Could UFC's Fight Island Actually Be a Good Idea? Public Health Experts Weigh In

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 20, 2020

UFC sets up shop for UFC 249.
UFC sets up shop for UFC 249.Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

If all other things were equal, the UFC's Fight Island would actually be a pretty good idea.

But they're not, so it isn't.

That's the nutshell opinion of public health experts when it comes to Fight Island, the live-sports solution just outlandish enough to fit our modern times. It's been the subject of some head-scratching, but scientists concede the idea has merit.

Let's give this a fair shake, examining the good and the bad.

The idea became public April 6 when UFC President Dana White told ESPN (also the UFC's exclusive broadcaster): "I've got an island. The infrastructure is being built right now. We're going to do all of our international fights on this island."

Information has been scant ever since. The location is unknown, outside of the fact that it's likely in international waters so as to avoid travel restrictions and other constraints. The public got a big scoop last week when White told ESPN Radio Chicago (h/t Sporting News) Fight Island would host its first card in June.

If the card goes off as scheduled, it will only have been two months and change from the time of the first announcement to the opening event. That likely means the island already had lots of basic infrastructure, like electricity and sanitation. This puts the focus on an actual event.

Francis Ngannou (left) and Dana White (right) fist bump at UFC 249 weigh-ins.
Francis Ngannou (left) and Dana White (right) fist bump at UFC 249 weigh-ins.Mike Roach/Getty Images

UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal the company purchased 1,200 tests for the 300 people on hand for UFC 249 on May 9. Let's assume it would be roughly the same for a Fight Island event. In advance of UFC 249, which took place in Jacksonville, Florida, tests did detect COVID-19 in ranked light heavyweight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and two of his cornermen, forcing their quarantines and the cancellation of his bout. The system worked in that it caught the infections, but also in that it illustrated the risks right now in any group event, regardless of circumstances.

Still, the island would appear to provide the kind of physical isolation—in other words, built-in social distancing—that mainland venues can't, even without crowds. That's a real advantage, experts said, and one that will only grow more important in the coming weeks and months as society works to approximate life before the pandemic.

"I think it certainly makes sense to explore places that can hold events while still maintaining social distancing," said Glen Mays, who chairs the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy at the Colorado School of Public Health. "We're going to have to do things like this [for sports]. So as a general strategy, it really makes good sense."

Justin Gaethje (right) hits Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.
Justin Gaethje (right) hits Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.John Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press

Even with the benefits of isolation, Fight Island's actual safety profile will only be as good as the measures in place to stop the coronavirus from reaching the island and spreading if it's there. 

The UFC is well aware of this and thus put together a safety plan for UFC 249 in Jacksonville. As detailed by ESPN's Marc Raimondi, the plan included regular screenings and testings, limited in-person interactions, and adjusted flights and schedules, among other things.

"If they found an uninhabited island, sure they could do it," said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "If the concept is to bring a couple hundred people, I don't see why it couldn't potentially happen."

That one word—"potentially"—is where it all breaks down. There's no invisibility cloak for the coronavirus. Increased testing could actually lead to complacency, with up to a third of people infected testing negative. Social distancing and contact tracing aren't targets for lip service or boxes to be checked. Without them, the virus spreads. 

"The idea of holding these events, there can be lots of transmission even without crowds: the athletes, the staff, the broadcasters," Demmer said.

Joe Rogan (right) interviews Ryan Spann at UFC 249.
Joe Rogan (right) interviews Ryan Spann at UFC 249.Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

If it was up to Demmer, Fight Island rules would include across-the-board two-week quarantines for all visitors before traveling to the island and perhaps before they return home; proper social distancing (including face coverings) throughout the stay; and all appropriate screening, testing and travel logistics.

He also wouldn't recommend it at all right now, saying a mid-to-late summer start time is a better target.

"Fighters might be willing to do this, but they probably won't be able to go right home to their families," Demmer said. "Keeping people in that bubble can be a logistical nightmare."

Even if the UFC follows all best practices to a T, we are still firmly entrenched in a protracted human tragedy. More tests for UFC fighters necessarily means fewer for people in, say, emergency rooms. There again is the rub with the coronavirus. Resources are finite. The virus doesn't care about narratives or debt service. Its presence poses a risk of sickness and death, hard stop, and right now it seems to be omnipresent. 

"There may be a public relations issue with the acquisition of tests for events of this nature because sick people can't get a test," Demmer said. "They could get some backlash. They're competing with hospitals, clinics and health care workers. ... If they didn't compete with hospitals for tests and carried out an abundance of testing, then I wouldn't see it as foolish."

All indications are that business will go forward on Fight Island, and the money will roll in from a sports-starved public. But that isn't enough to make the endeavor successful or immune from the scrutiny of people with competing priorities. Of course, you root for real success. You want fighters to earn a living, and you want good entertainment—who doesn't want these things?

Above all, you have to hope all other things are equal. But right now, even on Fight Island, anything other than hope requires a leap of faith.

"We're obviously working very hard at the state and national levels to expand testing," Mays said. "There will be a time when we won't have these constraints, and we'll have routine testing. But clearly we're not there yet. We're still prioritizing for the symptomatic. Having an exemption for this just doesn't make sense."


Scott Harris is an MMA feature writer and columnist at Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.