“Ladies and gentlemen, we are back.”
These were the words spoken by UFC President Dana White as he announced the upcoming UFC 261 Pay-Per-View—an event that is expected to welcome a capacity crowd of 15,000 fans at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
Dressed in a black t-shirt with a white logo promoting Volquartsen Firearms, White’s excitement was palpable as he announced a trio of title fights, including a welterweight title fight between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal, as well as a women’s strawweight championship bout between Zhang Weili and former champ Rose Namajunas. The event, which will also see Valentina Shevchenko defend her flyweight title against Jessica Andrade, marks the first time that the promotion will host an event with a full capacity crowd since UFC 248 in March 2020.
“You know I’m bringing an incredible card,” White said in a video posted to Twitter on March 15. “This is a stacked card in front of 15,000 UFC fans.”
Less than two weeks later, White revealed that UFC 261 had sold out in minutes—one of the fastest complete sell-outs in the promotion’s history—despite carrying a liability disclaimer that warned of possible “permanent damage” and “death.” It was a clear sign that many sports fans were clamoring for live sports no matter the risks at hand.
Despite early signs of a return to normalcy, the UFC 261 showcase event is scheduled to take place amid a surge of COVD-19 variants in the United States and in Florida, which continues to rank as one of the states with the highest COVID-19 infection rates. And yet, while the pandemic rages on, Gov. Ron DeSantis has vehemently opposed any lockdowns or preventative measures to protect against the virus. Instead, he has used his staunch opposition to COVID-related policies to increase his favorability among Florida residents and the GOP base.
For DeSantis, sports events such as UFC 261 serve as an extension of his government’s laissez faire coronavirus approach and will likely garner support for the governor ahead of his 2022 re-election campaign. If all goes as planned, it may even play a role in a potential presidential bid in 2024.
An Unexpected GOP Heavyweight
In March 2020, the world became engulfed in a global pandemic caused by the spread of COVID-19. Airports were shuttered, borders closed, and mass gatherings banned as governments around the world attempted to institute lockdown measures to stem the spread of the disease. While more than 30 states issued statewide stay-at-home orders, Gov. Ron DeSantis—then just 14 months into his gubernatorial tenure—decided against imposing one in Florida despite, at the time, being among eight states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.
DeSantis’ decision to ignore the severity of the pandemic came as little surprise given his track record at the time. During his first six months as governor, he shifted the Florida Supreme Court from a liberal to a conservative majority, signed an “anti-sanctuary city” bill, and made it harder for groups and citizens to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. He positioned himself as a staunch ally to former president Donald Trump and appeared to be mirroring Trump’s initial handling of the pandemic.
While DeSantis eventually succumbed to pressure and declared a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1, 2020, he continued to actively resist the measures in place by giving some beaches the green light to reopen and by designating professional sports as “essential services” in order to lobby organizations such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the UFC to hold events in Florida. Consequently, the WWE moved its tapings to Orlando while the UFC committed to hosting three consecutive events at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in May 2020.
Ahead of the UFC’s scheduled events in Jacksonville, Florida, the Tampa Bay Times reported that state officials stopped releasing the list of coronavirus-related deaths gathered by medical examiners, which at times was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health. This suggested that, while DeSantis was planning to re-open the economy, Florida was suppressing COVID-19 death figures from the public. Despite the concerning news, the UFC went on to hold all three of its planned events in Jacksonville, Florida.
Rising death toll notwithstanding, DeSantis continued to obstruct local governments in Florida from implanting their own public health measures related to COVID-19. On Sep. 25, he issued an order that prohibited local officials from imposing fines or shutting down businesses for violations of mask mandates, while also allowing restaurants to reopen at full capacity. He maintained his deregulated and laissez-faire approach to the health crisis well into 2021, where he was entrenched in further controversy regarding the coronavirus vaccine rollout.
The governor came under scrutiny for selecting Publix, a supermarket chain that donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ re-election campaign, as the sole distributor for the vaccine in a handful of Florida counties. He was also accused of using preferential treatment and political favoritism by distributing the vaccine in ZIP codes encompassing the neighborhoods of affluent, Republican donors and supporters. While DeSantis has denied any “pay-for-play” schemes or favoritism at hand, his government has yet to release the public records on the Publix vaccine deal.
While DeSantis’ resistance to implementing aggressive COVID-19 related measures and subsequent conflict with mainstream media launched an endless series of controversies, it also caught the attention of a GOP base seeking its next leader.
Even though Trump remains the GOP frontrunner for a potential presidential run in 2024, DeSantis has emerged as one of the few candidates capable of assuming GOP leadership if Trump decides not to run. Over the past two months, DeSantis’ position has strengthened in polls, including a 52 percent lead over the better known Sen. Marco Rubio in a survey for the most popular GOP politicians in Florida. Politico reported that an early nationwide primary poll for the 2024 Republican race placed DeSantis behind Sen. Ted Cruz and former Vice President Mike Pence. The governor also finished first in a CPAC straw poll that didn’t include Trump—underscoring his growing support within the Republican Party.
Aware of his growing favorability, DeSantis embraced policies that would add to his popularity. He proposed legislation to combat alleged social media censorship by allowing the Florida state legislature to impose fines up to $100,000 a day on Big Tech companies that deplatform political candidates running for office in Florida. In April 2021, DeSantis signed a controversial bill titled the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” which would effectively crack down on riots and property damage. While critics have argued that the bill would disproportionately target minorities and marginalized communities, DeSantis called it “the strongest, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”
“We’re also putting an end to the bullying and intimidation tactics of the radical left by criminalizing doxing and requiring restitution for damaging memorials and monuments by rioters,” the governor said during an April 19 news conference.
