No one enjoyed watching the sporting world come to a screeching halt last month amid the global spread of the coronavirus. Losing an aspect of our culture whose influence ranges from engrossing escapism to self-definition, even for a temporary period, holds negative impacts from both professional and personal perspectives. Frankly, it sucks.
But that doesn’t mean that shutting down sports isn’t the right thing to do. Especially when the entire world has much more daunting challenges on their plate, such as combatting a global health crisis. Sacrificing sport in the face of a force so overwhelming that it sent the majority of the world into lockdown is actually a powerful statement of unity. It signals that we’re all in this together, ready to do what it takes to keep the public safe and curb the pandemic’s spread. It’s a rare moment for these solipsistic sports organizations to show some humanity.
But where human nature persists so does an inherent duality. For all the proactive measures taken by the NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA and other sports organizations at the cost of billions in revenue, there exists an outlier, pushing against the wave to the point of gross parody. UFC president Dana White is that outlier.
While pro wrestling heavyweights like WWE’s Vince McMahon and AEW’s Tony Khan have suffered varying degrees of criticism for holding empty arena events as more states suspended non-essential businesses, their hubris doesn’t hold a candle to White’s. The controversial spearhead of combat sports has remained defiant in his efforts to keep UFC’s slate of events on schedule amid the pandemic.
Defiance can be a desirable trait, especially within a sport like mixed martial arts, which struggled for mainstream legitimacy for the better part of two decades. That abject stubbornness made White a hero to many within combat sports, building a cult of personality around him, an incredibly attractive practice in the sport.
That status has kept many people loyal to him through both good and bad, praising White’s aggressive nature toward the media while he poorly defends underpaying lower card UFC fighters and his fighters’ habit of using transphobic and homophobic language. Truly heroic.
It isn’t revolutionary to peg White as a problematic figure. At this point, it’s the defining characteristic of his persona. But turning these approaches and attitudes toward the encroaching coronavirus crisis has concocted a disastrous result.
After the UFC canceled three events in March, including an event in England that White seemed hellbent to hold, it seemed like the gravity of the situation sunk in for the UFC head. He even told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports that he and his family had been following CDC social distancing guidelines since March 15. But nearly every action White took since that show of good faith, from the irrational to downright Bond villain-esque, undercut notions that he takes this public health crisis seriously.
This is my 26-minute interview on @YahooSports from today with @danawhite along with a rundown of what he had to say so you can jump to a topic which interests you. https://t.co/SZ3dswZdF3 #UFC249 #KhabibTony #coronavirus— Kevin Iole (@KevinI) March 24, 2020
Much of that concerning response centers around the saga of UFC 249. The event morphed to represent White’s “us versus the world” attitude as he scrambled to find a venue amid both Nevada and California’s athletic commissions temporarily banning combat sports events. International travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders made that search more frantic; to the point that White’s actions began to roll back the mainstream advancements made by the UFC.
That fight came to an end Thursday when White announced that UFC 249’s cancellation and the indefinite postponement of all UFC events, but the catalyst for that announcement wasn’t a change of heart. Nor was it news that COVID-19 finally reached UFC indirectly, after Rose Namajunas pulled out of her rematch against out fighter Jessica Andrade following the deaths of two family members due to the disease. White only changed his tune after the intervention of officials from ESPN and its parent company, Disney; the people paying UFC millions of dollars.
The cancellation could be a blessing as reports that all fighters and teammates would be tested for COVID-19 prior to participating in UFC 249 would’ve undoubtedly bolstered growing sentiments against people of higher socioeconomic status having wider access to COVID-19 tests, as the general public across the nation remain severely under-tested.
UFC President Dana White estimates that "Fight Island" will be "put together" in a month and fighters will be able to train on the private island.— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) April 9, 2020
(via @bokamotoESPN) pic.twitter.com/lBlHywpTo7
It’s no surprise, honestly. White continues to fight the wrong fight even as he effectively lost it. The coronavirus isn’t something you can physically fight by traditional means. You can’t double-leg it. It ignores hubris the same as it ignores political alignment, financial status and personal philosophy. Coronavirus actually preys on the defiant. Especially when those sources of pride parrot the narrative that sacrifice of life is honorable when it benefits the financial health of the nation and characterizes self-quarantine as an act of fear.
The only way to fight the pandemic is to protect as many people as possible, lower their risk of infection and slow the virus’s spread; all things that continuing to hold UFC events as White planned to do wouldn’t accomplish.
We all want sports, entertainment and normalcy back, but forcing those things to happen at the risk of diminishing the urgency needed to take this threat seriously doesn’t offer aid. Now that White’s hand has been forced, maybe now he can turn that bottomless passion toward the real fight.