Three major fight nights are on the horizon for the UFC, beginning this Saturday with the promotion’s debut on ABC.
Saturday’s UFC on ABC card marks UFC’s first return to network television since December of 2018 on Fox, headlined by what amounts to a No. 1 contender’s match pitting Calvin Kattar against Max Holloway for a shot at the featherweight championship.
Four days after the ABC card, there is a fight night next Wednesday on ESPN featuring a Michael Chiesa–Neil Magny main event. That is followed by UFC 257 next Saturday, which has a marquee bout featuring Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.
UFC president Dana White spoke with Sports Illustrated from Abu Dhabi, discussing the upcoming three cards as well as the future of Jon Jones, Amanda Nunes and Weili Zhang.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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Justin Barrasso: This is by far the biggest television opportunity the sport has ever had, and your goal has always been to make this the biggest sport in the world. Airing on ESPN was breaking new boundaries, and now that’s been exceeded by airing on ABC. What does Saturday’s event mean to you?
Dana White: Despite a terrible 2020, we had a great year and the momentum we have is phenomenal. I look forward to crushing 2021, and I’m really excited that we have this opportunity on ABC. From the first fight to the main event, the card we have in place is amazing. I’ll make sure all the bells and whistles are ready, and then these kids got to get in there and deliver on Saturday.
JB: Looking at the growth trajectory of the UFC as a business, your first Fox card in 2011 was headlined by the two most dominant heavyweights in the world in Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos fighting for the championship. Now we’re seeing the ABC card, headlined by a crossover star like Max Holloway and a great story in Calvin Kattar.
If Kattar beats the former champ, does he get a title shot? And is it more complicated if Holloway wins because of his consecutive losses against Alexander Volkanovski?
DW: We’re going onto ABC with a former world champion in Holloway taking on No. 6-ranked Calvin Kattar, and stylistically, this matchup is beautiful. This should be incredibly violent and a very good fight. And it really means something. Calvin Kattar, should he win, is next in line for a title shot. And yes, it’s more complicated with Holloway. But if he can buzzsaw through a guy like Kattar and look really good, it will be very hard to deny him a title shot.
JB: The venue won’t be full if you’re adhering to social distancing guidelines, but what does it mean to have fans back at your events? And is it roughly 2,000 people at each event?
DW: It’s a crowd of 2,000 people here in Abu Dhabi. It’s going to be interesting. I don’t know what to expect with 2,000 people. It depends on how much energy they bring, what they’ve got—it could end up being energetic and loud, or it could be a total dud. We’ll see. Let’s talk after the show and ask me that again.
JB: Looking beyond Saturday, the next card is Wednesday on ESPN. Losing Leon Edwards hurts, but the Michael Chiesa–Neil Magny main event is a very compelling bout with ramifications for the welterweight division. What went into the decision to make this the main event?
DW: First of all, if you look through Neil Magny’s career and see who he’s fought, this guy has fought everybody. Michael Chiesa is really tough, too. These two finally deserve their respect and deserve a main-event spot, so I’m really happy about this fight. It’s going to be a good one.
JB: Khabib Nurmagomedov remains the lightweight champion, though he announced his retirement and has yet to indicate he will return for another fight. I won’t be the first to ask this question and I certainly won’t be the last: What is the plan for the lightweight championship?
DW: I’m meeting with Khabib. It will be a five-minute conversation. The last time he fought, which was here in Abu Dhabi, he was injured and he was super emotional. He’s had time to rest, heal, spend time with family, and talk with family, so I want to hear him say it now, whether he wants to retire or fight again. If he says no, then it’s no.
JB: Even under short notice, is it possible the Conor McGregor–Dustin Poirier bout at UFC 257 could turn into a title fight?
DW: Probably not, no. This fight will have to happen, then we’ll make a fight for the title.
JB: The co-main event of UFC 257 is a chance to finally see Michael Chandler in the Octagon, and he’ll meet the surging Dan Hooker. Does the winner of Poirier–McGregor fight the winner of Chandler–Hooker for the title? And how does Charles Oliveira factor into the title equation?
DW: We need to see how the fights play out. But the performance Charles Oliveira just put on against Tony Ferguson, that can’t be overlooked.
JB: Conor has proven he can always be a marquee name, with or without a title. What happens next? A return to welterweight? A BMF fight? The Diaz trilogy? Another boxing bout? Or is his focus the lightweight title?
DW: That’s a great thing about Conor, there are so many different options. Let’s see how this plays out and go from there, but in a perfect world, Conor is focused on the title this year. That’s what I’d love to see.
JB: On the subject of champions, Jon Jones has abdicated the throne and we have a new light heavyweight champion—and we have Israel Adesanya challenging Jan Blachowicz for that title. We keep hearing rumblings of Jones making his heavyweight debut. Will he immediately fight Stipe Miocic? Or is it fairer to have Miocic fight Francis Ngannou, and then have Jones fight the winner? Or do you wait and see if Izzy wins the Light Heavyweight title and then have Jones fight him?
DW: Stipe fights Francis, and the winner of that fights Jon Jones. That’s the way this plays out.
JB: From what I know, there is no talk of Brock Lesnar coming back from Brock’s side or the UFC’s side. Could that change if Jon Jones were ever the heavyweight champion? Or is the next time we hear about Brock when he uses UFC to leverage a better deal with WWE?
DW: I think Brock’s done. I don’t think Brock ever comes back. I don’t see it happening.
JB: When will we see Amanda Nunes again? And I know there was some back-and-forth before Christmas, but will we see a Weili Zhang–Rose Namajunas fight? That’s one of the most interesting fights right now on the horizon.
DW: Amanda is fighting soon, within the next few months. And I’m so excited for the Weili–Rose fight. We need to get that done. I mean, look at Weili’s Instagram and watch that training footage. She just put out a video of her throwing a three-punch combination. She hits like a truck, that knocks anyone out. Every time I see her technique and form, she just keeps getting better and better. That is going to be a great night.
JB: And just like you, Weili is a big Tom Brady fan. Hopefully you’ll make some time in Abu Dhabi to watch the Bucs-Saints game.
DW: I’m a Tom Brady guy all the way. The Bucs better win that game or else I’m going to have to listen to [Daniel] Cormier talk about the Saints the whole flight back from Fight Island, and I don’t want to have to listen to that s***.