Positive or negative, fallout of UFC 249 to land squarely on Dana White’s shoulders

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS — The grin creased Dana White’s face at the mere mention of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s name. The mayor made national headlines for all the wrong reasons this week when she did an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper urging the city to be opened but without any plan for making it safe.

Her comments in the 20-minute interview sparked outrage nationally and caused Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak to make the rounds on cable television to assure everyone that we’re not crazy here in the Silver State and that things won’t reopen until it is safe to do so.

The UFC president has been anxious to get his sport going for some time and in an interview last month with Yahoo Sports said we couldn’t hide at home in fear of the coronavirus.

On Friday, his company announced that UFC 249 will take play at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on May 9, with a stacked card headlined by an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. The preliminaries will be on both ESPN and streamed on ESPN+, while the main card will be available on ESPN+ Pay-Per-View.

The UFC also said there will be shows in Jacksonville on May 13 and May 16, as well, with a show on May 23 in a location he wouldn’t name. He said that cards primarily featuring non-U.S. fighters will begin in June on his so-called “Fight Island,” in international waters outside the territorial boundaries of the U.S.

He came across vastly more reasonable and nuanced than he did in earlier interviews, when he aggressively vowed to go forward with UFC 249 essentially come hell or high water. On March 7 in Las Vegas after the conclusion of UFC 248, he was asked about the coronavirus. At that point, there were 19 confirmed deaths in the U.S.

“I don’t give a s--- about the coronavirus,” White said then.

But during a nearly half-hour interview Friday with Yahoo Sports, it was a different White who announced, as he promised, that the UFC would be the first major sport to come back from the pandemic. Its last card was in an empty arena on March 14, in Brasilia, Brazil. Since then, six cards have been postponed as the crisis worsened.

UFC president Dana White has vowed to be cautious and comprehensive ahead of UFC 249. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
UFC president Dana White has vowed to be cautious and comprehensive ahead of UFC 249. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Like his friend, President Donald Trump, White is no fan of the media, and he refused to answer a number of questions on Friday, including whether there would be testing of all of those who attend the shows in Jacksonville (there will be).

“I care very much about the fighters,” White said in answer to a question whether everyone attending these events would be tested for COVID-19. “I care very much about my staff; obviously, my family. We’re going to do everything way up here.”

He raised his hand above his head. But I noted he specifically wouldn’t say whether he’d do testing, which is when he said he’s not divulging any more information to the media than he feels it needs to.

But his remarks about opening were vastly different in tone and feel from his earlier remarks, when he was like a bull in a china shop saying he was racing forward no matter what.

This time, he noted the seriousness of the situation and vowed to be cautious and comprehensive.

“At some point, we have to figure out, ‘How do we get things back to normal,’ but do it in a really safe way,” White said. “The only way to find out is to get out there and start doing it. We’re going to spend a lot of money. It’s not going to be cheap. It’s going to be expensive. You’re worried about the health and safety of everybody: The health and safety of the fighters, 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.”

Whether he can pull it off successfully is something that history will judge. There are many questions, including whether personal protective equipment is going to be used for this event instead of for medical personnel on the frontlines and first responders who have sacrificed so much to try to save lives.

But White seems to have a better grasp on the seriousness of the issue than he did last month when he talked about not running away from the virus, and noted that we didn’t run away from cancer.

White putting himself out on dangerous limb

Goodman was widely mocked for having no plans for the reopening of the casinos, yet she was advocating for it publicly and was humiliated during a lengthy interview with Cooper on CNN when he was aghast at her lack of understanding.

“I don’t know how you go on Anderson Cooper and not be prepared for the questions you know that are going to be asked, especially when you’re being so aggressive about opening up,” White said. “The reality is, though, that there’s a lot of smart people in this city who run very big businesses and who care about their employees. What you want to do is, when you open back up, you want to do it right the first time so we don’t have to shut down again. 

“I know from talking to the Fertitta brothers [who used to own the UFC and own casinos in Nevada] to 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. Everyone who has quarantined has a family. Everyone wants everyone to be safe. It’s not like ‘Money means everything; let’s get out there and open it.’ Everybody wants to be safe and do it the right way.”

That’s what will confront White. The burden on him is to make sure these events are done safely, that the virus doesn’t travel from Florida with someone who fought in or worked at the event to wherever they live. 

It’s clear social distancing has worked, which is why things are starting to slow down. White’s put himself out on a dangerous limb. If it works and no future cases can be traced back to this event, he’ll be heroic. But if the opposite is the case, the burden will rest on his shoulders.

He’s made his choice and he has the support of not only his television partner, but the mayor of Jacksonville, the governor of Florida and the head of its athletic commission.

Up or down, good or bad, it’s all on him.

It’s why he’s worked around the clock and is spending millions of dollars to try to keep the business going. Time will tell if he’s made the right choice, but he’s shown that he cares and that he grasps the enormity of the challenge ahead.

“Obviously, the world is going to be different and I’ve been thinking far ahead into the future,” he said. “I don’t expect to have a gate for a very long time. I’ve already thrown that out the window. You have to look at all the different things. People think that I don’t take this seriously because I want to come back so fast and all this other stuff.

“It’s not that I don’t take it seriously. I take it very seriously. I don’t plan on having a gate for a very long time. … I’m already thinking way ahead of these types of things. All I need to worry about is making sure everybody is safe and I can put on these events. I don’t need a crowd.”

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