In these already unprecedented times with professional sports coming to a standstill amid the coronavirus outbreak, Dana White’s bold mission that the show must go on has taken an almost comical feel.
The UFC president has largely dismissed the warnings of local and federal guidelines during this global pandemic and plans, after being forced to cancel a trio of Fight Night cards, to return to business as usual next week with.
The Associations of Ringside Physicians has recommended all combat sports events remain on hiatus. The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports have said it will consider UFC 249 an unsanctioned event. Even the California State Athletic Commission has extended a ban on fight cards through the end of May.
Can’t get enough UFC? Subscribe to our podcast State of Combat with Brian Campbell where we break down everything you need to know in the Octagon.
None of this has stopped White, who reportedly has secured the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, located in Lemoore, California, for two months, allowing him to sidestep the state commission because the events will take place on Native American tribal grounds. Oh yeah, he’s on the verge of.
White’s divisive behavior has naturally produced a series of conspiracy theories and potentially apocryphal tales for everything from his reasoning to the promotion’s attempt to book a Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson lightweight bout five separate times as reasoning it’s cursed.
Many are pointing to UFC parent company Endeavor’s recent layoffs as the driving reason White has remained so steadfast. Fueling that argument is a Wall Street Journal report on UFC’s exclusive broadcasting deal with ESPN, which states the promotion could earn upwards of $750 million in 2020 provided it can put on the contracted number of events.
Regardless of which theory is really true — White has been selective regarding which details he shares publicly and has blamed the media for attempting to thwart his efforts —in the main event of a stacked card of the interim 155-pound title.
Want to hear another conspiracy theory? Nurmagomedov’s decision not to risk flying from his native Russia, where travel is banned, to fight at an undisclosed location is the best thing that could have happened to UFC’s long-term plans.
This goes beyond the fact that Ferguson-Gaethje is a better fight stylistically with Nurmagomedov not in it and a proverbial slam dunk to become an all-action classic — the kind that turns casual fans into permanent ones (even though the bout will air on pay-per-view and not regular television). This also isn’t meant to suggest UFC didn’t try everything it could to make Nurmagomedov-Ferguson a reality. It did. Five separate times amid heavy public demand.
But there’s one important thing this turn of events does indisputably: It keeps alive White and the UFC’s dream fight of Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, part deux.
You want to see White’s eyes get big? Ask him what this fight’s potential might be to shatter pay-per-view and financial records. Their first meeting in 2018, fueled by McGregor’s felony attack on Nurmagomedov via a dolly through a bus window, set a new mark for MMA PPV buys with 2.4 million.
Not only does White believe the rematch will break all combat sports records completely — including the 2015 Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao superfight and the Mayweather-McGregor clash two years later, both of which eclipsed 4 million buys — he has compared it to being the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier of the modern era from the standpoint of a bitter rivalry crossing over on a cultural level.
Given Nurmagomedov’s unbeaten record, McGregor’s unrivaled popularity and recent resurgence and the lingering tensions between them, it’s hard to argue White is wrong. Also, given the debt Endeavor took on to purchase UFC for more than $4 billion in 2016, it’s equally hard to believe the company won’t do everything in its power to make the fight.
Nurmagomedov not losing to Ferguson this month, considering “El Cucuy” is easily the toughest threat to his unbeaten record, is a big step forward to that plan. Ferguson now having the potential to risk it all and potentially losing to a savage like Gaethje under such non-optimal circumstances and a shortened training camp could also help matters.
But what about the fact that White put an interim title at stake for UFC 249 and told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto late Monday that the winner of Ferugson-Gaethje would face Nurmagomedov this fall? That did happen. But let’s not forget that Gaethje was also headed towards becoming the outside man looking in on this crowded title picture, meaning a win over Ferguson, particularly one in which he took heavy damage to do so, could serve as a big enough and unexpected prize as it is and still allow McGregor to jump the line.
If UFC has proven anything in recent years by creating interim titles during times it doesn’t make traditional sense (and stripping such belts arbitrarily as it did to Ferguson in 2018), it’s that nothing is sacred when it comes to who believes they have next in a title picture. Michael Bisping’s first middleweight title defense against 46-year-old Dan Henderson in 2017 is living proof of that example. As is the fact that Ferguson is possibly the most deserving title challenger in UFC history riding a 12-fight win streak in the most dangerous division yet still hasn’t competed for the full title.
McGregor’s stock will also never be hotter than it is at the moment thanks to the ease in which he destroyed Donald Cerrone in his January comeback fight, which did wonders to erase the hangover caused by his flat performance against Nurmagomedov and the many outside-the-cage distractions that followed.
If you don’t believe UFC will bend over backwards to make Nurmagomedov-McGregor II this summer given the chance (after Nurmagomedov returns from Ramadan fasting), you don’t understand good business. Presumably, the only hurdle in that equation that can’t be sidestepped is the possibility of a Ferguson win next week and one which doesn’t come with the receipt of injury and damage to keep him out.
If you’re a believer in such a thing, it’s hard to ignore the MMA gods have done everything in their power to make sure Nurmagomedov-Ferguson doesn’t happen. Can White, UFC and Endeavor succeed in praying to the same deity for an opening to cash in on the biggest lottery ticket it has ever owned?
A major sports commissioner is buying his own island to stage events. Believe me, anything is possible.