If sports were the canaries in the coal mine for the COVID-19 Pandemic, the UFC canary had a distinct case of laryngitis. And it coughed all the way to the bank.
On one hand, the company adapted to the new normal as deftly as any other sports league. On the other, accepting that statment means overlooking the UFC's consistent willingness to barrel through the public health recommendations that emerged—for good reason—as the world worked to get the virus under control.
That double-sided coin was the backdrop of the year that was in MMA, and as such is the sport's biggest story in 2020.
Let's first take a broad look at the pandemic period from a sports perspective. The first sign of disruption came in mid-March when two Utah Jazz players, All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, announced they had tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA reacted swiftly by suspending its season. Then March Madness was canceled. Other big players like MLB and the NHL halted their own campaigns. The coronavirus had spoken, and sports—a major potential super-spreader with all its crowds and travel—had listened.
Well, except for the UFC. At least to some extent, as they indeed temporarily canceled UFC 249 following positive tests among fighters and cornermen. The event was set for May, and ended only after pressure from broadcast partner ESPN and its parent company, a little outfit known as Disney.
But while it's true that ESPN stepped in at first, those concerns appeared to melt away, at least publicly, with the entirety of live sports programming in the deep freeze. (They subsequently rescheduled UFC 249.) The siren song of fresh and recurring—how very recurring!—content was evidently too much to resist.
So as the world changed before us, the UFC pushed past such concerns to get up and running again. The whole time, White took a cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus, which as of Monday had killed more than 330,000 Americans. At one point White cursed it like it was an uppity business rival. If coronavirus was altering your behavior, why, it just meant you lacked the stones it took to do nothing.
"If the coronavirus is what's going to get me, I'm ready," he told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports. "Bring it, corona.”
Bring it, corona? Well, corona brought it. The pandemic has created a steady drumbeat of canceled or altered fights on top of the canceled UFC 249. But to White, it all seemed framed as a cost of doing business. The UFC never "outperformed" anyone else to a signifcant degree from a safety or readiness standpoint. It was just willing to run the red lights.
The UFC and the MMA community also tasted tragedy as a direct result of the pandemic. Three months after UFC 249 was set to have taken place, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, father of lightweight GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov, died from issues related to COVID-19. Three months after that, a courageous Nurmagomedov put on a masterclass in dominating Justin Gaethje to run his record to 29-0, then promptly announced his retirement in the cage, noting his mother had insisted on the decision after Abdulmanap's death.
The UFC has continued to soldier on through it all, with perhaps its most clever maneuvering over its venues. Methodically running out of possibilities, UFC honchos got permission to hold events at the UFC Apex training center in Las Vegas and the ever-commerce-friendly state of Florida.
And this is before we even get to Fight Island.
Shrouded in mystery, White loudly kept the details quiet on Fight Island, allowing speculation to run rampant over where it might be or even whether it exists. To its credit, the UFC and the honchos in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates delivered a strong venue and testing and safety plan.
White attempted to spin Fight Island and the UFC's refusal to take a knee into a story of redemption or perseverance. (Also keep in mind that COVID-19 tests were in short supply in the spring, when the UFC was buying them up to test the athletes and their teams.)
Public opinion within the MMA community has been divided. One side argued that sports were a needed respite for a general public already weary and in need of distraction. Fair enough. The other argues that this was all about money—a not-unusual for the contemporary and deeply-in-debt UFC.
As for me, if this was all about the fans, I guess I'm still waiting on my discounted pay-per-views or ESPN+ subscriptions. It's a good thing I'm patient.
If you could somehow put the COVID-19 pandemic aside, it was a fairly pedestrian year for the UFC. The emergence of Israel Adesanya, the never-ending walking melodrama that is Conor McGregor, the heart and skill of new champion Zhang Weili stand out as important narratives.
But nothing like this. And nothing else has shone a light on the complexion of the current UFC's operation like the pandemic, which brought so many brutal truths and lies to so many corners of society. The UFC didn't emerge unscathed, but they did capitalize on an unseemly process of elimination to survive and even thrive. No matter what you think of the decision-making, this story dwarfs all others on the MMA landscape this year.