By Matthew Curry
Back in March, when the Coronavirus pandemic became a major issue, a huge indicator of the severity of the outbreak was the shutdown of sports. The NBA season: cancelled. The NHL season: cancelled. Spring training for the MLB: over. We began to see a primary source of entertainment crumble around us, and the reality of the situation began to set in. When the UFC, the last sport standing, finally gave up, all hope seemed lost. We didn’t know when or how they could bring sports back. Months later, the pandemic still lingers, but things are different. The NBA finals just wrapped up. The MLB has crowned their World Series champions. The NHL wrapped up their season last month. The NFL is back on schedule. So, how did we go from so much uncertainty to so many championships? Well, it all started with one night in Jacksonville, Florida.
Over the last 20 years, Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, (UFC), has faced many challenges when it comes to growing the sport of mixed martial arts and keeping it on the map. However, this was a different challenge. Never had he faced the challenge of a global pandemic, nevermind one that was spreading so rapidly. The UFC was the last sport standing at the start of the pandemic, but eventually, despite his best efforts, they had no choice but to put a halt to all events. White wasn’t finished fighting, though. He had never stepped inside the octagon himself, but he was a fighter. He had fought vigorously for the survival of mixed martial arts in the sport’s dark ages where it was legal in very few states and shunned by cable companies. Surely he could find a way to come back from a pandemic... right?
Well, the UFC’s first attempt at bringing back sports in April didn’t quite go as planned. After scrambling to find a location for UFC 249, they eventually settled on the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California. The casino is located on sovereign, tribal land, making California’s restrictions - specifically the sports shutdown - irrelevant. Unfortunately for White and the UFC, California still found a way to shut it down when Governor Gavin Newsom complained to Disney, the owner of the UFC’s broadcasting partner ESPN, and got UFC 249 postponed once again.
Despite the hits, Dana White still refused to give up. A few weeks later, he looked to the one state crazy enough to hold a mixed martial arts event during a global pandemic: Florida. The stage was set. On May 9th at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, the UFC took their second crack at coming back from the shutdown. Headlined by an incredible match-up for the Interim Lightweight Championship between number 1 ranked Tony Ferguson and number 4 Justin Gaethje, UFC 249 was set to be perhaps the best fight card (in terms of name value) in combat sports history.
The event, however, didn’t go off without any bumps in the road. On the day of weigh-ins, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza tested positive for COVID-19 and his fight with Uriah Hall was removed from the card. Luckily for White, the event wasn’t shut down; no one else tested positive, and one of the greatest cards in UFC history was able to take place. Eleven fights, two championships, and an impressive 700,000 pay-per-view buys later - the UFC had officially become the first sport to return safely, and, in turn, opened up the door for other sports leagues.
It took the NBA, MLB, and others a few more months to sort through how to get over the particular hurdles involved with running team sports, but as is obvious by the fact that we’re now fresh off of seeing multiple champions being crowned in the span of two months, they figured it out. Now, football is back on every Sunday, the Lakers and Dodgers can add another trophy to their respective cases, and boxing is slowly coming back to life. However, even with our favorite sports back in our lives, it’s important to remember how we got here. Dana White was called a madman. He was chastised for trying to bring back sports, but in the end, the UFC continued to defy the odds; if he didn’t, if he took the “wait for the pandemic to be over” approach, and if the UFC never came back to show that sports could be done safely during the Coronavirus pandemic, chances are we would still be sportsless. So to Dana White, Tony Ferguson, Justin Gaethje, and the UFC, thank you.