UPDATE, THURSDAY, APRIL 9, 4:41 P.M.:
UFC 249 was canceled Thursday after ESPN and parent company Disney stopped UFC President Dana White’s plan to keep fighting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After defiantly vowing for weeks to maintain a regular schedule of fights while the rest of the sports world halted, White confirmed the decision to cease competition in a text to The Associated Press.
“I was ready to go on Saturday, but Disney and ESPN asked me to step down,” White wrote. “I love and respect my partnership with them so I postponed the event.”
UFC 249 was scheduled for April 18 on ESPN Plus pay-per-view, and White planned to follow it with regular fight cards from Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino on tribal land in California’s Central Valley.
Tachi Palace casino in Lemoore will host UFC 249, a Pay Per View ultimate fighting event on April 18, despite California’s statewide stay-at-home order, according to a report in the New York Times.
UFC President Dana White has been steadfast about holding the event in less than two weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic, while virtually all high-level sports competition have stopped around the world. White has not officially announced the venue.
The Times says the move is “an attempted end run around widespread federal and state guidelines against holding large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.” The report attributes the information to three people familiar with the situation.
Tachi Palace casino temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 crisis on March 20th.
Event Likely to Exclude Spectators
Even if the UFC fights without fans as expected, most U.S. states and developed nations have restrictions in place that make it impossible to stage an MMA show. Whether his bid to stage the event at Tachi Palace, on Yokut tribal land, will be successful remains to be seen.
The event is scheduled to feature Tony Ferguson fighting Justin Gaethje for an interim lightweight title in the main event.
Gaethje replaces lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is apparently unable to leave Russia amid the pandemic. UFC announced the change to the main event bout Monday.
Sports Physicians Call for Suspension of Combat Sports Events
White’s efforts appeared to hit another hurdle on Monday, when the Association of Ringside Physicians issued a statement calling for the indefinite suspension of all combat sports events.
“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,” ARP’s statement read. “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.”
To hold an event at Tachi Palace, White will have to find ringside physicians willing to work against the ARP’s recommendation. The UFC already is likely to be forced to hire its own judges and referees while serving as its own regulatory body, since most state athletic commissions will not currently allow an event to take place in their jurisdictions.
According to the Times, holding the event on tribal lands would allow UFC to skirt California’s stay-at-home order.
Prior to the Tachi decision, White said he was attempting to secure the use of a private island to hold several shows over the next two months. He said he would fly the fighters and support personnel to the island on private planes. UFC would screen the health of every participant before the fights occur, White said.
“The fight is signed and is 100% ON LIVE on ESPN somewhere on EARTH!!!!” White tweeted Monday.
White also confirmed several additional matchups for UFC 249. Former strawweight champions Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade will meet in the penultimate bout, and heavyweights Francis Ngannou and Jair Rozenstruik also will compete.
Previous UFC Event Held in Empty Arena in Brazil
White has steadily attempted to buck the rest of the sports world’s collective plan for handling the pandemic over the past five weeks. The UFC held a full fight card in an empty arena in Brazil last month, but was forced to cancel its ensuing three scheduled shows when not even the promotion’s native Nevada would allow it to hold fights in an empty arena.
Most UFC fighters have expressed an eagerness to fight during the pandemic. Mixed martial artists typically don’t get paid unless they fight, although Bellator and other promotions have paid fighters whose bouts were canceled by the pandemic in recent weeks.
Ferguson (25-3) is a longtime lightweight contender who has been booked to fight Nurmagomedov five times. Every single bout has fallen through due to injury or other circumstances.
Gaethje (20-2) is among the UFC’s most exciting fighters, with a heedless brawling mentality that suggests a thrilling matchup with the equally reckless Ferguson.
“I’m terrified and I … love it,” Gaethje tweeted after the announcement.
Nurmagomedov announced last week that he wasn’t planning to leave his native Dagestan, suggesting Russia’s travel restrictions made it impossible. The unbeaten champion later claimed he would be willing to leave for the fight, but couldn’t plan because he didn’t know where or when it would occur.
UFC 249 initially was slated for Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
GV Wire contributed to this report.