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Dana White 1-on-1 with Kevin Iole - UFC 249, Fight Island & re-opening after the pandemic

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Yahoo Sports MMA insider Kevin Iole caught up with the UFC president to talk about his decision to bring the sport back May 9 in Florida. Plus, the two take a look at the odds for those bouts in Jacksonville, the continued construction around “Fight Island” and discuss when’s the right time for society to get back to normal following the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. I hope you are having a great day and are safe wherever you are and staying away from this virus. Joining me right now is a guy who just made a big announcement. Not one, not two, but three fight cards have been announced. Dana White from the UFC. Hi, Dana. How are you?

DANA WHITE: What's up, buddy?

KEVIN IOLE: So you have been busy since April 18, ever since Disney asked you to stand down, and you found a location. So UFC 249 going on at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville and then two other shows. So fill me in on how you came to Jacksonville, and was it a no-brainer when the governor basically said sports are an essential service?

DANA WHITE: Absolutely. And, you know, we have the sign off from the governor, the mayor. The athletic commission is involved. So, yeah, it's all good.

KEVIN IOLE: A lot different when you were going to Tachi Palace. You know, you were dealing with the issue of the fact that, you know, the US senator didn't want it there. The governor didn't want it there. You know, nobody was going to regulate it. So it was a lot different there than now going to Florida, correct?

DANA WHITE: Yeah, and it's not that nobody was going to regulate it. You know, when we travel, you know, to other countries, we still-- we have Marc Ratner. And, you know, our safety record is literally perfect. So we were never going to not regulate.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: Go ahead.

KEVIN IOLE: I was going to say, you know, the one thing I noticed, the mayor's comment was kind of interesting, and he talked about the impact to the economy. And I can't imagine it's going to impact the economy like a normal UFC fight would because you're going to have no fans, right? So where's he coming from with this economic impact and revitalizing Florida where he's talking about?

DANA WHITE: Listen, the commission's still going to make money on the thing. They're going to make money. And at some point, Kevin, we have to figure out how do you get things back to normal but do it in a really safe way? The only way to find out is to get out there and start doing it.

You know, we're going to spend a lot of money. This isn't going to be cheap. It's going to be expensive. Every time that you're worried about safety, health and safety of everybody-- the fighters, you know, the commission, the referees, my staff that's going to be there. It's not cheap. It's expensive. It's hard. But somebody's got to take the first step and get out there. You can't just stay in your houses until next December.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, you know, the thing everybody wants to know is the testing, right? So I'm assuming that you're going to test everybody and you're going to be taking temperatures and that kind of thing?

DANA WHITE: I mean, we have-- first of all, we submitted a very comprehensive 30-page document to the governor of Nevada on how we're going to, you know, run the sport-- not just the sport but our office once we get our employees back in here working again. You know, I care very much about the fighters. I care very much about my staff, obviously my family. We're going to do everything way up here. You know, we always do.

Health and safety is an issue for us for the last 20 years. You know, there's a lot of companies and a lot of businesses out there that now the health and safety of their employees is something new. You know, it's not new for us. This is something that we, you know, not only deal with on a weekly basis but we take great pride in the fact that we have such a great track record.

KEVIN IOLE: Sure. You know, obviously anybody who's followed the UFC for a long time understands that and that you have committed a lot of resources to that. You know, in terms-- this virus is a little different. I guess, you know, you just were a little vague, and so I just want to pin you down if I can a little bit. You know, you did not say yes, you were going to test everybody, and I guess that's the thing that people want to know, that, you know, hey, I think people feel a lot better about it if you say yes, Kevin Iole's in that arena. He's going to be tested. Dana White's in that arena. He's going to be tested. And I guess that's the thing, and you seem to be hesitant to say yes.

DANA WHITE: It's not that I'm hesitant to say anything. I'm just not telling the media anything. I'm not telling them anything. You know, basically I told you health and safety is important. It's always, you know, whatever with us. Just the more you put out there-- you know, it's going to be on ESPN. There aren't going to be any fans there. You know, there's not going to be there's 15,000 people inside this arena that are going to spread out throughout the country--

KEVIN IOLE: OK.

