The One Sports League Reckless Enough to (Maybe) Keep Going

Common sense isn’t the UFC’s MO. Photo: Louis Grasse/PX Images/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Take it from someone who, as he writes this, is watching the MLB: The Show 20 video game simulate the first month of the postponed 2020 Major League Baseball season (and is actively angry at his fake Cardinals’ fake 7-11 start to the fake year): If you’ve spent your entire life watching sports obsessively, it has been quite a withdrawal. The desperation has reached the point where fans are actively simulating not only what the NCAA Tournament would have looked like and who would have won it, but actively fighting with each other about the various possibilities. I swear to God, after a CBS Sports simulation that gave the title to the Dayton Flyers, I saw a Michigan State fan claim the refs screwed them in their (fake, not real, totally didn’t happen) Sweet 16 game. Times are tough out there. The lack of sports is obviously not the biggest concern in the world right now. But it’s not nothing!

With the CDC recommending that no public events with more than 50 people be held for the next eight weeks, it’s clearly going to be a while until sports return, and there’s reason to be concerned that the currently suspended NBA, NHL, and maybe even the Major League Baseball seasons could be canceled. The calendar is nearly entirely bare right now. Leagues shut it all down last week.

Except for one.

The UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship league run by, uh, iconoclast Dana White, was the last sports shop left standing. Up until late Monday afternoon, it had an event scheduled for this Saturday: UFC Fight Night 171. White & Co. had stuck with it that long despite being booted out of their first venue (the 02 Arena in London); moved to an as-yet-undetermined location in the United States; forced to lose their main event (one of the fighters involved, Leon Edwards, refused to fly from London to the U.S. to take part) … and yet, days after everything else was canceled, it was still, somehow, on. White was so desperate to keep things going that he was going to stage the fights on a reservation in Oklahoma, because, according to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, “if a promotion holds an event on tribal land, it doesn’t have to adhere to the rules of a state commission, so it would, in theory, prove to be easier to put on the event.” That’s right. The UFC was so determined to do this that it not only wasn’t listening to federal and state governments, it was finding a way around them.

This is insane in every possible way — the fighters didn’t even know where they’re fighting! Or in some cases even who! — but it remains par for the course for the UFC. And the reason for that is Dana White.

If you don’t know Dana White, think of him of a mix of Vince McMahon, Don King, Joe Rogan (a longtime UFC broadcaster), and, I dunno, maybe Bernie Kerik. White is a former fighters’ manager who claims he left Boston for Las Vegas because he owed Whitey Bulger money; like many White stories, that one is probably a mix of half-truths, braggadocio, and bullshit. White smartly convinced two rich friends to buy the struggling UFC in 2001 and install him as president. He basically took the worst parts of the boxing business — exploiting fighters, unfettered indulgent capitalism, the obsession with pay-per-view paydays — and corralled them all under one roof; there was no WBO, WBA, IBF, any of that, just UFC. The rise of combat sports and the fall of boxing itself, along with White’s obvious skill at branding and spectacle, helped the UFC explode. The initial $2 million purchase bought him and his backers a company that’s now a billion-dollar enterprise.

It’s something he has largely done on the backs of his fighters — as the Ringer pointed out last year, the best way to think of UFC fighters is as Uber drivers who keep getting kicked in the face. But it has been an undeniable success story. And, as White will constantly tell you, a large part of that success has been because of one man: Donald Trump.

Back when John McCain was calling UFC “human cockfighting” on the floor of the House, White says Trump was booking UFC for his venues and even showing up at the events. “I would never say anything negative about Donald Trump because he was there when other people weren’t,” White told the Hill. “Any good thing that happened to me in my career, Donald Trump was the first to pick up the phone and call and say ‘congratulations.’” White spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, saying, “Donald Trump is a fighter, and I know he will fight for this country.” Their bond has grown even stronger since the election. After Trump was booed at the last World Series, he showed up with White at a UFC event at Madison Square Garden, though he was booed there, too, and White appeared at a rally with Trump in Colorado back in February. They’re still close; White says they have talked regularly throughout his presidency.

So it should not be a surprise that when the coronavirus hit, White called Trump for assistance. And the message was clear and explicit: Keep going.

Actually, it was more straightforward than even that: White says Trump (and Mike Pence!) told him to “stop panicking.” “They’re saying be cautious, be careful, but live your life,” White said last week. “Everybody is panicking and instead of panicking, we’re actually getting out there and working with doctors and health officials and the government to figure out how we keep the sport safe and continue to put on events.”

Thus, even as the spread of the virus has worsened and every other sports league has begun to consider canceling their currently-only-suspended seasons for good, White trudged forward. In fact, the only reason this weekend’s event was finally scrapped was — once again — loyalty to Trump. When the president, at his noticeably (almost disorientingly so) more sober and grave press availability on Monday, said that there shouldn’t be any events with more than ten people, White finally succumbed, but only out of a sense of loyalty to his friend. “We were ready to go live from Fire Lake Arena, an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, on Saturday,” White said on SportsCenter last night. “But the president just spoke to the country. Now they’re saying no more than ten in a room. That’s impossible. We can’t do it.” White has followed Trump, and Trump only, from the beginning. And he insists that an upcoming April 18 event will happen, “even if it’s not in the United States.”

The underlying story of the failure of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic is a lack of clear, straightforward messaging from the White House, giving out not just conflicting and inaccurate information but also implementing measures that prevented the slowdown of the virus’s progression and actively assisted its spread. But we can see, with his interaction with the one sports league’s commissioner with whom he has an actively positive affiliation and open line of communication, a very clear message: This isn’t such a big deal. Only when Trump finally, somehow, changed his tone, did White give up the ghost. The UFC is so uniquely its own crazy enterprise that it only altered its habits when explicitly told to by Donald Trump. And even then, only temporarily. And you know what? If White successfully puts on that April event, a sports-starved public will watch the shit out of it. And White will win again.

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The One Sports League Reckless Enough to (Maybe) Keep Going