In normal times, this would be one of, if not the most anticipated fight of the year.
These are not normal times, of course. These are times defined by a global pandemic, which is why the card won’t be held inside a sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn as originally planned, or even an empty arena inside the United States. No one is sanctioning it. White says the location is set (Abu Dhabi?), but he isn’t revealing it yet.
Logistics are just part of what he is dealing with. There is plenty of resistance to him even trying. He doesn’t care.
“How many times do I got to say this is happening?” White told Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole on Instagram Live on Monday. “Khabib-Tony is on. April 18. It’s happening.”
Here’s hoping so. Even if you’ve never seen or want to see a cage fight, you should hope so because the public, which is increasingly inside and isolated due to the coronavirus, sure could use it.
To support the idea of a mid-April fight night is not an undercutting of self-distancing, quarantining or sheltering in place, either now or whatever will be necessary a month from now. You can be in favor of both.
Likewise, to believe that there is great value in the return of sports is not to take lightly the seriousness of the situation, the health of the public or the welfare of the heroic doctors, nurses, pharmacists, grocery store workers, first responders and so many others fighting this on the front line.
It is simply to understand that for generations, sports has been seen, and even used by governments, as a powerful distraction, morale booster and normalcy agent during times of crises, from economic depressions to lengthy wars.
During World War II they kept Major League Baseball going with old-timers. The NFL combined teams that were light on players so games could continue. A women’s professional baseball league was even created (famously portrayed in “A League of Their Own”). Meanwhile plays, concerts, parades and so on were held.
The public needs to stay home due to this virus. The public also needs to be entertained. It needs something other than COVID-19 to focus on. It needs something other than daily press briefings to discuss. To miss that is to miss the humanity in how this long, lonely social-distancing life is only getting longer and lonelier.
There is immense stress, pressure and uncertainty. Health. Family. Economic. Wanting something unimportant to focus on isn’t minimizing that or dismissing that, it is acknowledging that there are health concerns that go beyond just hospitalization rates.
The UFC is not for everyone. It is popular though. More importantly, it is a sport that seemingly could happen with minimal risk.
The NBA or NHL or MLB might be preferable to more people. But those sports require large numbers of players, coaches, trainers and so on. There is just no way.
The UFC, however, is different. It requires, at its core, just two fighters and a referee. There are three judges, but they could be seated far from the Octagon. A handful of camera people surround the cage, but even a few (or all) of them could be replaced by remote-controlled producers. The broadcasters could be pushed back.
A fighter’s corner could be reduced from four team members to maybe two. There’d be a doctor. The entire thing would take place in an empty, sterile sound stage somewhere.
“There aren’t going to be any fans there,” White said. “This thing is going to be a closed event. Everybody who is going to be involved in this thing is going to be involved because they want to be involved.”
The undercard could be limited to just four or five fights (although White said it’ll be full show). Training camps require additional coaches and partners, but even that is somewhat limited. Besides, guys such as Nurmagomedov, the ferocious Russian, are already training daily in a private gym.
Everyone could be tested prior. Everyone could agree to a potential quarantine after. The UFC could extend medical protection.
There are far more people crowded into your local Costco. There is a way to do this. There is a way this should be done.
“Those are all the things we are working on,” White said. “Every time we put on an event there are all sorts of problems. Lots of things happen, we figure it out. That's what we do. That's the business we are in. We have been doing it for 20 years.”
White has spent the last eight days social distancing inside his own house in Vegas. He and his company have followed all the directives and orders of Nevada’s governor, who he praises for his decisive and firm actions to limit the outbreak locally.
He also wants to get a fight done next month. It’ll be costly. Private planes, a likely international location, no tickets sold. He’ll still make money, of course. This will be on pay-per-view. The UFC is a business. Always. Nothing wrong with that.
There is a public benefit though, at least for millions of fight fans. A big-time match to anticipate. A sports debate to have with friends and family. A Saturday night where staying home and watching feels … normal.
Sometimes the most non-essential of things can feel very, very essential.
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