Risks far outweigh rewards in UFC's misguided attempts to stage fights during pandemic

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·6 min read

I learned years ago it’s never wise to bet against Dana White. The UFC president has a way of getting things done, even when it seems impossible, and then reminding you of it at every opportunity afterward.

So as the coronavirus pandemic worsened by the day and White’s friend, President Donald Trump, predicted as many as 240,000 deaths from it in the U.S., I didn’t doubt White’s ability to keep UFC 249 on April 18 as scheduled and sell it on pay-per-view.

And on Monday, he announced on Twitter the rejiggered UFC 249, featuring a lightweight fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, would be held “somewhere on Earth,” and would be for the interim lightweight title. Later he announced the entire fight card and told TMZ he’s close to securing a private island to hold UFC events every week.

Nothing short of a presidential directive is going to keep this card from happening, and given Trump’s desire to end the crisis and his interest in “opening our country,” it’s unlikely he’ll tell White to stand down.

For the fighters who will appear, who have been training for months to prepare, it’s a windfall. There is no union that represents UFC fighters. There is no collective bargaining agreement that spells out what happens when a pandemic throws the sport into chaos and just about everything is canceled.

The only way the fighters get paid is to compete, and the only way for them to compete is to train. But it takes money, and lots of it, for a fighter to put a training camp together and prepare at the level it takes to fight in the UFC. You’re talking in excess of five figures a camp.

So for a fighter who had to train despite the uncertainty of whether the card would go on because of the coronavirus, this card is a lifeline. They’ll have income for their families, to pay their mortgages and their rent. They’ll be able to take care of the bills that so many Americans are struggling to figure out how to pay in these uncertain times.

It’s great for them.

But beyond that, the risk/reward ratio seems way out of whack. The risks of it are extraordinary and, in a worst-case scenario that no one wants to see happen, could ultimately mean lost lives. If a member of the UFC traveling party is one of those asymptomatic persons who unknowingly passes COVID-19 on to another person, it puts at risk not just that person but every person that person comes into contact with.

That means his or her spouse and children, the people they pass in grocery stores and anyone else they may see. The U.S. just passed the 10,000 death mark, and Trump has been warning of 100,000-240,000 deaths. That’s a sign of how quickly this spreads.

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 07:  UFC President Dana White speaks to the media during the UFC 248 Press Conference at the Toyota Center on February 7, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
UFC president Dana White announced Monday that UFC 249 will feature an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Even the governor of Georgia, who hasn’t been paying much attention, finally learned last week that asymptomatic people can pass this disease on to others.

The disease is highly contagious, and much more contagious than the seasonal flu. It’s why more than 40 of the 50 governors have ordered Americans to stay in their homes, and closed nonessential businesses. Gov. Steve Sisolak, who took the extraordinary step on March 17 of closing the state’s casinos, issued a mandatory stay at home order on April 1 for Nevada, where White and most UFC employees are based.

As much as we love sports, no one can seriously argue that the UFC or the NFL or NBA or whatever sport you want to name is essential. So for White and the others to leave home to put on this show will mean violating Sisolak’s order.

Beyond that, though, is the risk of spreading the virus. Hospitals across the country are overwhelmed and the government is converting convention centers and the like into hospitals as quickly as they can.

White and his staff undoubtedly will do everything possible to make the event as safe as can be for all concerned. And though White, who has been like Trump and rampaging regularly against the media recently, wouldn’t say if everyone would be tested for the coronavirus, it’s safe to assume they will be.

But what happens if a fighter is injured and requires hospitalization? The hospitals are overrun already and is it fair for a fighter who is competing voluntarily and against guidelines to take up hospital space in favor or someone who has COVID-19?

It creates all sorts of ethical and moral issues, which the doctors who are battling this crisis don’t need to deal with now.

The top infectious disease experts in the world have been working on this problem and they haven’t been able to contain it, so it’s not a stretch to say it will be extraordinarily difficult for the UFC to do so.

The thing is, no one is hiding or cowering from the disease. Quite the contrary, there has been a great national effort to combat it and people have sacrificed by not leaving their homes in the hope of flattening the curve.

Going out, which then implicitly encourages others to do so, doesn’t help slow the spread.

I’ve been a fight fan all my life and pinch myself often to have the job I do, where I get paid to attend the best fights. If I retired tomorrow, I’d still be watching all of these fights.

But it just seems the risks in going ahead with this fight aren’t appropriate.

There is a time and a place for everything, but with people dying, hospitals overrun, a shortage of personal protective equipment for the first responders and the U.S. death toll already at three times the toll of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, now is not the time for fights.

But given that it’s going forward, all we can do is to pray that no one who travels to wherever the event is held gets the virus or passes it on to someone else.

It’s the best we can hope for at this point.

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