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Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those
of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of
Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company,
Evolve Media.

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* * *


The
Ultimate Fighting Championship
on Saturday in Jacksonville,
Florida, will end the near two-month hiatus from live events that
was forced upon the company by the COVID-19 pandemic. For a third
consecutive time, it will break with the consensus of professional
sports and entertainment providers— who indefinitely suspended
operations while
America tried desperately to flatten the curve
—and attempt to
forge ahead with a live fight card during a national health
crisis.

The first attempt consisted of a push to hold UFC Fight Night 171,
UFC on ESPN 8 and UFC Fight Night 172 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas
between March 21 and April 11. It was quashed by government decree.
The second attempt saw the promotion look to hold UFC
249
on tribal lands at the Tachi Palace Casino in Lemoore,
California, on April 18.
It was slapped down by the higherups in ESPN and Disney
. This
time however, with its broadcast partners, the Florida State Boxing
Commission and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the UFC’s corner, the
conventional wisdom is that the show, barring some kind of
catastrophe, will actually go on. So confident is UFC President
Dana White that the organization has booked two more events—May 13
and May 16—in Jacksonville for the following week and has plans to
bring the circus tent back to Las Vegas on May 23.

White has been his typical abrasive self during fight week.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated published on May 5
, he
insisted that if not for the intervention of state governments, the
UFC could have safely gone ahead with its original event schedule,
cryptically asserting that he “know[s] a lot more than [SI] knows
about what’s going on with a lot of things.” In the same interview,
he characterized the decision of other sports organizations such as
golf and car racing to halt operations as “caving in to media
pressure,” complained that he was being unfairly portrayed as a
“money-monger” and continued to mosh for Fight Island. In a subsequent
interview with Bar Stool Sports
, he sustained his assault on
members of the MMA media who criticized the UFC’s aborted plans for
April 18, underscoring his contempt for accountability and his
expectation that journalists will operate as the promotion’s public
relations representatives rather than independent reporters.

It’s the typical us-versus-them rhetoric that those in the industry
have come to expect from White
. However, the real question
centers on how the promotion’s actions will be received from the
mainstream sports world and the general public and whether there
may be long-term consequences for forging ahead in the current
climate.

Historically, combat sports have been held to a significantly laxer
set of moral standards than their stick-and-ball counterparts, with
major media tending to reserve scrutiny of promoters and athletes
for all but the most heinous conduct. MMA and boxing are, if
nothing else, incredibly insular communities with a unique history
and culture, and their participants react with hostility to
outsiders. This nativism, combined with a
history of absurd spectacles
and the general aversion to
organized violence which many in the media elite hold, have, to a
large extent, convinced mainstream sports that the fight game isn’t
to be taken seriously, thus giving latitude to its participants
that simply would not fly in “real” sports.

The examples of where this has manifested are legion:
partnerships between promoters and dictatorships
, the
whitewashing of high-profile fighters’ records of domestic
violence
,
exploitative labor practices
and
union-busting
, the
exile of athletes
and
journalists
—who disturb the status quo and
rife conflicts of interest involving MMA’s powerbrokers
. These
realities are seldom the subject of sustained examination, much
less condemnation, by the mainstream sports media. MMA and boxing
reliably produce good revenues and a steady flow of highlights for
SportsCenter, but as far as critiquing its political and economic
dimensions, that kind of effort is regarded as unnecessary and
unwarranted.
The most recent models predicting the virus will claim 3,000 lives
per day by the end of June
, which begs the question: Will that
inattentiveness hold up when the UFC is back broadcasting live
fights on television while the rest of the world languishes in
varying states of quarantine.

Even with
robust safety measures in place
, the promotion is still putting
its fighters on airplanes and in transport hubs before having them
coalesce with 100-plus others—judges, referees, commentary and
camera crew, UFC officials, commission officials, doctors, cutmen,
sound crew, ambulance transport, production, etc.—in an empty
arena. The fighters will then exchange bodily fluids with each
other for 15-25 minutes. There’s a not insignificant chance that
somewhere along the way one of those athletes or supporting players
are going to contract and very possibly spread the coronavirus,
which is the reason why
epidemiologists have cautioned that the UFC’s show-must-go-on
mentality is premature and dangerous
.

If the UFC manages to pull of its events safely, it will be a boon
to the company that has come to relish its ability to defy
expectations, a welcome respite for fight fans and a long overdue
injection of revenue to
its ailing parent company
. If it fails, UFC exceptionalism will
face its toughest test to date.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia.
He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics
of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.
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