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Dana White continues belligerent behavior in face of coronavirus pandemic

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The UFC promoter is going ahead with a card on May 9, but it’s his general lack of empathy that people should notice.

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UFC 246: McGregor v Cerrone Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“When will sports return to business?” is a sub-plot to the bigger question of, “When will business as a whole get back to business?”

Many citizens in the US are aware that states are starting to dip their toes back into the water, and many of the citizens in those states are finding it hard to trust governors talking up the push to re-open, and are hoping not to get burned.

In Georgia, you can go to hair or nail salons, barber shops, massage parlors, or the gym, if that business owner decided to open the doors after Gov. Brian Kemp gave the all-clear Friday. In that state, the eighth-most populated in the country, there is pushing to get local economies running; and pulling, like from Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who told folks to stay put and stay safe.

Dana White, the businessman who runs UFC day-to-day, got egg on his face when people he answers to at ESPN and Disney told him to scuttle the plan to place UFC 249 at a Native American casino on Apr. 18.

The combustible and charismatic White has of late been getting hot under his collars and taking swipes at MMA media, branding them wimps and declaring that they don’t feed families.

Last month during an Instagram Live session, he alternated between self pity, whining that he’d been dealing with “bullshit,” and lashing out, like he needs to attend some anger management classes.

“Think about this. Go online and look at some of these people — and this isn’t a knock, this is just a fact; the weakest, wimpiest people on earth cover the biggest, baddest sport on earth,” White said on IG. “What do you expect them to say? What do you think they’re gonna say?”

White comes off as a wannabe toughman with exceedingly thin skin when he takes this approach, but he gets minimal push back, as his bluster is intimidating to press. Media really isn’t able to fight back properly, because White takes advantage of the uneven playing field. Journalists he perceives as being not respectful enough of the sport and his aura get barked at, bullied, and find it hard as heck to do their job.

The 50-year-old promoter is using all his skills and traits, his ability to work a room in a charming fashion, as well as his darker persona, as he seeks to silence critics, while fashioning UFC 249 in Florida May 9.

It’s no coincidence that state has a Republican Governor, as White made clear in a weekend chat with Yahoo’s Kevin Iole.

“Our safety record is literally perfect,” he told Iole, when the veteran newsman said that Florida is more welcoming than California, where the card at Tachi would have been overseen, presumably, mostly by UFC personnel. White said that happens when UFC runs overseas, and cited ex-boxing overseer Marc Ratner as being vital to that task.

“Literally perfect,” though? Iole looked like maybe he wanted to challenge that too-rosy assessment of the UFC’s record of health and wellness. No such organization can boast of perfection in the realm of fight sports, where broken bones, sliced skin, and brain trauma are constant companions, factored-in elements of the rules of the “game.”

Iole did a good job in querying White, fact-checking the contention that UFC 249 will provide a substantive economic infusion to the Jacksonville region. White said money will be spent, even though fans will not be on site, and that hey, someone needs to be first. The executive shared that there’s a 30-page document in possession of state government in Nevada, which addresses concerns about health and safety.

White, indeed, can point out that MMA hasn’t battled the issues with head trauma which boxing has, so he has that going for him. White isn’t always wrong, he sometimes makes sense, but he’s the type of personality who inspires admiration or derision, so he tends to divide people into “love him or hate him” camps.

Iole pressed, noting that it seems White was hesitant to just put it out there that testing will be copious for UFC 249. White then showed his B for Bully card, stammering, “I’m not telling the media anything,” and offering a wan, “It’s gonna be safe.”

Iole got the message, and pivoted to the fights for the May 9 PPV. White’s demeanor lifted, he became upbeat and willing to engage when the main event for the Jacksonville battles was discussed. The Tony Ferguson vs Justin Gaethje clash, “it’s impossible for it to not be an incredible fight.”

The Yahoo interrogator did well to circle back; he asked White to comment on the Apr. 22 appearance on CNN’s Anderson Cooper show by the Las Vegas mayor, 81-year-old Carolyn Goodman. White noted that the mayor didn’t seem well prepared, but that there is no shortage of smart minds who “want to (re-open Las Vegas) the right way.” The Nevada Governor, Steve Sisolak, has done a good job, White declared. He took a shot at the California Governor, Gavin Newsom, and mocked him for being timid.

And speaking of timidity, will the unemployment crisis mean that spending will be down in the second half of 2020, and that many people will not be able to trek to Vegas, and hit a UFC event? He’s not thinking he’s going to get a gate for a long spell, White said, and the site isn’t real important. People just need to know they can watch on ESPN.

White added again that no UFC staff has been laid off. And does White give fighters who’ve been on the shelf a stipend, Iole asked. “People who missed their fights, we’re working out a whole deal for those guys,” White said.

He held the floor, and said that people who think they know him, don’t. “You find out who the real people are when things go wrong. ... All the people that are with me, are with me, and I will always take care of my people.”

Hardcore fans know that the “layoffs” issue is quite relevant, being that UFC was bought by Williams Morris Endeavor for $4.025 billion in 2016. Endeavor’s plans for a cash bonanza IPO in 2019 went off the rails, because optimistic projections for too many business had been scrutinized and pierced.

