Halfway around the world, inside a massive pandemic-proof bubble dubbed “Fight Island,” Dana White heard the news that President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.
White, as president of the UFC, is as well-versed as anyone on how to keep the virus at bay — this weekend his company will stage its 30th fight card (a Fight Night from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates) since the initial March outbreak shut things down in the United States.
Meanwhile, as Trump’s longtime friend — dating back to White’s early UFC days, when he staged cards at Atlantic City casinos Trump owned at the time — he was uniquely concerned at what was happening back home.
“I called Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser],” White told Yahoo Sports Friday morning. “I think [Trump] gets through this. He has so much energy. He never stops. He’s in great shape. I think he’ll be OK.
“He’s the President of the United States,” said White, who has spoken on Trump’s behalf at each of the last two Republican National Conventions. “Even if you don’t agree with him, he’s a human being. And he’s done some good things for this country. What’s wrong with these dummies [rooting for him to be sick]. It makes me happy to be in Abu Dhabi.”
It’s been a wild 2020 for everyone, and White maybe more than most. Trying to run an international mixed martial arts operation during a global pandemic tested the skill, resources and resourcefulness of a company that had seen it all in building itself into a multibillion-dollar global behemoth the past two decades.
White received significant criticism when he tried to start holding cards as early as April — his first attempt at a tribal casino in California was canceled at the request of broadcast partner ESPN. He was scolded for even attempting to get back to business. He was told that doing this safely was nearly impossible.
Undeterred, White and his staff were able to pull off UFC 249 on May 9 in Jacksonville, Florida. It wasn’t perfect — one fight was canceled due to a positive test — but it worked. There was no major, or even minor, outbreak.
From there the UFC has never taken its foot off the pedal. White has consistently said that every company should try to return to as close to normal as it possibly can.
“Obviously, we had some trial and error at the beginning,” White said. “We had to reanalyze early on how we were doing things. But we continued to tighten things up and made everything stronger. That was the key to the success.
“We’ve gotten better and better at it,” White continued. “We are testing people 3-4 times before they even get to Fight Island.”
The UFC certainly figured it out — and nearly every sports league in the world has followed along as well. This weekend is the start of three more fight cards at the company’s Middle Eastern home, a sealed off man-made island in Abu Dhabi that has allowed international fighters to compete.
The idea of attempting this was daunting. It is no less so as White looks back, or even forward. As Trump’s positive test shows, the virus is still out there. The natural inclination to relax and believe you can avoid it must be avoided.
It’s why White, who readily admits he is “petty” and loves “shutting up” the doubters, isn’t quite willing to spike the football yet.
“Let me get to 2021,” he said, laughing. “This year is crazy.”
He considers this the new normal — fight cards in television sound stages with stringent and relentless protocols surrounding it. Testing. Masks. Distancing. Mandatory quarantining. Virus-killing misting tunnels. You name it, they have it.
He says the UFC is only looking to make safety stronger. He has no plans to allow a limited number of fans into arenas, as other sports have.
“I’m not doing fans until we can have a full arena,” White said, saying he’s figured out how to make revenue numbers work despite missing out on multimillion-dollar live gates.
“I get calls from these countries, ‘We can allow fans. We have fans here in New Zealand. We have fans here in Australia,’ ” White said. “But we’d have to quarantine for two weeks and we can’t do that. We are doing fine. We are going to keep going.”
That means a normal schedule of fight cards split between the company facility in Las Vegas and in Abu Dhabi.
That includes Saturday’s Fight Night featuring Holly Holm vs. Irene Aldana, and the big one, UFC 254, later this month headlined by lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Justin Gaethje, who took a star turn by defeating Tony Ferguson at the first pandemic card in Jacksonville.
If that means White has to keep spending long stretches in the Middle East, then so be it.
“Since Day 1 with this company we have said, ‘Let’s try to figure it out. Whatever is thrown at us, how do we deal with it and run the business?’ This is no different,” White said. “Everyday we worked on it, though, and we figured it out. We’ve always figured it out.
“This was hard because so many powerful forces were against us even trying. And the winds changed every few hours, every day. Every time we got something done, there was something new.
“But we’ve done it.”
Related: UFC star Stephan Bonnar
16 PHOTOSUFC star Stephan BonnarSee GalleryUFC star Stephan BonnarLAS VEGAS, NV – APRIL 09:Stephan Bonnar reacts after his decision loss to Forrest Griffin in the light heavyweight finals bout at The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale inside the Cox Pavilion on April 9, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) LAS VEGAS – DECEMBER 29: Mixed martial arts fighter Stephan Bonnar arrives at the grand opening of the CatHouse at the Luxor Resort & Casino December 29, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)LAS VEGAS – JANUARY 28:Stephan Bonnar poses for a portrait on January 28, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS – JULY 11:Stephan Bonnar looks on against Mark Coleman during their light heavyweight bout during UFC 100 on July 11, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)LAS VEGAS – JULY 02:UFC fighter Stephan Bonnarweighs in for his Light Heavyweight fight against UFC fighter Krzysztof Soszynski at UFC 116 on July 2, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)UFC fighter Stephan Bonnar attends the UFC 111 party at 632 Hudson on March 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage)LAS VEGAS – JULY 03:Stephan Bonnar reacts after defeating Krzysztof Soszynski during the UFC light heavyweight bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 3, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS, NV – MAY 09:Stephan Bonnar poses for a portrait on May 9, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS – DECEMBER 04:[R-L] Stephan Bonnar punches at Igor Pokrajac at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale at the Pearl at the Palms on December 4, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 30:Mixed martial artist Stephan Bonnar arrives at the Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards 2011 at the Palms Casino Resort November 30, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)VANCOUVER, BC – JUNE 10:A shirtless Stephan Bonnar answers questions from the fans after giving a fan the shirt off his back during the UFC Fight Club Q&A at the UFC 131 weigh-in at Jack Poole Plaza on June 10, 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)SAN JOSE, CA – NOVEMBER 19: Stephan Bonnar celebrates defeating Kyle Kingsbury during an UFC Light Heavywieght bout at the HP Pavillion on November 19, 2011 in San Jose, California.(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)US MMA-UFC fighter Stephan Bonnar practices in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, on October 10, 2012. Bonnar will fight against Brazilian Anderson Silva on October 13.AFP PHOTO/Christophe Simon(Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/GettyImages)LAS VEGAS, NV – OCTOBER 03:Stephan Bonnar works out for the media during an open workout session at One Kick’s Gym on October 3, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)LAS VEGAS, NV – DECEMBER 02:UFC fighter Stephan Bonnar interacts with fans during a Q&A session before the official weigh-in for The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale at The Palms Casino Resort on December 2, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – NOVEMBER 16:Stephen Bonnar attends the UFC 167 event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)Up Next
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