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Ahead of UFC 252, Dana White Addresses the State of the Sport

UFC's president discusses the potential of fans attending future events, the fighting futures of Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal and Jon Jones, and much more.

This Saturday’s UFC 252 marquee features heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic defending his title against Daniel Cormier, and viewers will be waiting to see if Miocic retains the title or Cormier further cements his legacy with a second run carrying the heavyweight belt.

UFC president Dana White will be present for the fight in Las Vegas, and he is riding a wave of success after a string of solid fights that have taken place amidst the pandemic. UFC 251 was a massive success, and the momentum for that card hit an entirely different level after Gilbert Burns was replaced after a positive COVID-19 test by Jorge Masvidal, which highlighted the depth of the UFC roster.

White spoke with Sports Illustrated about the upcoming UFC 252 card; the potential of fans attending future UFC events; Mike Tyson’s return to boxing; the fighting futures of Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal and Jon Jones; and much more.

Justin Barrasso: So far, UFC events have been successful with COVID testing. How do you assess and critique the UFC structure in running events during the pandemic?

Dana White: I knew that my fighters would go, I knew that my fighters would fight. Our staff is also very passionate, so I knew we would all be aligned. Everybody just had to believe that I had a plan in place to keep everybody safe, and it was awesome to see everyone trusted me as we did this.

JB: Were you in communication with any other pro sports leagues about the best way to structure your events?

DW: Not really, no. I made it very clear that we were willing to share if anybody wanted any help or wanted our plan. But we didn’t hear from anyone. I spoke with the president [last week], and he said what a great job we’ve done and how great it looked on TV.

JB: Watching UFC 251’s main event change after Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID, then being replaced the week of the card by Jorge Masvidal, was a massive success for the UFC.

JW: We have a deep roster, and we’re telling everyone, “Stay in shape and stay ready.” We’re a very unique business in that we have a deep roster and there are a lot of things we can pull off.

JB: Following the loss to Kamaru Usman, who is one of the most talented fighters in the world, what do you do next with Masvidal? We know Conor McGregor doesn’t think Masvidal is too big for him, so is it a fight against Conor? Or a Masvidal-Nate Diaz rematch?

DW: Listen, Conor is retired. I keep getting asked about Conor. He’s retired. We’re not even talking to Conor about any fights. Masvidal is still one of the top stars. He lost to Usman, the dominant world champion. You’ve still got Colby Covington, Leon Edwards, [Tyron] Woodley, Wonderboy [Stephen Thompson], there are still tons of fights for him.

JB: I was very surprised that Roy Jones Jr. was announced as Mike Tyson’s next opponent. You put on Jones’ last fight on Fight Pass, which was a very big deal at the time–but Roy has not aged as gracefully as some of us expected and doesn’t seem to have a chin anymore. What do you expect out of this fight?

DW: It’s interesting. When I thought if Tyson would fight again or if Jones would fight again, I never thought they’d fight each other. I think it’s caught the interest of people. I actually think that fight’s going to pull a number.

JB: On the subjects of upcoming fights, is there a date in mind for a title fight for the women’s strawweight belt between Zhang Weil and Rose Namajunas?

DW: I want that fight as bad as the fans do. That’s obviously the fight to make, but the problem is Rose’s nose. That surgery takes a minute to recover from, so we’re taking that day by day to see how it goes.

JB: Before we look at the 252 card, what is next for Cody Garbrandt? Do you have any inside info if he’s looking at a move to 25 and a fight against Deiveson Figueiredo?

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DW: I’m very interested in that fight.

JB: Do you think Cody makes the move to 25?

DW: I’m very interested in that fight [laughing].

JB: Looking toward this weekend, there has been a long road to arrive at Miocic-Cormier III. You’ve have a complicated relationship with Miocic over time, but he has put together a brilliant run as champ. His legacy will be further enhanced with a second victory against Cormier, while Cormier is looking to retain that title before retirement. In terms of heavyweights, is the winner of this fight the greatest of all-time?

DW: Cormier is one of the greatest of all-time. Light heavyweight, heavyweight, the only ones to beat him are [Jon] Jones and Stipe. Now they’re going to do it for a third time. You couldn’t have a better trilogy. The winner of this fight is undoubtedly the greatest heavyweight of all-time.

JB: You mentioned Jon Jones’ name, whose name always appears when Cormier is mentioned. Will we ever see those two fight each other again? And when can we expect to see Jones back in the Octagon?

DW: I don’t know. It’s going to depend on what happens to Cormier in this fight. I always agree with guys if they say they want to retire, but I don’t agree with Cormier when he says it. He’s still one of the best in the world, period. And we’ll find out what is going on with Jones over the next several months. He’s going to have to make a decision on whether he’s going to fight again or not.

JB: What can we expect from season four of the Contender Series, which started last week?

DW: It’s basically the toughest interview in all of sports. You come in, you have one shot to show us what you’ve got, and I love every minute of it. It’s like the main card, you have five fights. These are all the best unsigned fighters that aren’t in the UFC. I love this show, I could literally do it all day long. Every fight, every season, these kids show up and they go at it.

JB: When will we see crowds again at UFC events?

DW: I actually have something cool coming up for the fans. This will get some lucky fans to an event. That’s a deal I’m working on right now.

JB: This would put fans in the stands at shows during the pandemic?

DW: I’m working on something where a select few fans can attend. They’d have to go through COVID testing and do all the same bulls--- we’ve got to do, and they can go to the event.

I also have to think about how I’m running my business without fans. But this fan base that we have is incredible. I have a good relationship with our fan base. They might not always agree with me, and they might not love me every minute of the day, but they know that I give a sh--. They know that I’m trying to bring the best fights I can possible deliver.

As twisted and sick as this sounds, it’s been a fun year. I love the challenge of trying to navigate through all the different problems we’ve had. I was looking at boxing eight months ago because we were on such cruise control. This was tough to f--- up eight months ago, and then boom, the whole world changed over night. This has been an interesting year for me, but I feel like I’ve become a lot closer to my staff and the fighters. When everything’s good, when everything is going great, a lot is said and it’s great. But you really don’t know who you want to be in the fox hole with until sh-- goes down. We’re in a really good place now and working better together than we ever have with some big fights coming up.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.