in our collective heart of hearts is the sanest decision amid all this uncertainty: postpone this event until the all-clear signal and live to fight another day.

Even without its main event, the actual fight card is the least of the UFC's worries. The co-main event could be a serviceable one, featuring two former champs in Jessica Andrade and Rose Namajunas, even if the card falls off a cliff after that. Sure, the converted co-main doesn't carry the same appeal as a marquee-division title fight, but at this point, simply fielding a proverbial team may be enough to win by default. 

Tony Ferguson (right)
Tony Ferguson (right)Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

White is "relentlessly," as he put it Monday, seeking a replacement for Nurmagomedov. Hard-hitting Justin Gaethje looks like the front-runner for now, and to be perfectly frank, Gaethje-Ferguson would be instant appointment viewing. That could even be the kind of fight that, with the eyes of the sports world upon it, might vault MMA forward more than any single bout since Griffin-Bonnar I. That prospect has to be extremely tantalizing.

Others, including welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, have also thrown their hats in the ring. As of now, though, nothing is finalized anywhere and there's enough he-said she-said in the public discourse to suggest that, as it stands, there's more smoke than fire.

But again, given that it's probably going to draw eyeballs regardless, a drop in card quality probably would not on its own be a damning flaw for the event.

Finding a location is the far tougher problem. On March 23, White told ESPN the venue was "99.9 percent" certain. That last 0.1 percent always seems to be the sticking point. 

For a while, the UFC looked to have a strong ace in the hole—the performance institute housed within its Las Vegas headquarters. But the Nevada State Athletic Commission shut down all combat sports events a couple weeks ago, with no current timetable for reconsideration. 

The idea, however, was recently emulated by WWE, which is forging ahead this weekend with a closed-to-the-public WrestleMania 36 at its own Performance Center in Orlando, Florida—but only after local lawmakers booted it out of Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

This might help explain why Florida is currently in the UFC's cross hairs. But one has to suspect they're starting at a disadvantage relative to the WWE because the latter is based in Florida and as a result likely has a lot more leverage with state decision-makers.

Bear in mind also that a lot has changed in Florida in just the last few days. This is the same state where sheriff's deputies arrested a pastor Monday for violating social-distancing directives, and where the governor is preventing a virus-infected cruise ship (bearing four dead passengers at last count) from docking on its shores.

These actions occurred as coronavirus cases and deaths spiked in the state, now with the ninth-most coronavirus-related deaths in the United States as of Tuesday morning with 63, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. What's more, April is widely viewed as a pivotal month for the world's fight against the incurable disease.

Another location option, as semi-jokingly pointed out by my colleague Tom Taylor, is international waters. Before you laugh too much, none other than White himself has entertained the possibility, noting that an aircraft carrier could hypothetically host the event. Isn't that a beautiful dream? Go ahead and let your imagination run wild. You could construct a moat and fill it with energy drinks. You could lure Mudvayne out of retirement and chopper in Joe Exotic on a weekend furlough. Exotic could be the guest ring announcer, though we'd bemoan such a muted sense of fashion after all these years with Bruce Buffer. If anyone can do any of this, it's the UFC.

I think I'm kidding, but maybe I'm not. After all, Submission Underground 2, which aired Sunday on UFC Fight Pass, came to you live from an abandoned grain silo in Oregon.

It's hard to bet against White. The smart money says he and the UFC will exhaust all their options. If he does ultimately get a show done, he will do it against the odds and reap the rewards accordingly. It's interesting to think about what such a show might look like. Would they do it in that Oregon silo? Stranger things have happened.

The ultimate question is why the UFC persists when all other major sports leagues are mothballed. Reasons No. 1-100 are variations on "money." Broadcast partner ESPN can't be pushing back too hard against the UFC's continued efforts here, given its much-depleted programming lineup. White knows full well that he's the last shrimp boat on the bayou, and he feels an urge to cast his net. (That only-game-in-town status was further cemented Monday when competing promotions Bellator and Professional Fighters League announced, within hours of each other, extended suspensions.)

Buyer beware of the notion that this is all happening out of concern for the common fan. There's no question live fights would be a much-needed diversion, and White did say something recently about getting the country back to "normalcy." But ascribing some sense of altruism to this would in itself be an act of charity. If I'm mistaken about the UFC's motivations, I'll shut my mouth and look forward to the free broadcast. 

This brings us to the final potential reason for the continued quest. If White can't deliver, he could lose face on the public stage, forced to furiously spin his way out of the corner or, worse yet, acknowledge to the demon-spawn media that he was unable to, in UFC parlance, back up his smack. He doesn't come off as the kind of guy who likes that sort of thing very much.  

None of this is to downplay the UFC's commitment to health and safety. White has said repeatedly the company will take all the proper precautions with events, fighters and staff, and there's no real reason to doubt those intentions. But focusing on that misses the wider point, which is that, according to mountains of ready evidence, the entire event, just like all other events, poses a health risk. Its very existence diminishes safety. No amount of anything can shove aside that inconvenient truth.

And so here we are, reminded again that some things are simply beyond our control, especially here in this young 2020. Nevertheless, it looks like White is going down with the UFC 249 ship, refusing to surrender until the final port is closed.