Dana White went down swinging.
There was pushback from all sides — from politicians and sanctioning bodies and medical commissions and media. Russia closed its borders. California tried to shut everything down. Plenty of other states wouldn’t even hear him out.
He found enough fighters for an appealing pay-per-view. He found a location, the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, on tribal land that could evade regulators.
He wanted to do it for the UFC business, for his own personal pride and, he kept repeating, to serve as a symbol that even in the depths of this virus, goals can be achieved.
“I don't believe anything can’t be done,” White said Thursday to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “Everything can be done under every type of circumstances. You just have to figure out. That has always been my mentality.”
He figured it out. Then it fell apart anyway. ESPN and Disney told him to “stand down,” in part because former champion Rose Namajunas dropped out after losing two relatives to COVID-19.
The optics were just too much. Even if this could be done safely, the UFC’s broadcast partner said it shouldn’t be done.
And that was that. UFC 249 was off.
“This whole thing has been a battle from day one,” White said. “We’ve been fighting non stop since the pandemic started.”
If nothing else White reminded MMA fans of his dedication to the sport. Whether you thought they should try this or not, his unflinching ways was a site to behold. Is there anyone else in sports working this hard, extending their neck this far, to try to make something happen? Not just talk about it, but try it?
The easy thing for White was to sit back in his Las Vegas mansion and social distance. He has all the money he could ever spend. The easy thing was to furlough staff and stiff fighters out of contracts and point to unconquerable circumstances. There are a lot of businesses doing that; inside and outside of sports.
White is a divisive figure. He is aggressive and profane and passionate and political and vengeful and unapologetic and wildly successful. No matter your opinion of him, you can never question his devotion to trying to make the impossible possible. This entire thing was nuts.
“We did it,” White said, refusing to concede defeat. “We got it done. This fight can happen. It is what it is.
“ESPN doesn’t want me to do it,” White continued. “They are my partners. They have been amazing to me. If they want me to not go, then I won’t go … [but] I can go next week. So whenever my partner gives me the thumbs up to go, I am ready to go.”
How soon is that? Who knows. A month? Longer?
White insists that his efforts to buy a private island, presumably in international waters, is a go. Soon enough fighters will be able to stay there, train there and eventually compete there. That should help fend off hurdles, especially for fighters around the globe who can’t currently enter the United States.
“Fight Island is real,” White said. “It’s a real thing. The infrastructure is being built right now. That really is going to happen. And it will be on ESPN.
Fight Island. From anyone else it would sound like a joke. Yet it apparently isn’t. Dana White says his bosses at Endeavor really bought an island, although he won’t reveal where.
They apparently did it so White could run some fights that he could otherwise just postpone until after the pandemic, and then, instead of facing endless backlash and logistical headaches, could just sit around and enjoy his life.
“I don’t crack to pressure,” White said. “When people start coming after me, people have been coming after me for 20 years. I’m used to it. And I don’t care. I don't care what people think. People don't know what we do here and they don’t even try to know.”
Some people thought this was idiotic. Some thought it was dangerous. Some thought it was disrespectful.
White thought otherwise. He thought it would give people something awesome to watch. So he refused to give up until he was forced to give up.
There will be no UFC 249 next Saturday. No Tony Ferguson-Justin Gaethje. No symbol of can-do spirit. No night of distractions for the fans. No negative side effects either, if any were going to come.
You could see the disappointment on his face. You could see it was real.
“We will be the first sport back,” White promised.
In the end he didn’t win. He sure didn’t lose either though.
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