In an interview with ESPN, White confirmed that UFC 249, originally scheduled for April 18 at New York’s Barclays Center, was going to take place on that date at a casino built on tribal land in northern California. The main event initially pitted UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson in a long-awaited showdown, but after returning to his family in Russia last month, Nurmagomedov bowed out of the event last week, saying he was unwilling to risk his health by traveling during the global pandemic.
Nurmagomedov was replaced on short notice by Justin Gaethje, but the announced 12-fight card suffered another blow Thursday when the manager for former UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas said she was withdrawing from her scheduled rematch with former champion Jéssica Andrade, which was to be the penultimate fight in the event. Namajunas’s manager, Brian Butler-Au, cited two deaths in her family related to the coronavirus.
“This whole thing has been a battle since Day 1,” White told ESPN later on Thursday. “We’ve been fighting nonstop, all day and all night, since this pandemic started to put on this event on April 18.
“And today we got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney, and the highest level of ESPN … and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event next Saturday.”
The Walt Disney Company is the parent corporation for ESPN, which entered into an exclusive contract last year with the UFC to televise its pay-per-view events through 2025.
“ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249,” a spokesman for the network said in a statement provided to The Post. “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.”
“While the organization was fully prepared to proceed with UFC 249, ESPN has requested the postponement of the event and subsequent bouts until further notice in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the UFC said in a statement. “UFC looks forward to resuming the full live events schedule as soon as possible.”
According to a report Thursday by the New York Times, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called Disney officials, after which ESPN’s request was made to the UFC to halt the April 18 event.
Shortly before White announced the decision to cancel UFC 249, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) issued a statement saying she was concerned about the plan to hold the event on tribal land “in defiance of the state’s shelter-in-place order.”
“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. She added, “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. … Going ahead with this event is not the right move.”
White had told TMZ Sports on Monday that he was close to securing a private island where he could stage events with fighters from other countries who might have trouble traveling to the United States.
On Thursday, White told ESPN that the site, quickly dubbed “Fight Island,” is a “real thing,” indicating that all his fighters could soon travel there to train in advance of upcoming events.
“The infrastructure is being built right now, and that’s really gonna happen. And it will be on ESPN,” the UFC president said. “As we get closer that, then I’ll start figuring out booking fights, getting guys ready. Plus I can ship guys over there earlier, and they can start training over there on the island.”
After major sports leagues began suspending play last month with state governments sharply restricting large gatherings, the UFC held an event in Brazil without fans in attendance. The company then postponed its next three scheduled cards, with UFC 249 set to be its first event in over a month.
“When I got the call [to stand down] — and these are people that I’m partners with, people whom I have a lot of respect with — I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna say yes,” White said Thursday. “I obviously care a lot about the fighters, my staff and the fans.”
White insisted that the UFC was fully prepared to hold the event on April 18 and even had “another place” lined up, with the backing of the state athletic commission and governor, if the plan to stage it on tribal land in California fell through.
With the UFC’s slate on hold for the time being, White said he wanted fighters under contract with the company to “feel safe, 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 contracts, and I’m going to make things right with the people who were willing to step up and fight next weekend,” he continued. “I’m going to take care of as many people as I possibly can and do whatever it takes to make all these guys feel comfortable. … Nobody’s getting laid off at the UFC.”