Update: ESPN issued an official statement on UFC 249’s cancellation on Thursday. Speaking to MMA Fighting, the network confirmed it “expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood.”
“ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249 ... Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons.”
Disney and ESPN’s intervention in UFC’s plans to go ahead with the pay-per-view event could have been spurned by a call from California Governor Gavin Newsom. According to a report from the New York Times, Newsom contacted Disney officials prior to Thursday’s announcement to express his concerns over holding the event amid the coronavirus pandemic despite the event being held on tribal land.
Original Story: The ever-winding saga of UFC president Dana White’s efforts to hold the company’s next scheduled pay-per-view event, UFC 249, is seemingly over. Speaking to ESPN’s Brett Okomatto on Thursday, White announced that UFC 249 will not take place as scheduled on April 18.
“This has been a battle since day one,” White told ESPN. “We got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney, and the highest level at ESPN... and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event on Saturday,” he added.
White also confirmed that all UFC events have been postponed indefinitely.
Having the suggestion come from ESPN and Disney, its parent company, is unsurprising. ESPN became the exclusive home of UFC programming and pay-per-view events in 2019.
Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn recently criticized ESPN for going ahead with UFC 249’s broadcast on ESPN+. “I’m quite surprised ESPN are going ahead with this... obviously they want ratings and money,” Hearn told Express Sport. “It’s bad taste to be quite honest.”
The decision closes the book on White and the UFC’s attempts to hold fights amid the global coronavirus pandemic. The past month has seen mixed messages from White himself, who stated he and his family were observing social distancing guidelines laid out by the CDC while trying to reserve a location to hold UFC 249 as stay-at-home orders and international travel restrictions went into effect.
The latter already impacted the event, which was originally scheduled to emanate from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Dagestan native UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov pulled out of the show’s main event at the end of March..
The retooled show’s co-main event, the heavily anticipated rematch between out fighter Jessica Andrade and Rose Namajunas was also hampered after Namajunas pulled out of the event late Wednesday. Namajunas’ manager, Brian Butler-Au, later confirmed that her exit was due to two family deaths related to COVID-19.
Immediate release: @rosenamajunas withdrew from UFC 249 due to 2 deaths in the family related to the Coronavirus. Her hopes are to return to the Octagon as soon as possible but for now we ask for people to respect… https://t.co/nyLt7W5BIE— Brian Butler-Au (@BrianButler_Au) April 9, 2020
White announced he secured a secret location to hold UFC 249 on Monday, which White tacitly confirmed was the heavily rumored Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lamoore, Calif. on Thursday. “Tachi Palace in California, the Indian reservation, has had our back this whole time, has stood their ground, and was willing to do this fight,” White told ESPN.
He also confirmed that his plan to hold fights featuring international fighters on a secret private island, which he dubbed “Fight Island,” is still going to happen, once the UFC is able to resume events.
It seemed like White and the UFC were set to hold the event despite outcry over the fighter and personnel safety and White’s abrasive personal attitude toward the growing crisis. “How long are we really going to stay in our houses and hide?… If the coronavirus is what’s going to get me, then so be it,” White told Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole in March. “We’re all gonna die of something... You can’t be somebody who’s gonna hide in your house… I’ve had a great run. If the coronavirus is what’s going to get me, I’m ready. Bring it, corona.”
White’s tenacity was present even as he announced the event’s cancellation Thursday, promising to be the first sport to come back post-pandemic. “I know the fans are chomping at the bit... I promise them, I will be first and I will be back very soon,” White said.