DeSantis, who has built much of his newfound support through his fierce opposition to Democrats and the Biden administration, has also used sports to further his political agenda. Despite Florida having recorded more than two million COVID-19 cases and 35,142 deaths at the time of writing, DeSantis welcomed WWE’s flagship WrestleMania show earlier this month, which drew more than 25,000 fans to the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
“Florida has continued to work with professional sports and entertainment to safely operate while generating revenue and protecting jobs,” DeSantis said ahead of the event. “WrestleMania will bring tens of millions of dollars to the Tampa area and we look forward to hosting more sporting and entertainment events in Florida this year.”
As WrestleMania 37 drew to a close, DeSantis set his sights on the UFC’s return to the Sunshine state.
Addressing a raucous crowd at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on Thursday, Gov. DeSantis kicked off the UFC 261 pre-fight press conference by welcoming the UFC audience to Florida and celebrating the promotion’s commitment to getting fans back into arenas.
“UFC was the first sport back with live competition anywhere in the country,” DeSantis said during the press conference, which was also attended by the Mayor of Jacksonville, Lenny Curry. “But we didn’t have the big fans for it yet. I told Dana, ‘listen when you guys are ready to come, Florida needs to be the first place for a UFC [event] with all the fans.’”
DeSantis went on to boast about his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the importance of giving Florida’s residents a wide range of options during the pandemic, “We want people to make decisions for themselves on what they attend and what they don’t attend.”
DeSantis’ defiant speech was met with applause from the audience in attendance, the vast majority of whom were seated sans-mask. The governor took several jabs at the media, celebrated White’s handling of the UFC throughout the pandemic, and made his case for why a UFC event with live fans in Florida made sense for his government.
“This is going to be the first [indoor] full-throttle sports event since COVID hit anywhere in the United States and I think it’s fitting,” DeSantis explained. “This event is good for Florida. It is going to be great for fans on TV to see the fans back.
“Welcome to Florida. You guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom.”
While DeSantis attempted to reassure his constituents that a return to capacity crowd events would be both safe and economically beneficial to the state, it is worth noting that the governor has made no attempts to vaccinate the athletes ahead of UFC 261. White confirmed the news earlier this week, adding that UFC fighters and employees were responsible for their own vaccinations.
“What we did is all of our employees have been vaccinated — we made sure that all of our employees that are here with a Nevada residence have been vaccinated,” White told Yahoo Sports. “The problem is state to state. I have employees in California, and the ring card girls, and stuff like that too. They don’t like giving it out to people from other states. So whatever states the fighters live in, they need to check with their local people and see about getting vaccinated.”
White, who spent the past year downplaying the severity of COVID-19 while targeting media members for critical articles on the UFC’s (at times) lackluster policies, also announced that masks would be optional for fans attending UFC 261: “It’s up to you. It’s your decision,” he added.
UFC 261 ticket holders are required to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire in advance of the event, and those who are issued a green notification will be granted entry into arena. The UFC will also provide free face coverings to fans who choose to wear them. However, given the surge of COVID-19 variants in Florida, including a U.K variant known as B117 that has the potential to be more deadly than SARS-CoV-2,the safety measures may not be enough to limit potential outbreaks. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that mandatory masks, physical distancing and avoiding crowded settings were essential to mitigating the spread of the disease and questioned Florida’s resistance to following CDC recommendations.
Despite the potential risks, DeSantis ploughed ahead with a plan to reopen Florida’s economy, the latest phase of which is the return of crowds at live sports events.
“The data could not be clearer that our state has fared far better than many others, particularly those that imposed harsh lockdowns on their residents,” DeSantis said in a statement last month, as he gathered hand-picked experts to validate his government’s handling of COVID-19. To a certain extent, he is not wrong, as Florida’s COVID-19 death rate has not gone far above the national average despite DeSantis’ light-handed approach with regulations. By comparison, Florida’s economy is also in much better shape than the Democrat-led New York State and California, which were far more heavy-handed with their COVID-19 restrictions.
DeSantis has since continued to use his state’s limited government-imposed restrictions to increase his political clout and favorability among Republicans. By promoting the UFC—a sports organization with a significant conservative fanbase due to its overt support for Trump—with a full crowd of 15,000 fans, DeSantis is tailoring to sports fans and conservatives alike, many of whom will applaud his opposition to Biden’s administration and standing up for conservative values.
This is not the first time that the UFC has been a willing participant in a government’s propaganda narrative. At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, White used his relationship with Trump to defy government mandates and soldier on with his UFC shows. When first asked about his decision to move forward with the UFC show in Brasilia during the outbreak in March, White referenced a conversation he had with Trump in which the president told him to “be cautious, be careful, but live your life and stop panicking.”
In his quest to reopen the American economy, Trump enlisted numerous sports executives for an advisory group, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Vince McMahon, and Dana White. “In sports — we want to get our sports back, so importantly,” Trump said during a White House press briefing on April 14 when asked about the advisory group.
Given that the UFC boasted warm ties to Trump’s administration, it came as no surprise that the promotion followed Trump’s plan for sports to “get back soon.” When the promotion finally held its UFC 249 Pay-Per-View show, Trump appeared on the ESPN broadcast and congratulated the UFC’s efforts to get back to business. “We need sports. We want our sports back,” Trump said during the pre-taped clip. DeSantis—a staunch Trump loyalist—is merely following in his role model’s footsteps by once again using the UFC as a benchmark for live sports and crowded stadiums.
In a nutshell, DeSantis is engaging in sportswashing, whereby sports are little more than governmental tools used to leverage political power. The governor is relying on sports events such as WrestleMania 37 and UFC 261 to emphasize his status as a leading Republican governor who helped save Florida’s economy.
As more Republicans continue to learn about, and back, DeSantis, his chances of standing as a heavyweight contender in the 2024 Republican primaries becomes more realistic.