On May 9, UFC 249 was contested at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. Smaller UFC events were held at the same venue on May 13 and May 16. These cards were the first major sports events in the United States since the pandemic shutdown began in mid-March. And they were UFC’s first promotions since an empty-arena show in Brazil on March 14.
UFC 249 was available to ESPN+ subscribers for $64.99. New subscribers could buy the event plus an annual subscription (which costs $49.99) for $84.98. The May 13 and May 16 UFC fight cards were available on ESPN and ESPN+
The fights took place with the blessing of Florida governor Ron DeSantis who has declared professional sports an “essential business.” A 24-page plan
prepared by UFC and labeled “proprietary and confidential” outlined the steps that UFC said it would take to guard against the spread of COVID-19 in conjunction with the shows.
On paper, the plan was credible. It said all the right things, beginning with an introduction that read, “Ultimate Fighting Championship (‘UFC’) acknowledges the impact that COVID-19 has had on the health and safety of people worldwide. We commend the forward-thinking plans implemented by Federal, state, and local governments to combat the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on the community.”
The plan then divided the health and safety procedures proposed by UFC into five categories: (1) social distancing, (2) advanced screening and testing procedures, (3) protective guidelines and self-reporting procedures, (4) cleaning procedures, and (5) medical procedures.
Fighters were to arrive in Jacksonville by plane or motor vehicle on Tuesday or Wednesday of fight week. At the hotel, each fighter and his or her camp would be subjected to medical screening including a diagnostic swab coronavirus test, antibody test, temperature check, and interview. They were to self-isolate “within reason” until their test results came back and even then not mingle in large groups. Further medical screening would take place throughout the week. Each fighter’s team would be given its own workout room. There would be 24-hour room service and a market on site. Protective equipment and products such as sanitizers would be readily available.
“If any UFC personnel do not comply with this plan,”the document pledged, “they will not be permitted to remain on premises at the Arena or related host hotel accommodations for the Jacksonville events.”
Spectators would be barred from the fights.
“I didn’t want to stop putting on events at all,” UFC president Dana White told Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated. “I wanted to keep right on going. We’ll figure this thing out. All the rules and all the plans, I actually found it fun. I like chaos, man. I like trying to figure things out. I’m into that sh-t. I’m a weirdo. We’re trying to figure out how to make it as safe as possible. We’re gonna go so overboard making sure everybody is healthy and safe that I just don’t see how we can possibly f–k this up.”
But White added a cautionary note: “Listen, there’s no guarantee. There’s no way I can say it’s one hundred percent Nothing is one hundred percent, especially when you’re dealing with, like, a virus.”
The Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) approved of the UFC plan.
On April 6, the ARP had released a letter from its board of directors that declared, “It is our recommendation that all combat sporting events be postponed until further notice. This includes any and all events, regardless of the number of people involved. Any combat sport taking place during this global pandemic places the athletes, officials, and anyone else involved in the event under unnecessary risk of infection and transmission of Covid-19. In addition, combat sports athletes often require medical attention after a bout, and we do not wish to see any additional strain on an already overwhelmed medical system.”
Then on April 25, as reported by Mark Raimondi of ESPN.com, ARP president Don Muzzi had a ninety-minute telephone conversation with UFC’s chief physician Jeff Davidson. After talking with Davidson, Muzzi (an anesthesiologist) strongly advocated that the ARP reverse its previous position.
There are twelve ARP board members. Eleven of them participated in a Zoom video-conference call to discuss the matter.
“There were strong feelings on both sides of the issue,” one participant told Boxing Scene. “But a majority of board members, at Don’s urging, accepted the view that somebody had to move forward and test the waters and that UFC was a good candidate to do that.”
On May 2, the ARP reversed its call for an indefinite suspension of all combat sports and issued a statement that read, “The Association of Ringside Physicians recognizes that the circumstances regarding the COVID-19 pandemic are continually changing and evolving. As stay-at-home orders are relaxed, athletic commissions and combat sports governing bodies are looking to restart operations. Although it is impossible to eliminate all risk associated with COVID-19, precautions can be made to reduce the risk of viral transmission. Many athletic commissions, organizations and promotors are developing new guidelines to limit exposure to all involved at events, including athletes, their teams, commission personnel and support staff. Combat sports event procedures regarding COVID-19 precautions should be actively developed, regularly reviewed, and modified based on the evolving knowledge and scientific evidence put forth by public health authorities. These guidelines should also involve local and regional public health officials as well as infectious disease experts and epidemiologists.”
