Dana White, Coronavirus and the fight: What is going on at the UFC?

By Joe Richardson
May 5 2020, 08.05

Fight island, tribal land and Trump have all featured in the seemingly never ending saga in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s toughest fight yet – coronavirus.

UFC president Dana White recently announced plans for the coming weeks and the continued promise of the dystopian ‘fight island’.

UFC 249 will take place behind closed doors at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida on May 9th, with further events the following week.

Advanced medical screenings, temperature checks and social distancing guidelines will be in place for the essential personnel.

For those fighters fighting from outside the U.S., White has promised ‘fight island’ will be operational from June onwards with the octagon located on a beach – the location remains unconfirmed.

The UFC’s efforts to bring back live sporting entertainment can be applauded but the irrationality of their actions begs the question: what is going on at the UFC?

It is a common refrain from fans that because the UFC is a private company, the public is in the dark when it comes to details of its workings.

Since the UFC’s sale in 2016 and the conclusion of the UFC’s antitrust lawsuit more figures have become available.

Figures from the Deutsche Bank Memorandum revealed in 2015 the UFC turned over $609 million in revenue, with residential pay-per-views (PPV) contributing $195 million and commercial PPV $42 million. 

Seemingly the UFC-ESPN deal that saw the network take over the distribution of PPV, allowing the UFC to know its yearly income, would have allowed for a more risk free approach.

But as ESPN pays a licence fee on the front end to sell PPV cards it is hard to imagine that fighters who have PPV bonuses in their contract are in a better position. 

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With the pressure of promising 42 live events to ESPN this year and fighters not seeing a paycheck until they fight, the haste of both organisations starts to make more sense. 

UFC and ESPN received criticism for their decision to include convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy on their inaugural show alongside Rachael Ostovich who is a victim of domestic abuse. 

This highlights ESPN’s willingness to overlook controversy in exchange for new subscribers, especially considering that over the past five years they have lost more than 13 million subscribers.

When the UFC was struggling to cement itself as a legitimate sport, White’s brash personality and unpolished aggressive approach personified the fight business. 

But amid public disputes with notable fighters and defending the UFC pay scale saying ‘if you’re not that big PPV star, shut up and fight’ it increasingly seems that the organisation is ruled with an iron fist.

With White being drafted in to help kickstart the American economy by Donald Trump it seems his boorish approach is set to continue. 

White has been a vocal supporter of the Trump administration and as the president of an organisation with a significant number of Latin American and muslim fighters it sends a message to those involved that their boss seemingly disregards them.

UFC fan Adam Festerman said: “Notice the direction of the marketing now on ESPN. Who do you see now? Dana White. That’s the face of the company now. All of the promos are Dana. It’s all him.”

Carlos Rodriguez, training in MMA, said: “Everyone wins, but the fighters are f****d because it’s such a limited viewership now. So your sponsors are less, if you even had any. Your notoriety, your fame, your social media following, your Youtube channel to sell merch. The day and age of a superstar in the UFC is gone, so gone.”

The warning signs have been there for the UFC with Rose Namajunas withdrawing from UFC 249 due to multiple coronavirus deaths in her family.

It appears Justin Gaethje has seemingly been forced into the upcoming main event, a fighter who typically does not fight on short training camps.

MMA expert Shantanu Mayenkar said: “The company announced it to the media, as a way of pressurising the fighters. Gaethje received the call when he was on the freeway replacing his blown-out tire. Immediately he called up his manager and expressed his frustration with the UFC.”

Given that White will continue to operate as the face of the UFC for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any of the promotion’s glaring problems will be addressed anytime soon.

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