DANA WHITE: --and, you know, all this other crap. So we're putting on an event. It's going to be safe.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, let's talk about the event, the main event, Tony Ferguson versus Justin Gaethje; co-main event, Henry Cejudo versus Dominick Cruz; and then Francis Ngannou versus Jarzinho Rozenstruik, which I think is the one that I'm looking forward to the most, even though that's hard to say for me because as much as I love to watch Tony Ferguson fight, Francis is on a whole other level to me.

But what are the other two fights on the main card? It didn't differentiate it in the release that you guys put out. What's the other two on the pay-per-view card?

DANA WHITE: The pay-per-view card, the main event is Tony Ferguson and Gaethje. The co-main event is Cejudo and Cruz. Before that one is Ngannou and Rozenstruik. Stephens and Calvin Kattar, and we open the main card on pay per view with Hardy versus De Castro.

KEVIN IOLE: Hardy versus De Castro. And then what's going to be your main event on ESPN?

DANA WHITE: It is Cowboy Cerrone versus Anthony Pettis.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. All right, good. That's what I wanted to get you for. And then are your early prelims going to be on Plus, or are they all going to be on ESPN?

DANA WHITE: I think they're going to be on both. I think they're both ESPN and Plus, because some people don't even have cable anymore. They just stream.

KEVIN IOLE: Right. OK. So they'll be on Plus for both of them then. OK, that's good.

I was saying to you before we started to record that there are already numbers on this, and so I just want to get your thought on a couple of fights. And Tony Ferguson to me is just, you know, an incredible fighter, has won 12 in a row. I think it's 18 out of 19 since he's been in the UFC. He is a 170 favorite over Justin Gaethje who is plus 135 at the MGM Grand. Does that surprise you a little bit that Tony's only a 170 favorite?

DANA WHITE: No.

KEVIN IOLE: No?

DANA WHITE: No. Gaethje is a very dangerous fighter. This is a insane main event. You know, Tony hasn't lost in like eight years, and Gaethje has had six fights in the UFC and won seven bonuses.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.

DANA WHITE: So this fight is incredible. I mean, it's a very violent main event. Anything can happen in this fight. Either guy can win. Both guys have the tools to stop this fight at any point in time. It's a very fun fight. If you're not going to be watching Tony versus Khabib, this is the other fight you want to see Tony in.

KEVIN IOLE: This is going to be an unbelievable-- you know what? Just seeing Tony Ferguson against anybody is good, let alone, you know, somebody like Gaethje or, of course, Khabib is amazing.

I want to get your reaction. I interviewed Mike Tyson a week or 10 days ago, and Mike had had-- when I did the interview with him, he had just gotten done recording an interview with Gaethje. And Gaethje said something to Mike that I found really strange, and I want to get your reaction to it. Gaethje said I would rather get knocked out in the second round than to win a five-round decision. And I'm thinking, isn't that a little crazy? You'd rather get knocked out in the second round than win a five-round decision? When you hear that, what do you think?

DANA WHITE: Yeah, that's batshit nuts. That just-- that sums up everything I said about this fight. I mean, this fight is going to be-- so as a promoter, there's been a handful of times that I've gone out and I said if you spend the money to buy this fight, I guarantee you you're going to get fireworks. It's going to be incredible. You will not turn off the TV and be disappointed. Only a handful of times have I said that.

I will tell you again, if you spend the money and you buy this fight, just with the main event alone you will not be disappointed. It's impossible. It is impossible for Tony Ferguson versus Justin Gaethje to not be an incredible fight. Impossible.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, I think-- and as I said, the heavyweight fight to me is a nutso fight.

And let me look at the odds on that one. That is Francis's is minus 280. Jarzinho is plus 220. Now I'm not going to advise anybody to bet against Francis because I think Francis is awesome, but with the kind of power that Jarzinho has, is he worth a flyer at plus 220 for somebody who's looking to get an underdog?