Thereafter, speaking of the UFC plan, Muzzi declared, “In today’s world, it’s as safe as possible.”
Some people praised Muzzi’s leadership. Others took a contrary view. Several ARP board members were irked that Muzzi sent the statement out without showing the final wording to them for comment. One former ARP board member sent an email to a colleague complaining of Muzzi, “He is an ‘expert’ for hire who molds his opinion to support whoever or whatever can boost his ego and or pocket book.” Gareth A. Davies, the seasoned combat sports writer for The Telegraph, tweeted, “Unfortunate when physicians compromise beliefs for personal gain & to be cageside.”
UFC 249 fit nicely into Donald Trump’s call for the resumption of professional sports in America. Four years ago, Dana White addressed the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, praising Trump’s business acumen and loyalty. Now Trump returned the favor, taping a congratulatory message that aired during UFC’s May 9 preliminary fights on ESPN+.
Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” In a similar vein, protocols are fine unless there are holes in them or they aren’t followed. Not everything went well insofar as UFC’s coronavirus protocols were concerned.
The first sign of trouble came when Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza (who’d been scheduled to fight Uriah Hall at UFC 249) arrived in Jacksonville on Wednesday, May 6, and told UFC officials that several family members might have had the coronavirus. Souza was immediately tested and “isolated in his hotel.” It took 48 hours for the test results to come back, at which time the results were positive, not only for Souza but also for two members of his team.
UFC then issued a statement saying, “As per UFC’s health and safety protocols, all three men have left the host hotel and will be self-isolating off premises, where UFC’s medical team will monitor their conditions remotely and will provide assistance with any necessary treatment. The response to this development is indicative of the effectiveness of the health and safety measures UFC has put in place for this event.”
But prior to the positive test results, UFC had allowed Souza to remain on the card. On Friday morning, wearing a facemask and gloves, he had weighed in and fist-bumped both Dana White and Uriah Hall. And one has to wonder how many people Souza and his team team infected on the way to Jacksonville.
Thereafter, MMA Junkie posted some observations by Zachary Binney, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist on staff at Emory University. Among other things, Binney noted, “The UFC and Dana White were negligent. Tried to restart early, the predictable thing happened, and they mishandled it. If this was your system working as designed, your system is bogus.”
“The timeline is important here,” Binney continued. “Wed – Souza, training in Orlando and knowing he had a possible positive test in his family, travels to Jax. Bad move by him and his people. He arrives, informs UFC of family case, is tested and apparently isolated pending results. That’s all good (though keep in mind, he shouldn’t be in Jax in the first place). And then why is he at the staredown Friday, two days later? Reckless by UFC. Today his test comes back positive, fight is off. Hopefully he and all his contacts (including other fighters at the staredown!) will quarantine for two weeks and stop their particular transmission chain. No, I don’t buy this is the system working as designed and proof UFC and Dana White are being responsible. Actually, the UFC’s own statement indicts the hell out of them.”
Morever, there were instances when UFC personnel disregarded their own protocols. Dana White didn’t wear a mask at the weigh-in for UFC 249. In addition to fist-bumping Souza, he had close contact at the weigh-in with other fighters and UFC personnel working show. All of this and more led the New York Times to look back on UFC 249 in a May 13 article headlined “UFC’s Coronavirus Plan Proves No Match for Reality” that declared, “UFC officials and fighters routinely deviated from the outlined procedures in the days leading up to UFC 249 and on the night of the pay-per-view event itself.”
