The eyes of the sports world – and quite possibly beyond – are on Dana White and his Ultimate Fighting Championship, with three fight nights planned in the space of eight days in May.
And the stakes simply could not be higher.
On Saturday, the UFC is scheduled to become the first sport in the United States to return to action, despite the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, with the organization’s president acutely aware of the increased scrutiny that’s inevitably coming his way.
“Listen, we have families, too,” White told CNN Sport from his headquarters in Las Vegas recently. “I have a family; I don’t want to hurt my family. I don’t want to die.
“This isn’t just some crazy, this is a well thought out plan. We’ve had very, very smart people, doctors and people that have been involved with the UFC for a very long time working on this thing non-stop since it started. We believe that we have this thing in a place where it can be as safe as it can possibly be.”
The trio of events on May 9, 13 and 16 will be staged in Jacksonville, Florida, where the UFC – which can often attract crowds in excess of 20,000 – has confirmed all fight nights will be closed to the public due to the pandemic and only “essential personnel” will be in attendance.
The UFC’s own website noted: “All athletes and staff will be required to adhere to a number of precautionary measures, such as participating in advanced medical screenings and temperature checks and following social distancing guidelines.”
In a press release issued by UFC, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry says the promotion has presented a “safe and sensible” plan while Patrick Cunningham, executive director of the state’s Boxing Commission, said “health and safety protocols will be in place to ensure the safety and well-being of all individuals who are helping to3 make these events possible.”
And in a statement to CNN Sport, Brian Hughes, chief administrative officer for the City of Jacksonville, said “UFC presented state regulators with a well thought out plan and they are aware of our guidance through local executive orders
“Based on our discussions and the capacity to have code and safety enforcement at the events, we are confident the events will protect the athletes, management and production staff on-site.”
As regards a key component of tests, Hughes went on to note that “everyone in the building will have been through a testing regime based on the UFC’s plan.”
UFC president White – who’s also submitted a 30-page safety protocol document to state authorities ahead of this weekend’s pay-per-view event – says the fighters want to fight, the fans are excited, and that there’s been a “phenomenal” reaction, but he also concedes there are no guarantees in life, calling on everyone to play their part.
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“Fighters just can’t show up in Florida and just start hanging out and partying and walking up and down the street,” White acknowledges. “We’re going to need some help from them, too.”
White – who doesn’t think we’ll be seeing crowds back at live sports for a while – also wears another hat these days. He’s one of US President Donald Trump’s advisers, when it comes to getting America’s economy back on track.
White told CNN Sport that he’s been on some “great” conference calls with Trump, adding “everyone is motivated to try to figure this thing out and bring back sports.”
Trying to return during the pandemic comes at a high-profile risk but White sees the UFC as up for the challenge.
“I could stay home right now. I could be in my swimming pool, hanging out, playing with my kids at home,” he asserts.
“I’m not. I’m out here trying to figure this thing out. I’m making sure that every one of my employees and their families are taken care of. My fighters and their families are taken care of. And we’re spending a lot of money to do it. You know, this is very expensive. It’s not cheap. That’s why other people don’t want to go right now. It’s expensive.”
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While other sports remain too concerned about potential dangers to host any kind of competition just yet, the UFC chief has also been keeping a close eye on the future.
Noting that flying in fighters from oversees to events in the US is proving difficult, plans for his much-vaunted “Fight Island” remain firmly on track.
White says the infrastructure is being worked on, with testing to be done on-site, with the official announcement of the island’s exact location now expected in mid-June.
Hits and hoops
As with so many of us, White has had to adapt to a new kind of normality when it comes to riding out the quarantine at his home in Las Vegas.
In addition to indulging in his passion for music – speaking to CNN Sport with their guitars behind him, White cites the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys as three of his all- time favorite bands – the UFC front man has been playing some basketball at home, swimming and being around loved ones.
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“My daughter’s been taking me on some really cool bike rides,” White beams. “I’ve had a really good time during this time off. And a lot of good quality time with my kids.”