DANA WHITE: Yeah, I think that, you know, the reason that is is Francis has been in the big fights. You know, Francis has been in the big fights. He's been in the big title fight. You know, he's pretty much done it all except when the belt.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: I think that's why. And if you look at his last fight, I'm sure that has a lot to do with it too because it was a similar opponent. They both fought the same guy, right?

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: And you saw what Francis did to him. And, you know--

KEVIN IOLE: Jarzinho--

DANA WHITE: --Rozenstruik did it too. But, you know, at the end of the round, so--

KEVIN IOLE: And he was losing the fight.

DANA WHITE: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah. But I'm just saying from a standpoint when you have a guy that can punch like that like he can punch-- and he showed against Overeem, you know, that he doesn't need a combination, right? He needs one shot to end the fight, as we know Francis can do. I just say, hey, might be worth a flier if you're sitting there looking to get some plus-- you know, plus money. You get plus 220 on him.

DANA WHITE: Yeah, I agree. But you look at the experience factor, and you've got to go with Francis for the experience.

KEVIN IOLE: Agreed. Agreed. And then I want to get you to break down the co-main event, and it's a little strange. You know, we've talked about this before about whether it should be Petr Yan or, you know, Moraes or whoever, you know, was going to be in there. But you have-- you know, first it was going to be José Aldo. He had to pull out, so now it is Dominick Cruz-- Dominick who, God bless him, one of the great fighters in the sport's history but has not been able to stay healthy and fight.

You know, what can we expect from him going into a world-title fight after he spent, what, three years I think now says he's fought? What can we expect out of a world championship fight?

DANA WHITE: Normally I would say, yeah, the guy's had too much time off. That's been his whole career. His whole career has been with these big gaps of time off because of injuries. I've never seen anybody more unlucky than Dominick Cruz, but this is nothing new. The guy has been one of the best in the world for a very, very long time. He's always had these big gaps in between fights and gone in and performed. When he's healthy and he goes in, he looks damn good.

KEVIN IOLE: Yes he does. And just to mention on that, the-- where was the number at here? I know Henry is the favorite, but what is the number? Henry is 240, and Dominick Cruz is plus 200. A little-- I would have thought it would have been a bigger spread given what Henry has done and Dominick's inactivity. I'm a little bit surprised at that one. I think I'd have to lay the money on Henry on that.

DANA WHITE: I don't disagree, but I think that's the oddsmakers showing the respect to Cruz--

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.

DANA WHITE: --you know, that he that good.

KEVIN IOLE: So this isn't the only event that's going to be in Jacksonville. So you're going to do two more than you announced, potentially three more? Is that correct?

DANA WHITE: Three total.

KEVIN IOLE: Three total, OK.

DANA WHITE: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: So the 16th--

DANA WHITE: So we'll do three total fights that we're going to go Monday, Wednesday-- I'm sorry, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday-- Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday. And then we're going to come back the 23rd, but that one won't be in Florida.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. That'll be somewhere else. OK.

DANA WHITE: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: And I want to get to what you said about Governor Sisolak in a second, but can you give me any details, any fighters that you know are going to be on either that Wednesday card or the 16th card?

DANA WHITE: Now yet. We're just focused on this card right now.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. All right. And I know you met with-- or your staff did and presented a plan to Governor Sisolak. He has been holding regular press conferences, and now he's been in the media a lot because, you know, Mayor Goodman-- and let me get your reaction to what she said, her interview with Anderson Cooper. She got a little bit of heat for, you know, open the city up and everything. So I'm going to put you on the spot and ask you, first of all, your reaction to Mayor Goodman saying open up and there is no responsibility on me as the mayor to ensure it's going to be safe.

DANA WHITE: Yeah, I don't know how you go on Anderson Cooper and not be prepared for the questions that are going to be asked, especially when you're being so aggressive about opening up.