The Times then reported, “At UFC 249, [Justin] Gaethje [who defeated Tony Ferguson] and [commentator Joe] Rogan shouldn’t have touched, let alone stood within six feet of each other. There were supposed to be no face-to-face in-Octagon post-fight or backstage interviews according to the plan. Instead, interviews were to be conducted via headset with UFC interviewers or commentators stationed in a separate arena zone. Wrapping up the televised event, the analyst Daniel Cormier explained how Rogan had received permission to do interviews that violated social distancing guidelines. That wasn’t the only part of the operation’s plan that went unheeded. The plan prohibits all contact-based greetings and said that all personnel would be required to wear face masks and gloves in connection with their job functions, an edict that Dana White, the UFC president, repeatedly ignored. On Friday after the official weigh-ins, the fighter Michelle Waterson hugged White before her staredown and embrace of her opponent, Carla Esparza.”
Here, one might add that there’s something inherently nonsensical in saying that it’s too dangerous for fighters to touch each other at the weigh-in and then allow them to grapple with each other for three five-minute rounds.
Also, there were numerous holes in UFC’s overall plan. For example, the protocols that UFC submitted to Florida authorities for UFC 249 anticipated that 199 fighters, fighter team members, production personnel, and other UFC employees would be on site. That didn’t take into acount arena personnel, hotel employees, Florida State Athletic Commission personnel, and others involved with the promotion, most of whom were subject to guidelines that were far more lax than the UFC protocols.
And let’s get real. It’s hard to believe that only three of the tests administered in conjunction with UFC 249 came back positive. Assuming that UFC tested 199 people for each of the three events, that would indicate a positive test result rate of well under one percent. The national average is multiples of this number. How many other positive tests were there? UFC should be open and tell people how many positive test results there were. Three is not the whole story.
To repeat: It’s hard to believe that only three of the tests administered in conjunction with UFC 249 came back positive.
Also, what sort of follow-up has there been? Have there been subsequent tests for people who were onsite for UFC 249? Suppose fifteen people who were onsite for UFC 249 test positive afterward? Who will be notified?
As Trent Reinsmith wrote on SB Nation, “The risk of COVID-19 doesn’t just magically disappear when a UFC event ends. The incubation period for COVID-19 is thought to extend to 14 days. We won’t safely know if everyone — not just the fighters — who attended any of the three UFC Jacksonville events is healthy until May 31.”
And remember; anyone who contracted the virus at one of the three UFC shows in Jacksonville became a carrier who could bring the virus home to his or her family and community. It’s not just the fighters and others directly involved with the promotion who are at risk. MMA is dangerous. This extended the danger well beyond the combatants.
There are also nagging issues relating to the contracts that participants in the UFC events were required to sign.
UFC fighters are contractually precluded from fighting for any other promoter. That’s par for the course. But if a fighter (many of whom are desperate for paychecks) wanted to fight on one of UFC’s shows in Jacksonville, the fighter had to accept a draconian contract. Among other things, this contract provided that the fighter assumed all risk of contracting COVID-19 (including death) and absolved UFC of any and all liability re same.
Mark Raimondi reported on ESPN.com that this waiver was required, not just of fighters but of “all participants – including media in attendance – involved in the fight card.”
Here, the thoughts of Paul Edelstein are instructive. Edelstein is one of the foremost personal injury lawyers in the United States. Boxing fans know him as the lead attorney for the family of Magomed Abdusalamov and his work in securing $27.5 million in settlement payments from insurance companies and the State of New York in conjunction with life-altering injuries suffered by Abdusalamov in a 2013 fight at Madison Square Garden.
Asked about the waiver of liability for COVD-19-related losses, Edelstein told Boxing Scene that, most likely, the waiver is enforceable but that it would not survive a court challenge in the face of gross negligence or fraud by UFC. Also, if UFC didn’t follow its own coronavirus protocols – and there’s ample evidence that it didn’t – the waiver of liability signed by participants might not hold up in court.
A second, more troubling contractual issue involves a non-disparagement clause that UFC participants were required to sign.
Non-disparagement clauses are common in contracts. A standard non-disparagement clause is similar to the following language which was included in the UFC contracts: “The Participant shall not, and shall cause its affiliates, agents and representatives not to, defame or disparage any of the Released Parties in any medium whatsoever in connection with the Activities.”
But the UFC contracts went further and declared, “The Participant will not suggest or communicate to any person or entity that the Activities have been or will be held without appropriate health, safety or other precautions, whether relating to COVID-19 or otherwise. If the Participant is a Fighter, the Participant hereby acknowledges and agrees that, in the event that the Participant breaches this Paragraph 7, the Company may revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won by the Participant in connection with the Activities, including, but not limited to, purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties.”
