I’m not sure I truly appreciated what was happening in the world of mixed martial arts until UFC 252, when an off-duty cop named Chris Daukaus—fish-bellied and pale as a sheet—used precise boxing skills to beat the tar out of an extremely overweight but still game Parker Porter. They both sacrificed to get there: Daukaus, whose brother Kyle also fights in the UFC, postponed a scheduled title fight in a smaller promotion while Porter, who had lost to the likes of Jon Jones and Gabriel Gonzaga during his days as a much more svelte contender fighting around the fringes of the UFC, found himself with the task with dropping from well above 300 pounds to the 265-pound heavyweight limit in a matter of weeks.
Daukaus answered the call, Porter lost the weight, and the result was exciting: two working stiffs trading hands and grappling against the cage. Win or lose, they were here for it, their names now etched in the records of pay-per-view events sold by the largest mixed martial arts operation in the world.
And the UFC not only was still here for it, it had never left. The crowds were gone from events like UFC 252, held at the company’s APEX training facility in Las Vegas, but that only made the experience better. You could hear every bone-shattering punch and every shouted command from the corner teams and the announcers. This streamlined presentation had the benefit of making the live spectacle seem realer than real.
— UFC Canada (@UFC_CA) August 15, 2020
Staging Fights in the COVID-19 Era
UFC president Dana White caught heat in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting postponement panic, choosing to go on with the show and running the scheduled March 14 showdown between Charles Oliveira and Kevin Lee. There was no crowd but also no COVID-19 testing by the Brazilian officials.
White then engaged in one of his periodic standoffs with sports media, arguing that his fight cards, like WWE’s pro wrestling events, would continue to run, as he needed to generate revenue and sports fans needed some form of entertainment produced under safe conditions. Bellator, the UFC’s domestic rival, suspended operations until late July, but the UFC settled for canceling a month of shows while figuring out how to develop a robust COVID-19 testing regimen.
White grasped something that most other businessmen also realized: his business had to keep moving, or it would wither and die.
He had obligations both to his own corporate masters and also to ESPN, with which the UFC had struck a major broadcasting and streaming deal that linked the fortunes of the companies. As he did with performance-enhancing drug testing—when he unilaterally engaged the services of USADA and implemented a strict and generally quite effective testing regimen over the objections of some testosterone-dependent athletes who lacked the union representation needed to resist—he rapidly initiated a program that began processing thousands upon thousands of COVID-19 tests a day.
The company relaunched its events schedule, sans fans, with UFC 249 at the VyStar Arena in Jacksonville on May 9, and used that venue for its next three shows. There was plenty of scrambling to make this first pandemic-era event work, with several fights canceled for visa issues, domestic travel problems, and a positive COVID-19 test for Ronaldo Souza, who was asymptomatic and shows no signs of any lingering effects.
Fortunately, the show was good, with a barnburner of a main event between free-swinging lightweights Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson.
This proved to be the blueprint for everything that followed, with the UFC pivoting left and right to fill cards and provide content. It recalled nothing so much as a more sophisticated, ongoing version of the company’s early, pre-Dana White days, when political objections to the sport forced the UFC to relocate to towns like Dothan, Alabama on short notice. In order to deal with international travel issues, White went so far as to establish what he called a “fight island” in Abu Dhabi, a place where fighters dealing with U.S. travel restrictions could go instead.
Boasting sanitizing mist tunnels and an around-the-clock COVID testing system, as well as an enclosed and locked-down hotel campus for the fighters, Abu Dhabi offered plenty of opportunities for the guests.
Khamzat Chimaev asserted himself as one of the sport’s rising stars by being willing to fight twice in a 10-day span, once in the 185-pound middleweight class and then as a 170-pound welterweight. The Chechen fighter, who resides in Sweden, won both bouts in mauling fashion, being struck only a handful of times, and told interviewers he was eager to fight again because all you had to do was “smash somebody and take the money.” (His third UFC fight is in limbo now that the UFC has returned to staging events in Las Vegas and Chimaev again finds himself facing travel restrictions.)
Here, in other words, was what White always offered all his competitors: a chance.
A Slim One
The UFC has long been criticized for paying low percentages of its revenue to fighters—a fighter who lacks the global star power of Conor McGregor is lucky to pull down $200,000 to $500,000 for main eventing a pay-per-view—and for its ability to dictate other terms to a workforce that lacks a union to bargain collectively on their behalf (not coincidentally, other sports in which the workers lack such protections, like boxing and pro wrestling, have continued staging events).
