On a day in which the President of the United States attempted to spin away his comments suggesting citizens ingest bleach to cure coronavirus, one of his friends and biggest supporters laid out plans to do three fight cards in an eight-day span.
UFC president Dana White announced Thursday that his company will run cards on May 9 (UFC 249), May 13 and May 16 behind closed doors at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla, with the blessing of the city’s mayor and the Florida State Boxing Commission. The company’s event schedule, along with the rest of the sports world, has been on pause since late March because of global coronavirus pandemic responsible for nearly 200,000 deaths.
This is the company’s second attempt to get back up and running while most of the country bunkers down under stay-at-home orders supported by the majority of Americans in an attempt to get the worst public health crisis to hit these shores in a century under control.
The originally scheduled site for UFC 249, which was supposed to feature a highly anticipated Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson showdown, was scrapped from Barclays Center in New York due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Then came a harebrained scheme to keep UFC 249 on its originally planned date of April 18 by holding it on Native American tribal land in California in direct defiance of government authority. That ended with Disney, parent company of ESPN – which broadcasts the UFC – stepping in at California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s behest and pressuring the UFC to shut things down.
So here we go again. But this time there’s a key difference.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis questionably deemed sports and entertainment companies “essential,” meaning the UFC has the green light to put on events in his state. That means the Florida State Boxing Commission will oversee them, which is enough cover for ESPN to get back on board. If the UFC had simply waited this out instead of making a reckless dash to hold UFC 249 on April 18 come hell or high water, the company could have spared itself and its broadcast partner volumes of bad publicity.
So, let’s channel Max Holloway here and say “it is what it is.” Let’s play devil’s advocate, because no amount of questioning whether these events are appropriate at this time is going to stop it. The UFC now has an opportunity to prove to the sports world that events can be done safely in the era of COVID-19. Doing so will require the utmost transparency.
This will require a change in attitude by those who, last time around, wanted to blame the messenger for daring to question how the UFC would go about making things safe. This includes fighters who were understandably frustrated they were missing a payday, some managers who wanted to distract from their role in a system that can leave fighters broke if a fight so much as gets postponed for a month, and White himself.
The UFC fumbled away the benefit of the doubt when it chose to act like a hustler selling stolen goods out of the trunk of a car instead of a responsible promoter of a legitimate sport in the California fiasco. So don’t just tell us you have the best doctors doing the best tests and blah blah blah this time. Spell it all out.
On Thursday, the company stated “athletes and staff will be required to adhere to a number of precautionary measures, such as participating in advanced medical screenings and temperature checks and following social distancing guidelines.”
How often will everyone in the arena, from the fighters to cornerman to the UFC’s hard-working behind-the-scenes staff, specifically be tested for COVID-19?
How will you account for the fact that a person can carry the virus for 14 days before showing symptoms, and in some cases never show symptoms at all, but still spread the virus? Temperature checks aren’t going to pick that up.
How will you handle getting fighters from all over the country safely through flights to and from the site, considering the airline industry is being ravaged by the bug? Those involved with these events will come in contact with everyone from people at the check-in desk to the flight staff to TSA agents to fellow travelers.
Setting aside the most basic fact that you can’t have a fistfight at safe social distance for the sake of argument here, how exactly are you enacting your social distancing policies in the hotels, in the arena and in the locker rooms?
And so on.
In speaking with ESPN, White mentioned that the UFC eventually wants to begin running events at its Apex facility on its campus in Las Vegas. He also dropped this tidbit.
“We have a whole comprehensive plan,” White said. “We have a 30-page plan that we submitted to the governor of Nevada on not just how we’re gonna run the sport but run our office when things get back to normal. Health and safety is something that we think about all the time, every week, coronavirus, no coronavirus. It’s a big deal to us.”
Here’s an idea: Release that Nevada plan to the public, at least the portions that would not infringe on any individual’s private health info or proprietary information. You’ve got nothing to hide, right?
In the worst-case scenario for these planned Jacksonville cards, a ton can still go wrong. Best-case, you demonstrate that we, as a society, can get the ball rolling on the return of big-time sports.
We’ve already seen how things ended up when the UFC tried to pull UFC 249 off under a veil of secrecy. Now’s the chance to prove they can do this the right way.