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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.”
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