Of course, if you are an independent contractor who essentially works for yourself, you too cannot afford to miss fight dates. You either fight and eat, as the saying goes, or you lay, pray, and decay. Boxing promoters Mike Jacobs and Don King understood this, and White certainly does as well. They’ll pay for what you’ve got if you’ve got what it takes, as noted by short-notice opponents who have pulled off big wins, like aforementioned heavyweight Chris Daukaus and Guam-based featherweight Trevin Jones, who came into his August 22 bout against supposed future star Timur Valiev as an enormous underdog and proceeded to knock out his opponent in brutal fashion.
Even losing fighters on the UFC’s “Contenders Series,” a series of bouts between surging rookies and wily veterans hoping to win UFC contracts, stand a chance of getting booked if they go down swinging in an entertaining defeat. “Short notice fights are happening all over the UFC, so this is a chance to get your name out there no matter what happens,” longtime fighter and color commentator Paul Felder said during a recent episode of the program.
A chance, albeit a slim one. A faint hope, to be realized through even more difficult work, against the longest odds. It’s a variant of the American Dream, even if some of the conditions under which it plays out are nightmarish.
Former light heavyweight contender Anthony Smith was battered in a May fight against Glover Texeira, then similarly brutalized at the end of August by Aleksandar Rakić. In the latter fight, this former world-beating talent looked weak, soft-bodied, feeble, hesitant—but the man called “Lionheart” resisted Rakić until the bitter end and lost a lopsided decision.
As I watched, I wondered if Smith would ever be the same, if he would ever win again. And if he didn’t, what was left for him? He had begun doing some UFC commentary, wearing eyeglasses and intoning as gravely and carefully as he could; perhaps that would be where he ended up. Retirement, aside from coaching MMA to others going down this lonely road, is not usually a pretty thing for most fighters.
But Anthony Smith dragged himself into the arena, an arena without spectators that Dana White has kept open at all costs. Although White is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump—he gave a full-throated defense of police officers and small businessmen at the Republican National Convention—the UFC product is completely apolitical. Even the fight with Chris Daukaus, a police officer, made no mention of anything happening with regard to funding or defunding the police. The bout transpired in a vacuum, albeit one in which we viewers could hear every grunt and groan.
Who Needs Woke Sports?
Contrast that with the NBA, which has transitioned into a political pressure group. Like Uber, which seized control of the grassroots #DeleteUber campaign that had been intended as a customer boycott of the company’s labor practices by erecting their own billboards telling racists to delete their apps, the NBA is both a “movement” and a company. This is a far cry from sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos challenging the status quo by giving the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, and farther still from All-Star shooting guard Latrell Sprewell choking coach P.J. Carlesimo (as direct an action against one’s boss as can be made, I’d argue). How long can businesses, whether the NBA or Uber, dictate terms to their consumers?
My day job forces me to confront thorny wage and hour issues, hiring and training, all things impacted by the changing nature of the American political landscape. My writing and podcasting work keeps me similarly engaged, albeit in different ways. I can handle only so much of this, and thus some childish things have to go.
I watched basketball with my uncles, who had played it, but otherwise have no connection to the sport. Football was the sport played by my father and brother, yet means nothing to me outside that context. And as for baseball, I’ve never swung a bat or caught a ball in a glove; my primary use for the national pastime consisted of buying a cheap ticket and reading or dozing in the stands, on one occasion throwing down so loudly with a boisterous drunk that Pirates broadcaster Bob Walk had to explain these unusual shouts, strikes, and murmurs to his listeners.
The UFC, by contrast, reminds me of the decade I devoted to wrestling. It connects me to the back trip and rear-naked choke—taught to me first by my father when I was a wee lad who would be best served by using self-defense techniques that “never leave marks” on another lad’s face—that I employed to restrain a heavyset, truculent neighbor a few weeks ago. And when I watch the shows that the UFC and its competitors continue to broadcast, I am studying the fight, the struggle, the agon. Two people enter; one has his hand raised in victory. When welterweight champion Kamaru Usman holds an opponent against the cage for 25 minutes, some see a boring encounter, but I see workrate wrestling at its finest.
When I think of the NBA, NFL, MLB, or any other sport that would tell me to “do the work” of woke politics before I can watch their millionaire performers play a sophisticated version of a child’s ball or stick game . . . well, I’ll pass. My own work is difficult enough, and I’d prefer to play during my leisure time, letting my mind dance across the 15 or 25 minutes of a self-contained spectacle that functions both as a closed circle and a blank canvas. And as any down-on-his-luck journeyman taking a hopeless fight on short notice for $10,000 and a chance to live out some noble if pyrrhic dream will tell you, you can’t win if you don’t play.