Dana White was determined to stage UFC 249 next weekend, but even the president of the UFC has to bow to the power of his network partner. White on Thursday announced the cancellation of UFC 249 after he received calls from the “highest levels” of ESPN’s parent company, Disney, to “stand down,” he said in …
Dana White was determined to stage UFC 249 next weekend, but even the president of the UFC has to bow to the power of his network partner.
White on Thursday announced the cancellation of UFC 249 after he received calls from the “highest levels” of ESPN’s parent company, Disney, to “stand down,” he said in a taped interview with ESPN.
The Post also learned California Gov. Gavin Newsom played a leading role in getting the event canceled. According to sources, Newsom called Disney chairman Bob Iger and requested ESPN force the UFC to cancel the event set for the Tachi Palace Casino Resort outside of Fresno, Calif.
Sources said ESPN agreed that holding the event at this time “just didn’t feel right.” After speaking with Newson, ESPN executives told White they needed more time to assess what’s going on with the COVID-19 curve, testing procedures and other factors. White had no choice other than to cancel the event.
“ESPN has been very, very good to us,” White said, “and the powers that be there told me to stand down and not do this event next Saturday.
White bowed to the pressure from ESPN, which serves at the UFC’s broadcast partner. ESPN+ was to present the main card, featuring Justin Gaethje challenging Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC lightweight title. The card was originally scheduled for Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but UFC had to find another venue when the coronavirus hit the United States and a stay-at-home order was given.
“ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249,” the network said in a statement. “Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons. ESPN expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood.”
Athletic commissions in California and Nevada also prohibited any combat events until further notice, forcing White to look elsewhere to stage UFC 249. It was revealed on Wednesday the UFC planned to hold a full card without a live audience at the resort. It’s a property that sits on the Santa Rosa Indian Reservation, which is beyond the jurisdiction of the California Athletic Commission.
UFC was planning to self-regulate the card and screen all the fighters and ESPN personnel at the event. Apparently that wasn’t good enough.
“This whole thing has been a battle since Day 1,” White told ESPN. “We’ve been fighting all day and all night, since this pandemic started, to put on this event. Today we got a call from the highest level you can go in Disney and the highest level of ESPN.”
UFC 249 seemed cursed from the start. It originally matched UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov defending against Ferguson after four previous attempts to match the two had failed for various reasons. White insisted Nurmagomedov versus Ferguson would finally take place even after the sporting world stopped because of COVID-19. But Nurmagomedov became unavailable when a travel ban left him stuck in Russia.
Gaethje, a future superstar, was willing to step in and the resort was ready to serve as host. But the powers at ESPN weren’t comfortable with the potential ramifications.
“All of the fighters that are under contract with me, I want them to feel safe,” White said. “Take time with your families and enjoy this time. Don’t worry about the financial part of this. You’re going to get the fights on your contract and then I’m going to make things right with the people who are willing to step up and fight next week. I’m going to take care of as many people as I possibly can and do whatever it takes to make these guys feel comfortable.”
White said he is still going through with plans for a “Fight Island” to hold future bouts.
“The infrastructure is being built,” he said. “It’s going to happen and it will be on ESPN.”
Only time will tell.
— Additional reporting by Alexandra Steigrad and Andrew Marchand