After spending a month trying to find a way to put on UFC 249 as all other professional sports came to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, that fight has ended.
UFC president Dana White said Thursday evening that UFC 249, scheduled for April 18, will not be happening. All other upcoming UFC events also have been postponed indefinitely.
“Today we got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney and the highest level of ESPN,” White said in an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “… And the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event next Saturday.”
ESPN is the broadcast partner of UFC, a deal that began in January 2019. The main card for UFC 249 was scheduled to stream on ESPN+ pay-per-view, with prelim bouts to air on ESPN.
“I can do this. I can go next Saturday. And if anything ever happened in California where I couldn’t, I have another place right now with an athletic commission and the governor and everybody is behind it. I can go April 18th, let’s make that clear," White said in the interview. “ESPN doesn’t want me to do it. They’re my partners. They’ve been nothing but amazing to me. Before this even happened, all you heard me talk about this entire last year was how amazing ESPN is, how smart these guys are, how well everything’s been done since we’ve been here. They want me to not go, then I won’t go.”
UFC 249 originally was to be in front of a sold-out crowd at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, headlined by a lightweight title defense by Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson. On Monday, it became Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje at an undisclosed location with no fans. On Thursday, White said it would have been held at Tachi Palace Casino Resort, on Native American lands in central California and free of regulation by the California State Athletic Commission. White said Tachi Palace “has stood their ground and was willing to do this fight.”
White said he would do right by the fighters who had agreed to compete at UFC 249 amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has grounded the country and much of the world.
“All of my fighters that are under contract with me, I want them to feel safe, take time with your families. Enjoy this time,” White said. “Don’t worry about the financial part of this. You’re gonna get the fights on your contract, and I’m gonna make things right with the people who were willing to step up and fight next weekend on April 18.”
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) issued a statement earlier on Thursday denouncing the idea of the UFC and Tachi Palace hosting this event.
“This event would involve dozens of individuals flying to California and driving to a casino for a purpose no one can honestly claim is essential,” Feinstein said. “I understand this event is scheduled to take place on tribal land and therefore is not subject to state law. However, at best this event ties up medical resources and sends a message that shelter-in-place orders can be flouted. At worst, participants and support staff could carry the virus back to their home communities and increase its spread.”
When White announced Monday that UFC 249 would proceed as scheduled, he also mentioned that he had “secured an island” to host fights for international athletes who couldn’t come into the United States. He said Thursday that this remains something he wants to do when MMA returns. He estimated that he would need another month to have "Fight Island" ready to the point where fighters could train there to get ready for a fight.
“We will be the first sport back,” White said. “‘Fight Island’ is real. It’s a real thing. The infrastructure is being built right now. That’s really going to happen, and it will be on ESPN.”