This clause first came to light on May 9 when an attorney named Erik Magraken tweeted, “Anyone know why you are not seeing any critical comments from fighters / corners / managers at UFC 249 about health and safety issues? Hint – It’s not because everyone is 100% satisfied with the measures.”
Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza quickly responded, “It’s because they were required to sign a document which says that they can lose their whole purse and bonuses if they say anything negative about the COVID protocols.”
UFC’s “muzzle” clause (“gag order” if you prefer) would most likely not be enforceable in court. A traditional non-disparagement clause or confidentiality clause that protects proprietary information is one thing. But a contract clause runs counter to public policy when it cuts off the flow of information that could warn people of a serious danger to their health and thus increases the risk that people might contract COVID-19.
In that regard, Paul Edelstein states, “[That] part of the clause to me seems void. I do not believe you can silence someone from saying things were not properly provided by threatening to withhold payment. Public policy would outweigh confidentiality in my opinion.”
Sheryl Wulkan, Margaret Goodman, and John Stiller (three of the most respected ring doctors in the United States) took issue with UFC’s attempt to silence any deviation from its COVID-19 narrative. In a May 11 memorandum entitled “Coronavirus, Combat Sports Policy, and UFC,” they wrote, “If athletes must sign, as part of their contract, a waiver regarding non-disclosure of concerns surrounding COVID 19 safety protocols, it will be difficult to gather data necessary for epidemiologists, ringside physicians, lawmakers, and Commissions to improve their event planning for all contact sports and make them safer in the future.”
The Florida State Athletic Commission accepted the UFC contracts, coronavirus gag order and all. It’s unclear whether any of the doctors who worked UFC’s shows in Jacksonville signed non-disclosure agreements with regard to UFC’s medical protocols and the coronavirus.
Patrick Fargason (deputy communications director for the Florida State Boxing Commission) told Boxing Scene on May 21 that the FSBC provided a total of five physicians for the three UFC events, the UFC “brought in their own team as well”, and all of the doctors were paid by UFC. Asked whether any of these doctors had signed a contract that included a non-disparagement clause, Fargason stated, “The FSBC doesn’t track information regarding any contracts signed by our physicians with the UFC or any other promoters.”
Faced with questions about the COVID-19 gag order, Dana White denied that it applied to legitimate concerns regarding UFC’s handing of coronavirus issues. “It’s called an anti-disparagement clause,” he told Yahoo Sports. “And if I know what that is, that scumbag [Stephen Espinoza] is a lawyer and you would think he should know what that is. If a fighter says something that isn’t true – if he says we didn’t test anyone for this – that would [violate the agreement]. But if he said something that was true, his opinion, then that is different.”
Further to that line of thought, White told Mark Raimondi, “[A problem] would be like if you came out and said, ‘They never tested me. The UFC never tested me for the coronavirus.’ But if you had something critical to say about the testing that was true, that wouldn’t be disparagement.”
But – and this is a huge “but” – that’s not what the UFC contract says. The clause in question clearly gives UFC the right to take away a participant’s entire purse and more for speaking out about UFC’s corinavirus protocols even if what the participant says is true.
White has gone to great lengths over the years to cultivate a tell-it-like-it-is image. One reason for his enormous popularity is that his admirers see him as a stand-up guy who speaks the truth as he sees it. He’s also very smart and a hands-on overseer. One has to assume that he knew what the UFC contract said. But faced with questions about the contract, he misled by misstating the facts. He feels free to voice his own opinion and call Stephen Espinoza “a creepy little f–ker” (which he did after Espinoza’s contract revelation). He has called Bob Arum “the biggest piece of sh-t in all of sports.” But if a fighter expresses concern regarding UFC’s handling of COVID-19 issues, the fighter can be fined his entire purse and fight night bonus.
If UFC can tell the world that its COVID-19 protocols are safe, UFC fighters and their teams (the people who are most at risk) should be allowed to warn others if they aren’t. If White violated the COVID-19 protocols that he pledged to adhere to, people who he might have put at risk should know. We don’t know how safe UFC 249 really was. And the contract clause that UFC put in place makes it clear that UFC doesn’t want us to know.
