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With UFC 249 postponed, there are lessons (bad and good) to be learned

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In the end, it was a mouse that roared a halt to UFC 249. Disney, the parent company of UFC broadcast partner ESPN, called UFC president Dana White on Thursday to ask him to “stand down.” As White relayed in an interview with ESPN, until that moment, he stood ready to produce an April 18 show that was still being revamped due to travel restrictions and other logistical issues before agreeing to his partners’ request.

That decision, applauded by some and loathed by others, brings a close to one of the most surreal stories MMA has seen. The event was on, then jeopardized by sanctioning issues, then rumored for abroad, then moved to a secret location, then reworked with a new main event, and finally canceled. It was a tremendous amount of work for no payoff.

That work should not go without comment. While the UFC’s attempt to go forward in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic was certainly met with its share of criticism, the efforts of the rank and file employees attempting to make it happen are remarkable. As the world closed around them, they plowed ahead. It may have not amounted to much, but whether you were for or against an event, you have to admire their determination.

There are lessons to be taken from this strange episode in MMA history, both good and bad. Here are a few:

This was a bad idea from the beginning

When the president of the United States declares a national emergency, when all of the world’s sports leagues halt play, when top global business leaders are shuttering their doors all for the good of the worldwide community, it’s probably a good idea to join them.

If all of these establishment positions and organizations have one thing in common, it’s an interest in keeping their economies humming. For them to take this drastic step means they have studied the issue, estimated the bottom-line impacts, considered the potential reputational damage, and still determined that a pause was the best course of action.

While it is true that MMA is not a “team” sport in the vein of basketball, soccer, baseball or football, it still takes a small village to put on events. The UFC promised it would have taken all precautions to ensure a safe event, but the backlash wasn’t solely about the fighters, who are all young and healthy enough to probably survive a bout with COVID-19. It was about the overburdened medical system, who would likely have to dedicate some of its overworked resources to fighters, as well as the possibility that asymptomatic fighters, cornermen, event officials, etc., could return home and unknowingly spread it to someone at greater risk to the virus’ effects.

With that backdrop, a postponement made sense from the beginning.

White’s tireless tenacity is great in most instances … but not all

When White took over as the president of the UFC, his incredible doggedness was probably his best attribute. He would run into a brick wall 100 times if he still had a chance to break through and get some attention on the 101st. Ultimately, that indefatigability paid off. He became a charismatic character in his own right, helping to draw attention to the struggling promotion and building it into a global success. Most of his attitude is positive. His ability to save events by convincing stars to take short-notice fights, for instance, or the UFC’s push to get themselves taken seriously by the mainstream media. He mostly finds a way to accomplish what he sets out to do.

However, he may have a bit of a blind spot in that he seems to take everything as a personal challenge. As White reminded ESPN’s Brett Okamoto several times, he was ready to do the event despite people doubting he could pull it off. There may have been some people who thought White couldn’t make it happen, but those people were almost certainly in the minority. For most, the issue wasn’t if he could do it; it was whether he should do it.

Endeavor blew it, and Disney and ESPN acted late

White has taken the brunt of the criticism from those who felt the event shouldn’t go on, and perhaps that’s his burden as the president of the company, but there is plenty of blame to go around. The UFC’s corporate parent Endeavor clearly signed off on this cobbled-together continuity plan, with White specifically name-checking Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel as one of the conceptualists behind the UFC’s “Fight Island” strategy. And Disney and ESPN have obviously known about the UFC’s work to continue fights in the wake of the pandemic. They said nothing until Thursday, when they finally asked White to pull the plug. It was on March 15 when White announced that UFC 249’s original Brooklyn venue was ruled out and that the event would continue somewhere else. That’s nearly a month they’ve remained silent.

While the pandemic has evolved since then, other leagues had long ago suspended play. Endeavor could have stepped in to stop things but didn’t. Disney and ESPN could have stepped in, too. They only did so Thursday in the face of public pressure. That’s a major gaffe.

Politics was the only thing that stopped UFC 249

For the longest time, the fate of UFC 249 was only an MMA story. But as the event neared and it became clear it might actually occur, it grew past the bubble. On Wednesday, The New York Times published a story titled “Dana White Says U.F.C. 249 Is Being Cautious. Is That Good Enough?” This morning, sports industry trade outlet Sports Business Journal posted a story titled “UFC Fight Card Amid Pandemic Could Pose Risk To Endeavor.” Then, California Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement calling on the UFC to delay the event, and California Governor Gavin Newsom reportedly called Disney to ask them to do the same.

Corporate behemoths like Disney, ESPN, Endeavor and the UFC can shrug off MMA media criticisms like they’re a bunch of summertime gnats, but this was something much greater. They bet the criticism wouldn’t grow to a boiling point, but that proved wrong.

There’s no reason to celebrate the cancellation

While it’s wonderful that at-risk people aren’t unnecessarily being put in danger (both directly and indirectly), the sport does not come off looking great here in any way. Many fighters trained and started cutting weight for nothing, others traveled or set up camps in isolation with no payoff. White said he would find a way to get these people their fights or to get them paid, so that is a positive, but ultimately, this is what should have happened all along. This is a just story, not a happy story.

Except …

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson can be booked again!

Much respect to Justin Gaethje for agreeing to step in to a match with Ferguson on short-notice, but hopefully this forced hiatus will allow the MMA universe to restore its natural order. Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson should be the first fight booked out of the gate. True, half of the fight world thinks the matchup is doomed but that makes it the perfect comeback fight for White, the promoter who is tenacious enough to book it as many times as necessary.