The reality is, though, there's a lot of smart people in this city who run very big businesses and care about their employees. And what you want to do is when you open back up, you want to do it right the first time--

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: --so we don't have to shut down again. And I know from talking to, you know, the Fertitta brothers to, you know, other people who run and own casinos in this town, they're working very hard to figure out how to do this safely and the right way. I mean, everybody's been quarantined. Everybody has a family. Everybody wants everybody to be safe. It's not like people are like, oh yeah, money means everything. Let's get out there and open it. It's everybody wants to be safe and do it the right way.

I actually think Sisolak has done a good job. I think he's done a good job.

KEVIN IOLE: I think he's been fantastic, yeah.

DANA WHITE: And, you know, people have taken what he said seriously. And, I mean, you've lived here for a long time. For Vegas to shut down, it's just like it's a thing that people who live here can't even comprehend.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: But we did it. We did it, and everybody's been quarantining. And, you know, I think it's been handled the right way.

I think the biggest fear is-- the biggest fear for anybody to open up first, especially when you're a destination like Vegas, is the amount of people that will flock here.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: You know, you're going to have groups of people that have been locked up for God knows how long in some of these states. I mean, the guy in California is talking like, you know, they might still be in their house in October, you know? And what's going to happen is if we open up in Nevada, they're going to be pouring out of California and coming into Nevada.

So there's so many different things that you have to look at, you know, when you're a governor or whatever it might be that need to be dealt with. And, you know--

KEVIN IOLE: Let me ask you a follow-up question to that because this affects your business. You know, the one thing that you have to worry about, Dana, I would think is the fact that a lot of people lost her job. A record number of people have lost their jobs, right? And so do you wonder, you know, both as a Las Vegan and as a person who runs a business that you expect people to spend money with you, do you worry that they're not going to have the money to come to Las Vegas to say-- even stay two nights in a hotel and watch a UFC fight, right? Is that a concern going forward that the economy has been so devastated by what's happened that it will take a while for people to have the disposable income to do that?

DANA WHITE: Yeah, the economy is going to affect everybody. I have three jobs. I need to take care of my employees, I need to take care of my fighters, and I need to get-- I need to get the sport back on track for the fans. Those are the three things that I'm concerned with every day, you know, in operating my business.

Obviously, the world is going to be different. So I've been thinking far ahead into the future and how this is going to-- I don't expect to have a gate for a very long time. So, I mean, I've already thrown that out the window. So you have to look at all the different things.

You know, people think that I don't take this serious because I want to come back so fast and all this other stuff. Not that I don't take it-- I take it very serious. I don't plan on having a gate for a very long time. And, you know, things like going into the week of where we have open workouts and all these things that we do for the fans, the fans are going to-- it's like everybody wants to ask me location, location, location. Location doesn't even matter anymore.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: It's on ESPN. That's all you need-- that's all you need to know and all you need to care about.

KEVIN IOLE: Send location.

DANA WHITE: And where we're doing it, none of that even matters anymore. So I'm already thinking way ahead of these type of things. And all I need to worry about is making sure that everybody is safe and that I can put on these events. I don't need a crowd. I mean, that's what I built the APEX for anyway.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, that's why-- so that's why I'm asking.

DANA WHITE: I believed that we were headed to a place where we would be putting on fights without crowds any way, that it was going to be all about streaming.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, so I assume what you said earlier would indicate that APEX isn't going to be used at least until July because you said you're going to have a fight on the 23rd somewhere else but not in Jacksonville, and then you're going to go to Fight Island it looks like sometime in June. So that would indicate that Sisolak did not like your 30-page plan and probably saying we're not ready yet. Is that fair to say? I have great deductive powers. OK, I'll say it's fair to say.

[LAUGHTER]

DANA WHITE: I'm of the belief the less the media knows, the better.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. All right, so we've got that.

Well, let's ask some other thing. So this is something I know you're going to want to talk about. There was reports the other day again that Endeavor had some layoffs. Still layoffs at UFC or no?

DANA WHITE: No layoffs at UFC. None of my people will be laid off.

