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Opinion: Sorry UFC 249, neither the show nor the charade must go on

Dana White wants to have his UFC 249 cake, eat it too, and profit no matter the cost.

Let’s start a slow news day with some fun facts. Did you know that during World War II, major sports leagues kept chugging along? Baseball superstars like Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial went on to play service ball to entertain the troops going off to war. The NFL also remained, despite an exodus of players leaving to serve in the war, leading to a championship game on Christmas, with the Eagles and Steelers becoming one. The NHL, braving the political elements, found their own unique way to contribute to the war efforts by turning penalty minutes into Red Cross donations.

These are the whimsical, retrograde, Remember When stories that some people want you think about before casting judgment on Dana White’s insistence that the show must go on.

If I were to peel back the pages of an encyclopedia, I would have started with some different facts. The current pandemic is not World War II, with battles ‘isolated’ between warring parties. It was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 that brought us up close and personal with Mother Nature’s amorality. There I’d find find a story about Philadelphia’s decision to ignore the medical warnings about what was to come, just to sell bonds to pay for the war efforts with a big parade, ultimately costing over 12,000 lives. Or maybe I’d turn to the page about St. Paul, Minnesota — and how local sports teams helped fuel the pandemic by ignoring closing orders, resulting in a death rate 55% higher than their neighboring Minneapolis (who took the more cautious approach).

That’s probably a little unfair to a story about the mixed martial arts organization that could. History has a way of repeating itself in ways we don’t always foresee. COVID-19, after all, is not the same thing as the Influenza Pandemic. It might be silly to compare the two, but it’s even sillier to downplay what people who produce serious symptoms end up experiencing. Take it from those on the frontlines, seeing symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome, firsthand, who liken it to drowning in blood.

Why are we even discussing whether or not a UFC event is worth even the possibility of all that?

I get it. For those of us privileged enough, the idea of bringing back a sport we love — even just for a moment — is enticing. Nobody wants to dwell on misery all day. It sucks. Aren’t we miserable enough as is? Don’t we have enough to worry about? Many of us feel choked by the anxieties of affording or not affording rent, mortgage, utilities, having a job — heck, even having toilet paper. That’s not even counting the killer virus that’s on the loose, one that could prove to be a lingering chunk of our everyday lives for the foreseeable future.

I’m in the same boat. Trust me. I don’t want to read about how many people could die just from the lack of ventilators alone. I don’t want details on how grim the money situation is for people in the service industry. Or how a hospital in Queens needed a refrigerator truck to store up dead bodies. Or how some Asian-Americans have to contend with a pandemic, and racist shitbirds.

I want to re-watch something awesome and silly, like Robocop. Or the fight scene from Unlawful Entry. I want to think about the most iconic photo in MMA history. Or the best burgers in Texas. I want to enjoy seeing hip hop heads react to Kyuss, a band I thought only I liked growing up, for the first time. I want to experience things that aren’t miserable (my tastes notwithstanding).

Anything but coronavirus updates. I get enough of this crap on my social media feed, and almost always with the stench of personal politics, and harebrained conspiracy theories attached.

So I try to respect where Dana White is coming from. There is something laudable about trying to make sure everyone in the company still has a job. He doesn’t make it easy. Like, at all. But I try. There’s a can-do, John McLane quality to it all.

But then I try to imagine what this event might look like, at its best. Maybe moving forward with UFC 249 as a closed event is that middle ground? The UFC is showing respect to fighter safety, right? Let’s ignore, for the sake of argument, whether or not there’s gonna be quality medical testing going beyond infrared thermometers. If they can get everything in order, follow all the necessary rules, and take all the necessary precautions — no harm, no foul, right? We get some measure of our collective distractions back, experience some level of much-needed normalcy, and feel better to boot. That’s a great deal. We can start winning the fight against COVID-19, one symbolic facepunching contest at a time!

But it’s hard to find a middle ground when the very surfaces we’re accustomed to can keep the virus warm for up to 72 hours.

And so I try to imagine various what-if’s. What if a judge for the fight has the virus, and then takes it back home, where they play with their grandchildren, who then accidentally spreads it to others? What if a fighter gets the virus from someone else at the event, goes to the grocery store soon after, and unknowingly spreads it to people in the supermarket? Even with a small gathering, the US now leads the world in confirmed cases. The odds aren’t exactly in the UFC’s favor, here.

Let’s imagine best case scenario. Even if the UFC managed to do everything right from a technical standpoint, what kind of product are we watching? Are the fighters in the best shape? The best mindset? Will they even get cornermen and coaches, who can ideally add to their performance? Will the right amount of medical personnel be there to deal with non-corona related injuries, and treatment? Is this even good business, if people are staying at home, and unable to watch the fights together with friends, or at a bar? We already know that fighters, like Khabib Nurmagomedov himself, are having to move camps. We know that sparring partners (themselves out of work) in boxing gyms are being sent home to save money. We know that BJJ is tragically perfect for spreading disease.

Let me pause for a second, and say that if you’re clicking the hyperlinks, or already forming assumptions about my personal politics, have it it. A picture of Dana White with Donald Trump might as well come with a trigger warning. It’s meaningless as insight into my beliefs, except, of course, as a snapshot of two figureheads with similar mindsets: the mindset that heroism is always an active process.

I can handle a nasty DM or two, but if you grant me one assumption, I’ll do the same for you: assume that we’ve arrived at our personal perspectives with equal amounts thought, and reflection, regardless how violently opposed that direction has taken us. With that in mind, maybe you can trust that I’m not here to ideologize or politicize.

I’m more interested in how we think of, view, and enunciate our freedoms. And not just because my heroes are Aristotle, and Hegel (with a special shoutout, despite my milquetoast nonbelief, to Augustine). Do we treat our freedoms like the rock, or the river? Do we care that it’s just as critical to need things on our own behalf as it is to need things on behalf of others (?); the teacher educating our children, the cashier and stocker who keep our kitchens full, the sanitation worker keeping our trash out of sight and (more importantly) out of touch — and yes, the ticket takers at every UFC event, the production crew, the roar of the fans to punctuate the ebbs and flows of each fight, many of whom are traveling to new places for the first time who bring a unique enthusiasm to the proceedings, Esther Lin, and the amazing moments she’s trapped in amber with her Canon 5D Mark III, and everyone else who takes part in making the UFC experience unique.

For me, this is where the buck stops. Because this event is not for us. It’s for Dana. None of this feels like a group of people banding together, fighting for one cause. It wasn’t for Leon Edwards. It wasn’t for the 250 staff members working for the UFC’s parent company, Endeavor, now laid off. On the contrary. This is Dana White, like many others, who think of freedom and virtue like a chain link fence. When did freedom become the most special of virtues? The logic is sympathetic enough. What could be more heroic than being a man or woman of action? In doing what no one else could? What could be more heroic than ‘fighting to live on’, to quote former US President, Thomas J. Whitmore?

Except fighting has nothing to do with what we’re dealing with. Fighting doesn’t even have anything to do with your immune system, despite the ridiculous World War II influence that has since created bad metaphors for how we think about what our bodies do in response to infections, and diseases. If sports are metaphors themselves, now’s the time to get them straight.

This isn’t a potential fight in the streets; man versus virus. It’s a potential reconciliation of conditions; freedom versus solidarity. Moving forward with UFC 249 is a signal from Dana to others that these questions aren’t worth asking. Because it’s about Dana’s fight for freedom. Not the reconciliation toward fighter harmony. If it were about the latter, the fighters wouldn’t be the only one making sacrifices.