In the wake of the World Health Organization declaring the novel coronavirus 2019 a pandemic on Wednesday, major sports leagues in the United States and across the globe have reacted by canceling or postponing events. The NCAA canceled March Madness. MLB called off spring training and delayed the season PGA Tour canceled events, while the MLS, NHL and NBA have suspended their upcoming seasons until further notice. Yet despite the slew of professional organizations taking action to protect public health and safety, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading promotion in mixed martial arts, has no intention of deviating from its upcoming schedule and has instead decided to move some of its shows to Las Vegas.
As the coronavirus – officially known as Covid-19 – spreads across the United States, a growing number of states have declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak, which allows states the authority to establish curfews, shut down public spaces, and a host of other restrictions. Among those states are Oregon, Ohio and New York, where the UFC was scheduled to hold events over the next few weeks. The organization has since announced that those shows (28 March 28 in Columbus and 11 April in Portland) have been moved to the UFC’s Apex facility in Las Vegas, a state-of-the-art arena space that sits adjacent to the UFC’s headquarters, and will go ahead without fans.
The UFC also revealed that Saturday’s show in Brasilia, where Charles Oliveira submitted Kevin Lee by guillotine choke in the main event, would be limited to staff and personnel after the city’s governor declared a ban on large gatherings. However, it appears that the Brazilian MMA Athletic Commission – the regulatory body responsible for fighter safety – was not intending on testing fighters for COVID-19, a troubling development given the contagious and unpredictable nature of the virus.
Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (Sars-CoV-2), which is a virus related to Sars. The infection spreads via respiratory droplets from airways like coughing or sneezing, while the onset of symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath and headache is between two and 14 days. However, given that the incubation period ranges from one to 14 days (averaging five to six days), it is possible for asymptomatic individuals to spread the virus, which makes it highly contagious and difficult to control.
As of Saturday, there were more than 150,000 confirmed cases resulting in about 5,800 deaths.
Due to the infectious nature of the virus, global health organizations including the WHO have published preventative measures to reduce the chance of spreading the infection in locations with outbreaks. These include practicing respiratory hygiene, social distancing and staying away from large-scale public gatherings. While sports organizations have interpreted this as an ethical obligation to suspend their seasons and cancel events, the UFC has no intention of canceling any upcoming shows.
“I talked to the president and the vice president about this, and they’re taking this very serious,” UFC president Dana White said during an appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Thursday. “They’re saying, ‘Be cautious, be careful, but live your life and stop panicking.’ Everybody is panicking, and instead of panicking, we’re actually getting out there and working with doctors and health officials and the government to figure out how to keep the sport safe and continue to put on events.”
White added that the UFC plans to screen incoming fans with “infrared technology” that would detect spikes in body temperatures such as those caused by fever. However, this policy is remarkably shortsighted given that Covid-19 can be spread by asymptomatic individuals, which means that those infected do not even have to show symptoms or feel unwell to be contagious to those around them. The UFC president also cited Trump’s response to the pandemic, which has been heavily criticized for the lack of available testing compared to other industrialized countries around the world. Given the longstanding friendship between Trump and White, it comes as little surprise that the UFC brass is basing its reaction entirely on the president’s blundered response to the outbreak.
It should be noted that several other MMA promotions have already taken steps to cancel upcoming shows. Euro-African promotion ARES FC postponed an upcoming event in Belgium. ONE Championship followed suit and postponed its 20 March show in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam after hosting its previous event in Singapore behind closed doors. Combate Americas announced a “proactive plan” that included postponing upcoming shows and scheduling new ones on a closed-set TV studio, while Bellator postponed its Friday show hours before the event was set to begin.
Interestingly, White and the UFC have failed to address the status of UFC 249: Khabib v Ferguson, which is still scheduled to take place on April 18th at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York state last Saturday and has since placed a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people. New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency in the city on Thursday and revealed that locations such as the Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden could be closed for months to deal with what “could easily be a six-month crisis.” While the UFC will likely move its anticipated pay-per-piew event from Brooklyn to the Apex facility, it remains to be seen whether that will serve as a long-term solution for the promotion, especially given that Nevada has also declared a state of emergency.
White’s reaction to the outbreak over this past week, which includes the claim that he doesn’t “give a shit about the coronavirus”, suggests that the UFC will continue to push ahead with their planned events irrespective of concerns regarding public safety. During a time of crisis, the UFC’s stubborn insistence that the show must go on is not only a prime example of corporate greed but a betrayal of its responsibility towards its staff, its fighters and the public at large.
“This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, at a media briefing declaring Covid-19 a pandemic. “So every sector and every individual must be involved in the fights.”