KEVIN IOLE: OK.

DANA WHITE: Not happening.

KEVIN IOLE: And then secondly to that, what about the fighters? Are they getting a stipend? Are they getting any kind of money? Are you paying them so--

DANA WHITE: Yeah, we're working out-- so people who missed their fights, we're working out a whole deal for those guys, and we're working on all this stuff.

KEVIN IOLE: So, like-- so just-- I just want to understand it.

DANA WHITE: Let me tell you what. People like to talk shit, Kevin. And, you know, people think they know me. They don't know me. They don't know anything about me. Let me tell you what. You find out who the real people are when shit goes bad. Everybody's great when everything's good and everybody's making money and, you know, all this other stuff is going on, and you make lots of promises to people when everything's good. You find out who the real people are when things go wrong in your life personally or pandemics or whatever.

Let me tell you what. All the people that are with me are with me, and I will always take care of my people.

KEVIN IOLE: And I guess just, you know, my question is because, you know, we wonder if fighters, as independent contractors-- you know, you worry about guys that can't pay their bills and that type of thing. So I guess I was asking are they going to get like, you know, a UFC stimulus check every month, you know, until they're back?

DANA WHITE: We're not doing stimulus checks.

KEVIN IOLE: [LAUGHS]

DANA WHITE: We're going to be back up and running is what we're going to do. And, you know, a lot of people are losing their jobs and can't pay their bills and can't do things like that. When you're with the UFC, we're moving forward. You're going to continue to work. You're going to continue to make money. You're going to continue to feed your family, whether you work here at the offices or you fight for the UFC.

You know, a lot of the media were going crazy about me trying to pull off that fight last weekend. A lot of the media are going to start getting laid off pretty soon. This is just the beginning.

And we haven't even had talks about going back to normal yet.

KEVIN IOLE: Of course.

DANA WHITE: But when we go back to normal, it's going to be a very long time before things are normal again.

KEVIN IOLE: Right. Now, you know, I mean, I can't speak for anybody else, but just speaking for me, of course I-- you know I expressed this to you privately. Of course I want to see the shows go on and everything. You know, my concern was-- and I knew you would do everything you could possibly do. Can it be done safely? That was my concern because we're talking about an infectious disease, not, you know, a punch to the head that you have more control over in terms of fair matches. That was it.

And I think that, you know, hey, there's some people that are critics of yours who don't like you or who don't like the sport that criticize that. But I think most people feel like that was the concern, right, that we wanted to see the fights, but we're just concerned that can Dana White and staff control an infectious disease that the greatest medical experts in the world so far haven't controlled? That's all.

DANA WHITE: Right. I think the medical experts have controlled it, as best you can control it. We literally shut down the world.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.

DANA WHITE: I mean, it's crazy that that's even an option.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: But we shut down the world, and we've controlled it the best we can. I mean, I just don't know how long you can keep the world shut down.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. Let's talk--

DANA WHITE: There's a lot of things that will start to snowball as you continue to keep people locked up inside their houses with nothing to do and no entertainment--

KEVIN IOLE: I understand.

DANA WHITE: --and a lot of people who aren't making money and start running out of money to buy food and things like this. You know, I know all the hippies want to look at this thing and go oh, we've got to care about this and that and everything else. You know, people being out and being productive and people making money is a big deal too for your mind, your everything.

KEVIN IOLE: No, I agree. No, 100%.

DANA WHITE: I have to start coming up with ways to work around this and figure out how to get people back to as close to normal as possible.

KEVIN IOLE: I'm with you.

DANA WHITE: You know?

KEVIN IOLE: Now I am media, and you said you don't want to tell media anything, but I'm going to ask you about Fight Island. You haven't given the location out, but one of the questions I think you can answer without giving up its location. It is not in US waters, is that correct? Because that's the whole point of this, is it not?

