ESPN, Disney put short-term crimp in Dana White’s plans, but don't begin to doubt him

Dana White has made his career by sneering at convention and doing things his way. The UFC has become a multibillion-dollar business largely on White’s back. He trusted his instincts and they were almost always correct.

Where others saw a smoldering pile of garbage that was little more than a money pit, White believed that with a few tweaks, he could turn mixed martial arts into the world’s most popular sport. Well, it hasn’t surpassed soccer yet, but it’s gotten farther in the nearly two full decades that White has been a part of the UFC’s ownership than even he may have dared to dream.

He was dealt one of the few setbacks of his career on Thursday when, just three days after announcing on social media that UFC 249 would be held as scheduled on April 18 “somewhere on Earth,” he canceled the show when ESPN and Disney decided they couldn’t go forward televising the event.

Former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas was supposed to be in the co-main event in a rematch against Jessica Andrade. Namajunas pulled out on Thursday, her manager, Brian Butler-Au said, after she had two COVID-19 related deaths in her family. That weighed heavily on ESPN and Disney officials. White spoke with ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro on Thursday.

“We’ve been fighting nonstop, all day and all night, since this pandemic started, to put on this event on April 18,” White told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “And today, we got a call from the highest level you could go at Disney and the highest level at ESPN. One thing I’ve said since we started our relationship and partnership with ESPN, it’s been an incredible one.

“It’s been an amazing partnership. ESPN has been very, very good to us and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event.”

With no TV partner, there could be no fight card. And while there was enormous political pressure on the UFC to stop — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) released a statement earlier Thursday calling for the event’s postponement — don’t think White caved to that.

He would have bucked the pressure had he had his way. But when ESPN could no longer be part of the battle, White was forced to wave the white flag.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 01: UFC President Dana White during the UFC 236 press conference at the  T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV, Friday, Mar. 1, 2019. They will fight for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
UFC president Dana White was forced to wave the white flag on staging fights during the coronavirus pandemic after pressure from his partners at ESPN and Disney. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

White spent enormous amounts of time and money trying to save the show, because it’s what he does. He promotes fights and he was determined to find a way to do just that even if most people thought he was crazy.

Tell him he can’t do something and he’ll battle twice as hard to get it done, to prove a point. Anyone who knows White knows he’s the kind of a guy who lives for these kinds of situations. He’s won repeatedly, and proven he knew better time and again.

Some may paint this as a loss for him, and it is in the short time. But it’s only a temporary one and won’t throw him off stride at all.

He’s fiercely loyal, and the fighters and the casino officials who were with him and were willing to fight and willing to put on the show will benefit greatly. He was going to hold UFC 249 at Tachi Palace, on tribal land, in Lemoore, California, and said he’ll give the casino a major UFC fight once the pandemic is over because he appreciates that they were behind him and willing to go forward.

White told Okamoto he’ll pay the fighters who had, in his words, stepped up and were willing to fight.

White will never forget what those fighters did for him. They’ll benefit from their willingness to compete for years down the road. He reiterated once again that the UFC won’t lay off employees during this pandemic. White would give up his salary before he’d allow that to happen to his people.

He vowed during his interview with Okamoto that the UFC would be the first sport back in business, and is there anyone who could doubt that?

White admitted that what he calls Fight Island was real and construction is going on there to put in facilities to host a fight.

This is no loss, as many of White’s critics will gleefully frame this. Yes, it was the wise decision to stand down, not only because of ESPN and Disney’s reluctance but because the COVID-19 pandemic made ensuring public health difficult if not impossible if the event were held.

White took a knee on Thursday, but the guy who grew up a lifelong boxing fan is up already. And believe me, he’ll be back swinging as hard as ever very soon.

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