UFC is owned by Endeavor – a global entertainment corporation that is struggling in the face of longterm debt in excess of $4.6 billion. As reported by the Wall Street Journal on May 11, Endeavor recently secured a $260 million loan arranged by JP Morgan Chase at an annual interest rate of just under 11 percent. Given the fact that the prime rate (the rate that banks charge their best customers) is now 3.25 percent, that augurs poorly for Endeavor’s future.
Speaking to the New York Times about UFC’s determination to promote fights during the COVID-19 pandemic, Endeavor president Mark Shapiro said, “We are not putting fights on to satisfy any contracts or because of any particular financial situation at Endeavor.” But the income from UFC events is crucial to Endeavor’s balance sheet.
ESPN has faced financial challenges of its own in recent months and has a vested interest in the success of the UFC telecasts. That said; its website – and particularly Mark Raimondi – has done a solid job of reporting on coronavirus issues as they relate to UFC.
UFC had hoped to move forward with a May 23 fight card at its APEX facility in Las Vegas. But the Nevada State Athletic Commission refused to approve it. White is now hoping to stage events in Las Vegas on May 30 and June 6 with Arizona as a back-up site. A source who has spoken directly with NSAC executive direrctor Bob Bennett says, “UFC was given free reign to do things its way in Florida. That won’t happen in Nevada.”
Meanwhile, Top Rank is working with the NSAC in the hope of ironing out plans for fights that would be contested in June and viewed on ESPN and ESPN+.
In truth, no one knows what will happen next. UFC has pushed the needle in one direction. As Dana White told Sports Illustrated, “While everybody was f–king lying out by the pool, hanging out and doing whatever the f–k they’re doing in quarantine, we were in here f–king grinding, man. Fighting crazy wars every day to put on this first event. We pulled it off. Somebody has to be first, right? Eventually. You just can’t hide forever. Who gets to determine how long we go without sports? It’s a really weird situation in a weird time.”
But White, who owned 9 percent of UFC when it was sold in 2016 and reportedly netted more than $300 million from the transaction, lives in a Las Vegas mansion with his wife and children. His home has a basketball court, personal gym, arcade room, and outdoor pool. His life contrasts markedly with those of the nurses, hospital orderlies, grocery store clerks, and others who are on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19.
UFC boasted that it performed more than one thousand Covid-19 tests in conjunction with UFC 249. That’s enough kits to test the entire police force and fire department of a small city. A widely disseminated video showed Tony Ferguson in a hospital room “in high spirits despite a facial fracture” after his loss to Justin Gaethje. In this day and age, do we really want to encourage non-essential activities that are likely to lead to demands of this nature on already overtaxed medical resources?
It’s a given that states have to begin reopening the economy. We know this will cost lives. The issue is: what is an acceptable risk-reward ratio? Driving a car entails risks. We try to make driving safer. There are speed limits and seatbelt laws. A lot of thought goes into incorporating safety features into automobiles. And because driving is essential to our way of life, we tolerate a system in which 40,000 Americans die in automobile accidents each year.
At some point, the powers that be will have to take risks to keep the economy from collapsing completely. But there should be a sensible risk-reward formula with regard to reopening. Scentifically-backed medical protocols should be in place. And the reopening should be based on priorities that benefit society as a whole – hardware stores before tattoo parlors – not loopholes, lobbying, and who grabs for the brass ring first.
Too many people still don’t understand how dangerous the coronavirus is. They don’t have a relative or friend or even know someone who died from it. That will change. The United States has five percent of the world’s population and 33 percent of all reported cases of COVID-19. Underreporting is a problem everywhere; probably more of a problem in third-world countries than in the United States. But even if these numbers are adjusted, it’s clear that we’re not doing enough to halt the spread of the virus.
People are starting to behave very irresponsibly now. They’re refusing to wear masks and ignoring the rules of social distancing. There are instances where establishments have posted signs that proclaim “NO MASKS ALLOWED.” We cannot accept the mindset that thousands of deaths from COVID-19 each day will be the new norm.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.