We are now less than three weeks away from UFC 249. Supposedly, that is.
Despite the ongoing havoc wreaked by COVID-19, ensuing travel bans, and the fact that the promotion has yet to secure a venue for the card, UFC President Dana White remains adamant he’s going to “make this thing happen.” Even as the sand in the hourglass runs low and new complications emerge every day.
It’s hard not to be acutely aware of the financial imperative for the UFC to actualize the event, but at this point, there’s undeniably another factor at work: Dana White doesn’t want to let you down, friends.
Well, I say “you.” What I really mean is his ego and his own cult of personality that he’s manicured for the last 20 years, even at the expense of his own fighters.
Monday, even the most fervent believers had their dreams take a blow, when UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov revealed, via Instagram, that he is presently marooned in Russia due to travel restrictions. Just a week ago, it seemed like there was a glimmer of hope that the ‘Eagle’’s long-awaited and much-cursed showdown with Tony Ferguson might finally happen, after four previous cancelations—likely in the United Arab Emirates. Instead, Nurmagomedov revealed that, armed with that same plan, he and his team left his training camp at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, and started the trek to the UAE—only to be turned away at the border due to a travel ban imposed on non-residents.
If he’s taken at his word – and there doesn’t appear to be any reason not to believe his statements – Nurmagomedov and his team acted in good faith. He said that the UFC told him it was “99 percent” likely that UFC 249 would happen in the UAE, and they acted accordingly—only for the best laid plans to go awry. But, fight fans are a polarized bunch and so Monday’s MMA social media discourse was awash with tinfoil hat hypotheses that Nurmagomedov was somehow ‘scared’ of a fighter he’s now agreed to fight on five separate occasions, and using a convenient excuse to strike a potential deathblow to the perpetually-in-peril card.
Even former UFC tournament champion and MMA pioneer Oleg Taktarov weighed in. With the NHB legend suggesting that Nurmagomedov’s status as a preeminent sportsman, combined with his friendly relationships with powerful Russian political players – including President Vladimir Putin – should be enough to grease the wheels and allow him to exit the country in order to save the fight.
With the bout now dead in the water for the umpteenth time, reports surfaced that the UFC had offered the Ferguson fight to lightweight top contender Justin Gaethje. If fans can set aside the chronic disappointment of Nurmagomedov-Ferguson likely being nixed again, there’s no real quibbling to be had there. Ferguson-Gaethje is a fantastic, potential ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate worth anyone’s attention. That said, there’s a more operative question of whether or not it makes sense for Ferguson to take such a bout, even at the risk of angering his promoter in such a sticky predicament.
Yes, fans and the UFC brass would no doubt be appreciative, but it’s still an incredibly dangerous fight. Gaethje, for all his defensive flaws, is still one of the most potent and threatening offensive weapons in the sport—and perfectly capable of ruining everything Ferguson has spent nearly the last eight years working toward. Even if a Gaethje fight would get ‘El Cucuy’ paid, at 36-years-old in an always hyper-competitive division, how much sense does it make to take such a considerable risk? One that could easily dash his hopes of ever becoming the undisputed 155-pound king.
All that is only compounded by the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. A situation that has already assured, if any form of lightweight title fight does take place, it’ll come with an asterisk due to the truncated, ersatz training camps and preparation afforded to the parties involved. Not to even mention the legitimate heightened health risks these fighters will be taking, even with the UFC’s expressed medical supervision.
It is simply a rotten predicament, and for no one more so than the fighters. Every step of the way in this shambolic process, it has been the athletes making the heaviest sacrifices in an attempt to make this fight finally happen. Again, we know that parent company Endeavor’s $4.2 billion receipt of purchase and investors looking for their dividends is a primary catalyst for this foolishness. However, while he’s never lacked for boastful confidence in the first place, Dana White’s adamance that the show will go on has now become outright quixotic and pathological; as if postponing the card would be a personal affront and blow to his manhood.
In a Monday appearance on British boxing promoter Frank Warren’s Heavyweight Podcast, White doubled down on his previous claims that UFC 249 would definitely be taking place. Even in the face of the latest Nurmagomedov drama, White found himself leaning in even harder on his trademark, cocksure bombast.
“I woke up this morning and the whole world f—ing changed again. So, back to the drawing board. And we’re figuring this out right now as we’re speaking right now. I have people working on this thing as we speak,” White declared. Listen, I am absolutely f—ing relentless. And I said this fight is going to go on and it will.”
