The NBA may have a Bubble, but the UFC has Fight Island, a self-contained Thunderdome floating off Abu Dhabi. On Saturday night—a brutal 6:00 am local time—Fight Island will be the site UFC 251, the promotion’s latest card in the COVID-19 Era. It’s been a big swing, holding events—in the least socially distant sport imaginable—while the rest of the world is on lockdown. It’s earned mockery from John Oliver and raised eyebrows from other sports executives. But even with a handful of fighters and camp members testing positive, the shows have gone on. Dana White, the UFC’s inimitable president and impresario might be winning here.
The UFC 251 card was thrown into some chaos when Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19, imperiling Marty Usman’s welterweight belt defense. No problem, Jorge Masvidal took the fight on less than a week’s notice. So it goes.
Moments before departing for Fight Island, Dana White spoke to Sports Illustrated.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jon Wertheim: A general sports fan says to you, “What’s Fight Island?” What do you tell them?
Dana White: Fight island a place that we built and designed to put on our international fights during this pandemic. It’s a 10-square mile safety zone that has restaurants, training facilities, an arena, and even an octagon on the beach.
JQ: Who’s idea was this and when did they have it?
DW: It was my idea and it happened when everything shut down. I was scrambling looking for places to hold events here in the U.S. and somewhere else because I knew it was gonna be a long time before we could get someone into the country. I have people under contract from all over the world and I knew that this was gonna be a problem, so it was something I jumped on immediately and started working towards. And then me and Ari Emanuel sort of hammered out the details of this thing and got it done.
JW: What have been the economics of this? You’re essentially building a facility in the desert.
DW: Nothing that’s going on right now is fun economically. It’s a complete disaster for any business, what’s going on right now. My philosophy is we can do this, we can figure it out, we can solve any problem. My team is the best in the world. The people that work here at the UFC are the absolute best in any business. The people who work in this company should be winning f***ing awards in every field that you can win an award in. They don’t but they should. When s*** hits the fan, I have the team that can do it.
JW: What’s been the biggest challenge here?
DW: Everything has been the hardest thing that any of us have ever done. This is a tough business as it is, to run and facilitate and keep the train on the tracks. Every bad thing that could happen, happened. You ask me four months ago, I could answer any question you have, I could tell you what’s going to happen with this business in the next three to five to seven years. Who the hell saw this coming?
JW: When the fights have started, have you noticed a difference in the octagon of how people are fighting with no fans?
DW: No. These guys are fighting like the place is packed, crowds going crazy and cheering. This is an amazing, unique sport, man. It really is incredible… I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this sport than I am right now.
JW: What have you learned about these fighters in the last few months?
DW: What I always knew about them. These kids are built differently than any other human being on this planet. I think that there’s been this huge trust factor between, not just my staff and I, but the fighters too. They know that when they show up at a UFC event, they know they’re going to be taken care of and they know they’re going to be safe. And we’re gonna do everything in our power to make sure nothing happens. I mean, this is a virus, there’s no guarantees, but if they get it, just like when they’re done with a tough fight, they’re going to get the best medical attention they can possibly receive.
JW: Every sport is trying to figure out how to restart here. There’s bubbles and short seasons and moving football to the spring. You’ve done this. What would you tell these other sports that are figuring out how to get back?
DW: I don’t think there’s anything else for me to tell these other guys how to do it. I think the bigger problem for these other sports is financial. Listen, I’m the guy that already took all the bullets. I took all the arrows early on. When I had this event going every major media outlet on the planet was coming after me, it was insane. That’s already done, that’s already behind us. Now it’s all financial. If you look at MLB, the NBA, and the NFL, obviously their television deals are massive, good for the league. But for the individual owners to not have a live game, to not have the season ticketholder money, to not have concessions and parking, it’s a huge blow to them. Very hard to take financially
JW: Have you cut purses because of the losses you’re taking?
DW: I haven’t laid off one employee, I haven’t cut one employee's salary, and I haven’t tried to cut anyone’s money on the fight side. We’re running just as we always have.
JW: With [Jorge] Masvidal, this is a big opportunity for a guy who, 48 hours ago, wasn’t thinking he was gonna be fighting on the other side of the world a week later. What do you tell a fighter that picks up a fight on those kinds of circumstances?
DW: It was brilliant. Brilliant move by him to take that fight. Same brilliant move Justin Gaethje did that put him in the No. 1. Like I said, he’s the No. 1 contender in the most powerful division in the entire sport. It was a brilliant move by Masvidal.
JW: And if he wins, he fights Conor [McGregor] right?
DW: Conor’s retired.
JW: What do we think about that?
DW: I think the minute you think you need to retire in this sport you do. You should. It’s a serious sport and you have to be all in on this sport. Conor said it better himself. He said he’s not passionate, he’s obsessed. And if you’re not obsessed with this sport, obsessed with winning, obsessed with being the best, it’s a tough place to hang out.