With no fans in attendance, Ultimate Fighting Championship held their first live event ppv (UFC 249) Saturday, May 9 in the midst of a global pandemic.
The fan in me yelled “Yes!” But the I’m-a-human-first part of me responded immediately with a “hol’up…NO! It’s not safe!”
A pre-taped message of praise was broadcast during the prelims on ESPN from President Donald Trump, applauding Dana White for his adamant pursuit in pulling off the event, while also encouraging other major sport organizations to follow suit and resume play as normal.
What does that even mean now? I’m equally excited and terrified about how the UFC will frame their health protocols. I hope the system is one that will continue to adapt as new evidence of safety measures are introduced by actual medical professionals and not politicians with an obvious agenda.
There’s lots of ways to tackle the subject, so for now I’ll focus on two areas:
1) Cultural Pundit – political implications and influence of UFC 249
2) Fan/Media Commentator – conflicted emotional experience of viewing (and enjoying) sports amidst a pandemic
Sports x Society x Politics x Economy
Keeping politics out of sport is a joke of a statement. We (should by now) know this. Sport is quite literally embedded in society across the globe. The “problem” however is that in looking at that United States specifically, there is a very palpable and systematic problem of racism. Aside from the positive distraction of competition and opportunity to marvel over athleticism, sport is a business above all. A multi-billion dollar stream of revenue. Couple that with Black athletes which make up majority of the highest money making sports – and you see where how concepts of race 🔀 politics 🔀 society 🔀 economic are intersected.
While we’re looking at all the things related to sports and society – let’s throw in a global pandemic. Sprinkle segments of the nation that don’t believe in social distancing and demand that businesses (including sports!) get reopened immediately. [Cut to: the relationship between Dana White and Donald Trump.]
So UFC 249 gets the green light. Promoters are happy. White House is happy. Fans are happy…but are the fighters?
News surfaces after the fight from Showtime Sports executive Stephen Espinoza that media and fighters were required to sign a non-disparaging agreement which was added to contracts, stating that payment can be withheld if a fighter expresses a negative opinion about UFC protocols.
Here is a Twitter thread speaking to the details of the agreement:
After the event Dana White is asked about this clause and similarly to President Trump, a legitimate question becomes a prompt to lash out about media and White says “Isn’t that creepy little f*cker a lawyer? What f*cking law school did [Espinoza] go to? I can’t stand that f*cking creep.” (see video below)
The idea of bringing back sports has become a convoluted subject because of health and safety have seemingly become a backseat priority as business and politics drive and ride shotgun.
A Potential Breakthrough For Our “New Normal”
Author Josh Rosenblatt pinned it perfectly on the Daily Dot by stating, “In the meantime [#UFC249] puts devoted MMA fans bored by two months of quarantining in a moral quandary: forced to choose between the sport they love and their sense of shared humanity.”
Credit for being the America’s first major live sporting event to resume has been given to the UFC. Let it be noted that professional wrestling has not stopped. AEW and WWE continue to produce weekly events sans fans on television. In fact, WWE’s ppv version of the SuperBowl in WrestleMania 36 took place over the course of 2 days on April 4-5 with no fans from their Performance Center in Orlando, FL. Granted – pro wrestling has the narrative luxury of shaping storylines to allow for some creative freedom in how matches are presented. And that means many are pre-recorded.
The keyword and importance of what UFC’s accreditation in executing is LIVE. But from a production standpoint, pro wrestling can and should be gaining legitimate recognition and value for their template for sports entertainment. Many sports (including UFC, NBA, NFL, MLB) have and will continue to look at the presentation of the spectacle that is pro wrestling from a product perspective to see what can be applied to their own sport.
24 hours prior to UFC 249 fight night, a fighter billed on the prelims Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and 2 of his cornermen test positive for Covid19. His fight is immediately and rightfully cancelled with promises of payment to him and his opponent Uriah Hall.
My immediate reaction – gutted and stop the whole event. There is no tracing system in place yet, we don’t know how strict Souza was with social distancing, plus how can we just naively accept what UFC is putting out in regards to health and safety protocols when we know there are huge financial implications involved with seeing this event through.
Of course the event goes on and I have a knot of anxiety in my stomach…but after Bruce Buffer yells into a mic announcing the names of the first fighters, hearing Joe Rogan, Jon Anik, and DC on commentary, and actually watching a violently beautiful sport that I love…that knot disappeared so damn fast and things felt “normal” again.
If there is a cool thing to ever come out of Covid19, it’s that this pandemic is forcing every industry to become innovative. Being backed into a wall of creativity has produced new products and altered events which have seen success. For example the NFL virtual draft was the highest rated ever.
If businesses were scared to deviate from the norm and try something new – you have no choice now. And with the right post analysis, specific features can be identified as successful and implemented in the “new normal” of our future.
UFC 249 was an illustration of back to basics. Perhaps I’m still a prisoner of the moment, but this event has the potential of being a bookmark moment for the sport. The same way the first season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show helped bring mainstream attention to the sport. Because here’s the thing – with attention comes growth. With growth comes demand. With demand comes sold out events. With sold out events comes bigger venues. With bigger venues comes more eyes. And NOT all of those eyes are the loyal diehard MMA community. The passionate can get buried by people just doing it for the gram.
It’s a double edged sword because while mainstream attention generates money ✅, many within the community feel like the niche, novelty of the sport gets lost ❌.
Not everything needs to be billed like a SuperBowl. This pandemic forced the UFC to put this event on without fans. And you know what happened? It felt old school. Back to the basics of fighting to get experience and attention. All you hear are the cornermen, coaches, and fists hitting flesh in between the fighters talking shit to each other. AND IT WAS GREAT. The best 5 hours I’ve had within the last 40 days.
It was a violent speakeasy and a great way to mix it up to create contrast from the general spectacle of sold out live events. The MMA landscape has arguably become oversaturated with fight weeks happening back to back to back. The novelty of the sport was getting diluted and outshined by spotlights. UFC 249 brought it back to center stage with 1 single light and nothing to pay attention to except the art, athleticism, and competition of the fights themselves.
The diehard passionate fanbase gets a shot in the arm as a rejuvenating reminder of why this sport is awesome. The newer casual fans got to see a hyped card on paper live up to all expectations. A true win-win for everyone and a great viewing experience that I’m hopeful the UFC can continue to review for things to implement in the future.
Now that UFC fans (self included) have selfishly got our fight thirst quenched…let’s just hope everyone stays healthy.