Less than three weeks out, no official venue and an ad hoc replacement main event that’s not yet confirmed? Readers wouldn’t be blamed for thinking this might finally be the moment sanity prevailed. Hell, a Twitter poll from MMAFighting’s official account with over 16,000 votes – really, the truest target audience for a fight like Nurmagomedov-Ferguson – saw 72 percent of respondents say they would prefer a postponement. Nonetheless, on the same day Bellator MMA canceled its next three cards, RIZIN’s April 19 event is in jeopardy, and Professional Fighters League postponed its 2020 season indefinitely, White was more resolute than ever.
“Know this: The fight is happening, April 18, somewhere on Planet f—ing Earth,” White testified. “And when you need to know, I’ll let you know.”
White’s historical relationship with expectation and ‘the truth’ is a unique one, to put it gently. When it comes to statements of negation – any time White uses the words ‘never’ and ‘not’ for instance – we know that there an implicit grain of salt to be consumed. Brock Lesnar and Kimbo Slice will never fight in the UFC. Tito Ortiz and B.J. Penn will never return to the Octagon. Women will never fight in the UFC. The UFC is not for sale… the list goes on and on. Frankly, White cares little for reneging on these sorts of statements because he can always shrug and spin the situation to suggest that somehow, circumstances have drastically changed. If people questioning him new all the facts, they’d see was never really being disingenuous. It’s just that he can’t predict the future.
At the same time, as the face of the UFC, White thrives on delivering the spectacular—and the ego boost that comes with it. Which doesn’t mean all of his positive assertions and desires all come true. I think we can all deduce Ronda Rousey wasn’t champing at the bit to fight Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Justino and fans are still waiting for the company to ‘make it up’ to them for Anderson Silva’s UFC 112 performance. Then there’s the imminent Fedor Emelianenko signing, and so forth.
But, look at his self-congratulatory nature in the wake of buying out other MMA promotions, perhaps best crystallized in his Cheshire Cat-like grin that day in Roppongi that he and Lorenzo Fertitta announced the purchase of PRIDE. Or his willingness to backtrack on the aforementioned ‘never’ statements under the guise of being able to give fans ‘what they want.’ Whether a major free agent signing or a blockbuster international card in front of tens of thousands of fans, it seems like White’s greatest motivator, his truest drug, is the self-important ecstasy of engineering these triumphant successes. That high, that rush is only intensified when it comes in the face of doubt.
This is why White has long held the snarky nickname ‘Uncle Dana,’ having cultivated an avuncular nature of sorts—like your favorite relative swooping in with the Christmas gift of your dreams, even though no one else could come by it. He prides himself on assessing his accomplishments by pointing out that ‘no one else could get it done,’ as if he has some sort of innate promotional superpower no one else possesses. We see this play out again in his recent statements, as he chides virtually every other sports organization in the world for righteously, responsibly suspending competition. All while asserting the UFC to be fundamentally ‘different.’
Hand in hand, he has expertly set up the abstract ‘media’ as a boogeyman, decrying journalists as the “wimpiest people on Earth,” and even proffering borderline conspiracy theories. Suggesting that somehow, if he were to divulge any details of the UFC 249 panic process, ‘the media’ would find a way to ruin his plans—as if that makes any sense to someone who isn’t insane.
While the stakes are high and circumstances are more dire this time around, White’s pie in the sky proclamations are just the latest instance in the tried and true tactics that have earned him a vociferous, often cultish fanbase. For many, his sensationalism, obstinance and vulgarity are a virtuous selling point. They’re the things that make him ‘different’ from the heads of other sports organization.
Should this whole situation even dive deeper into hell in a handbasket, White will inevitably find some rhetorical escape route. And rest assured, he’ll ‘make it up’ to fans.
White is a gambler by nature – literally and figuratively – and at this point, the risk of failure and intensifying the company’s chaotic climate is worth it. The jackpot isn’t whether or not Nurmagomedov-Ferguson finally happens, giving fans their desperate wish and affording the lightweight division a measure of clarity, it’s the opportunity for him to grin and bellow ‘I told you so,’ ingratiating himself to a fickle audience. For White, there’s never a richer payoff than reminding fans that he is our ‘favorite uncle’ in a fantabulist world where no one else can ‘get it done.’