"There's never been a rivalry as poisonous. It's an evil kind of buzz"
"If you put me in a box and are telling me not to... I don't believe that anything can't be done."
Fight fans may get that Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor rematch they have long pined for, but in a setting no-one was expecting.
On Friday afternoon, standing in the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Dana White tried to put a brave face on the top brass at ESPN and the Walt Disney Company shutting down his outlandish scheme to stage UFC 249 at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort.
The UFC president had long been waving off the concerns of the MMA media about the health, safety and moral implications of staging a major sport event amid the Coronavirus pandemic.
Despite losing UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov from the main event and title challenger Rose Namajunas from the co-main event [two of her relatives have died from COVID-19 in the past week], White was all for ploughing ahead.
All that changed once the mainstream American media took a keen interest in events. The New York Times ran a big piece on the UFC pressing forward with the event and the fight promotion, which is owned by Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG, took some heat in several op-eds and TV News features.
On Wednesday, April 8, a 12-fight card was announced with Tony Ferguson remaining in the headliner to fight Justin Gaethje for an interim lightweight belt.
Just a week previous to that, White had told Yahoo's Kevin Iole that 'The less the media know [about UFC 249], the better'. Last Thursday, Petesy Carroll of MMA Fighting spoke with us about the Tachi Palace plans:
"How is this the safest place in the world? How in the name of God could this be the safest place in the world? There’s people bleeding on each other. There’s people lowering their immune systems to virtually nothing to make weights for these fights, AND this pandemic is going down. If they got hit with this situation where they can barely have enough energy to stand up on the scales to register their weight, that can’t be good news. It couldn’t possibly be good news."
"Fight Island? Like, what are we even doing any more? This is mental! I’ve long known that this is an insane industry, but this is taking the piss!"@PetesyCarroll of @MMAfighting on the crazy story behind #UFC249 and why it's still going ahead during a pandemic 😮 pic.twitter.com/rlVp8JgNPo
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) April 9, 2020
Sirius XM host Luke Thomas, who had long been decrying the promotion's plans for the event, called the UFC's logic "insane" and legitimately asked what would happen if anyone involved in UFC 249 contracted COVID-19 during the event.
Then, on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas, White held up his hands in an ESPN interview and admitted the jig was up. UFC 249 and all other planned UFC events were being 'indefinitely postponed'.
"I can go next week," White lamented. "I could have got it done." However, the 50-year-old added:
"It's all good. We're going to get through this. We'll be the first ones back. Fight Island is coming, all the good stuff. It's coming, man. We'll get this thing squared away, get a date from ESPN, and we'll be back first and we'll get these fights going that everybody wants to see."
While it is highly unlikely that we will be seeing mass gathering at sporting events in the coming months, the UFC could still generate a lot of interest, and money, by staging closed door fights on ESPN and as pay-per-views. White says he has a private island lined up for events involving international fighters although it remains to be seen how many nations would sanction their citizens flying in and out of their airports for these events.
"I feel like all sports really have the opportunity now to do some really wild stuff," says Carroll, "when things do kick back in.
"I also have a feeling that the UFC are going to try and make all these wild fights while the other sports aren't on!"
We are still in the speculative stage of when and where sports can return, but high profile figures such as Gary Neville and Warren Gatland have spoken about big-money match-ups and events that could raise much-needed funds once governments and experts give the green light for a re-commencement.
For the UFC, big-money means getting Conor McGregor into The Octagon as frequently as possible. 'The Notorious' declared, in January, that he would be staying in fighting shape for what he felt was the inevitable trouble with the UFC 249 main event.
When Nurmagomedov announced he would be staying in quarantine, back home in Dagestan, McGregor conceded that he may have been blinkered towards a title fight had he been booked in for one.
I am in shape to fight right now!
At the beginning of all this, I said to myself - I’m happy I don’t have an official fight booked. If I did, I would have consumed all the incorrect data to support me taking part in the bout, and I would have followed through, competed. And won.
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 2, 2020
"That was really weird," says Carroll, "because he was talking out of the two sides of his mouth, completely.
"He was like, 'Everyone stay home. Oh this is terrible', and then was saying, 'Oh, but if I had signed to fight, I would have went'. I don't think he even knows what he's talking about there. That's way too confusing for me to try and get my head around.
"It's just a game of one-upmanship, that's all it is. And it's nasty between him and Khabib, to be quite honest. There's never been a rivalry as poisonous. It's an evil kind of buzz those two have.
"The impact of what happened with that fight and how Irish people see the sport, I don't think we're ever going to recover from it."
Will we ever get to see Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov at this stage? It has been slated to go down on five occasions and you really have to feel for both me.
The UFC and Major League Baseball will be the two main sports vying to get back underway as soon as possible. The MLB has already floated a tentative plan to its' clubs about teams heading out towards Arizona and being sequestered in private hotels just so they can get a condensed season ticked off.
White will be hoping the Ultimate Fighting Championship gets away from the grid first, though, and don't be surprised if McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov is fast-tracked for that fight island.
"Why not? Anything goes!" Carroll remarks.
"I’m sure McGregor is going to be attached to a thousand fights on this fight island. Fight Island? Like what the f…. What are we even doing any more? This is mental!
"I’ve long known that this is an insane calling, an insane industry, but this is taking the piss!"