DANA WHITE: Right. Yeah. So it's in a spot where I knew I could get international people in. It's about getting-- again, you take your business and you break up all the different sets of problems you have with something like this going on. Our biggest problem is how do you get people-- you know, flying here in the United States is tough enough right now.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: They've cancelled tons of flights. If you want to go from, like, New York to Vegas, you're going to have two or three stops, and some of these stops are overnight.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: So imagine trying to get people in from different countries all over the world with visa and all this other stuff. So you get an island, and you can fly anybody in and out of the island.

KEVIN IOLE: Tell me a little bit about what people can expect. When we see it, is it going to be a tropical setting? Like what is it going to look like? So when it's on TV and we're watching flights from Flight Island, what will it be like?

DANA WHITE: The infrastructure's being built right now. And, you know, there's going to be an octagon on the beach for people to train. There's going to be training facilities. There's going to be-- you know, it literally is being built right now.

It's like if you look at The APEX, right? You've toured The APEX.

KEVIN IOLE: Of course.

DANA WHITE: You know how we built it and designed it for fighting, right?

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

DANA WHITE: You can do lots of other things there, from concerts, comedy shows, whatever it might be, but it's designed for fighting. We are designing this island to fly people in from all over the world to fight.

KEVIN IOLE: Interesting. OK, that is going to be something else.

Now a converse question. If people from the US go out to go to this event, will they have trouble getting back in? So is it going to be only international fighters fighting there?

DANA WHITE: Yeah, that's obviously going to be a problem too. You know, the whole if you leave, you've got to quarantine and all this stuff. It's probably something that we're going to have to deal with-- me too. I'm going over there. I'm probably going to have to quarantine for two weeks before I come home. I don't know, but this is going to be the new world that we live in.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah. That's going to be crazy. Just a couple more things, Dana, if I could. The shows on Wednesday and Saturday after the May 9 show, are they going to be pay per view. or are they just going to be ESPN shows?

DANA WHITE: I don't know the answer to that yet.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. And I know ESPN put out a statement. I don't know if you've seen their statement that they put out yet. I'll read it to you. "Sports play an important role in people's lives and can bring moments of escape in challenging times. We look forward to bringing UFC to fans again." Not attributed to anybody in particular, but they're looking forward to do it.

So that is another problem I assume you don't have. Last time when you were going to go to Tachi Palace, you ended up with Jimmy Pitaro, the president of ESPN, calling you and asking you to back down. That won't-- I assume that's not an issue that you worry about now.

DANA WHITE: Not at all. Nope.

KEVIN IOLE: So we're all--

DANA WHITE: I wasn't worried about it then either, but it happened. But yeah, we're good now. They have assured us, you know, all the way from the top to the bottom that we are good.

KEVIN IOLE: Before I let you go, how much consideration-- when Jimmy asked you not to put the show on, how much consideration did you give to saying I'll put it on Fight Pass because these fighters need to work and Tachi's willing to do it? Never? You never thought that?

DANA WHITE: No. When they asked me-- ever since we started the deal with ESPN, I've been pretty open and honest about our relationship with them and what I think that they've done for the sport already. I love ESPN. I love everything about ESPN. For them to call me and ask me to do it was not a problem.

KEVIN IOLE: And finally, I know you're busy, so I'll let you go with this question. You know, I saw you put a picture of yourself out when you were maybe 10, 11 years old with the Patriots and a Patriots Russ Francis jersey. Did you know that was a Russ Francis jersey that you were wearing?

DANA WHITE: I did not.

KEVIN IOLE: That was Russ Francis who is a Hawaiian. He was an All Pro tight end and a pro wrestler too, so just kind of like Gronk into the future. So I texted you a photo, and I want to just ask you this question. Did I look a little better in that picture or with this hair? Which hair did you like better?

DANA WHITE: You look good in both, Kev.

KEVIN IOLE: [LAUGHS] My man. You're a good man. Dana, I appreciate you, brother. Good luck on May 9, UFC 249 in Jacksonville. Appreciate you.

DANA WHITE: Thank you, buddy. Have a great day.

KEVIN IOLE: You too.