Fighters across the UFC roster are beginning to field bout offers as the promotion plots an ambitious schedule starting in May.
The promotion hasn’t put on a show since March due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, postponing several events. Currently, the UFC is targeting May 9 for the pay-per-view UFC 249 with plans to promote weekly cards at the UFC APEX center in Las Vegas.
Brian Butler-Au, who manages a number of UFC athletes under his Suckerpunch Entertainment banner, including reigning strawweight champion Zhang Weili, is happy the organization is giving the fighters a chance to compete and earn money during such a trying time.
That said, the veteran manager adds that the UFC isn’t forcing anyone to fight and the promotion isn’t holding it against athletes who don’t feel comfortable competing at an unprecedented time like this.
“They don’t want to fight, it’s completely understood,” Butler told MMA Fighting. “We’ve been asked to basically put together a list of our athletes that are domestic that are interested in fighting and that’s it. Even if there are fighters who had signed bout agreements and contracts before all of this went down, if they don’t want to fight in this time period, it’s not like anybody’s upset with anybody. It’s completely understood.
“At the same time, I understand why the UFC wants to get things going again. Like [Suckerpunch manager Bryan] Hamper said, the country needs something right now, because everybody’s just stuck. Watching Netflix is getting old. I applaud the UFC for trying to get it going, and I hope they find a safe way to get it going, because a lot of fighters want to do it and a lot of people want to watch it.”
In addition to his MMA business, Butler and his partner Hamper recently launched another agency, Fusion, that represents baseball players. MLB is also shut down with rumors swirling that the sport may start its season with all games held behind closed doors in certain states where stay-at-home restrictions have yet to be lifted.
Much like their MMA business, Butler and Hamper agree that there are no easy answers when it comes to sports coming back during a global pandemic. But at some point, things have to get back to normal.
“We believe they’re putting some nice plans in place to do it,” Hamper said about the MLB plan to return. “I think it’s been pretty well spoken in the media right now about the Arizona plan for baseball. Potentially playing all of the games in Arizona at their spring training locations there, and then also at a couple of the neighboring stadiums. Now with things opening up in Florida, that could be another option for spring training facilities in Florida to play as a plan B. But we are excited to get the guys back. I think the country needs it.”
Butler knows that fighters are being asked to compete in a very complicated situation that goes beyond just the potential of catching COVID-19.
Many athletes have expressed concerns about fighting right now after gyms across the country have been shut down for several weeks, which has prevented many of them from observing a strict training routine. Without a proper training camp, fighters know performances will suffer.
According to Butler, the UFC in particular understands that there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to fighters deciding whether or not now is the right time to compete.
Eventually gyms will reopen and regular training will begin again. But some fighters don’t want to wait, and the UFC is giving them the chance to fight now versus waiting until later.
“We manage so many fighters that we have the athletes that are across the spectrum,” Butler explained. “Some want to get back in there and some are a little bit paranoid because of a virus. The reality is everybody wants the country to get back on track as fast possible and get things back to normal as fast as possible. I think that if the athlete wants to compete, and the UFC wants to put on or can put on an event safely, I think they should compete.
“If an athlete doesn’t want to compete because they’re paranoid of the situation, nobody’s holding it against them if they decide not to [fight]. It’s just one of those types of situations where it’s a tough call. You’ve got some people who are like, this is so messed up, we want to get things back to normal, we need some answers – but there are no answers. Things are changing day by day.”
While the UFC is planning a return on May 9, many other promotions have shut down operations completely during the pandemic. Bellator MMA has postponed all of its shows in May and early June, and the Professional Fighters League cancelled its entire 2020 season with plans to return in 2021.
“The UFC doesn’t even have the answers right now,” Butler said. “All I know is they’re fighting hard to try to put together shows and get everything back on track as safely and fast as possible. That’s basically it.
“We have to show some patience. For the fighters that want to fight, when the time comes, they will fight. That’s not going to be a problem. For the ones that don’t want to fight, they won’t have to until they feel safe.”