The IPO cash-grab disappeared and then coronavirus appeared. Endeavor is a diversified collection of outfits and outlets — Miss Universe, a bull-riders league, and the film and TV scripted sales division, that’s quite a motley crew of acquisitions — but their basket of eggs isn’t bulletproof against a pandemic which keeps people from going to movie theaters, or sporting events at stadiums or arenas.

Everybody answers to a boss, and Endeavor’s top people look up to the directors at the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners. SLP has put in more than $2 billion into Endeavor, according to the Wall St Journal, and publicly stood behind Endeavor. But as the Hollywood Reporter made clear, Endeavor’s debt burden isn’t mere Monopoly money.

From a Mar. 26 story:

“Also seen as being at a higher risk is Endeavor, which in September withdrew the planned IPO that was supposed to help it reduce its $4.6 billion debt burden as of August. S&P’s estimate on March 16 was for a ‘mid-teens percent drop in events, media, and services revenue, as well as a substantial decline in UFC’s live ticketing revenue.’ A downgrade would make debt refinancing more expensive and could pause any acquisitions. On March 25, Endeavor began laying off employees, starting with 250 staffers.”

A month later, it went from a trickle to a stream; the great Stitch Duran was needed. One-third of its workforce, or roughly 2,500 employees, will be furloughed, fired or moved to part-time. Chief Executive Ari Emanuel and Executive Chairman Patrick Whitesell said they’d do their part, they’d go without pay this year.

Iole gets a high grade for his persistence. Do UFC fighters get stimulus checks, to keep afloat? No, White said, nothing like that, he wants to get events up and running, and so they can do what they love doing, competing and getting paid to ply the trade.

“A lot of the media were going crazy about me trying to pull off that fight last weekend, a lot of the media are going to start getting laid off pretty soon,” he said, with a grin. “This is just the beginning, we haven’t even had talks of going back to normal yet. It’s going to be a very long time before things are normal again.”

It wouldn’t be fair to analyze and assert that White seemed happy when discussing layoffs of journalists. But let it be said, he didn’t appear to be empathetic, and see that scenario as cause for sadness.

Iole told White that he didn’t think many media were rooting against him, but people just wanted to make sure an event could be done in a responsible fashion.

The journalist, who does a better than fair job at juggling boxing and MMA coverage, listened patiently as White went back into his jeering mode. He stated that powers that be have handled the response to the pandemic as well as could be, as “we shut down the world, we’ve controlled it the best that we can.”

That is his opinion, but it borders the territory of a ludicrous statement. I suspect White’s intake of news is very limited, so he might not have seen this Fox News story, which shared that President Trump and his team had been warned in very explicit terms back in January that coronavirus could be a vicious killer, of people and the economy.

That the richest nation in the world continues to hear from frontline fighters of the infected that they don’t have near adequate personal protection coverage, and have to re-use masks and gowns, well, White’s assessment of response to COVID-19 by the DC hill-toppers signals he’s either uninformed or deluded.

“I know all the hippies wanna look at this and go, oh, we gotta care about this and that and everything else,” he said. “People being out and being productive and people making money is a big deal, too — for your mind, for everything.”

That take stands out for its flippancy and tone-deaf belligerence. White is mocking people who don’t want to be felled by a virus which by now only Kool-Aid slurpers deride as something like the flu. Sure, some infected are asymptomatic, some get such a mild case they suspected they had a regular bug — but when it hits and snakes into the lung, COVID-19 is nasty assassin, and White has to hope he nor anyone in his inner circle of loved ones experience being singled out by its dark hand.

White is a brash talker, he strung along boxing media for years with his plans to enter the that sphere, then tapped out before he entered the ring wars.

Maybe you recall as far back as Nov. 2017, when he told Lance Pugmire, then with the LA Times that he’s “getting into boxing, 100 percent.” One year later, more kicking of the can down the road, stirring the pot, and keeping converts on the hook.

“I had a meeting in LA yesterday. We are continuing to move forward, and we will absolutely, positively be in the boxing business,” White said to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto.

Now, a seasoned bullshitter knows that you can only kick that can so many times before people notice the dents and missed deadlines. But White reared back and gave it another boot, when he told various media in July 2019 that he would be up and running with Zuffa Boxing in October.

The can got kicked in October, with White speaking to Sirius XM on Oct. 5, 2019: “I’ve met with literally everybody in the sport minus [Bob] Arum, minus [Oscar] De La Hoya. Everybody is willing to work together and everybody is interested. What I know is the system and the model is broken, and it needs to be fixed.”

That month, or by Nov. 2019, he told Randy Gordon and Gerry Cooney there would be a press conference to share his plans to invade boxing.

“Boxing is a big part of our future plans,” he teased. More teasing from White on Dec. 17, when he spoke to Kevin Iole and said, “I’m still dealing with that stuff. Once I get all my ducks in a row, I will announce [Zuffa Boxing]. We’ll do a press conference and we’ll get this whole thing rolling.”

The new year came, and the goalposts moved again.

“I believe that I have set up everything the right way,” he told Conor McGregor’s website on Jan. 15, 2020. “I believe that I have the right people in place. I believe that I have the backing of most of the guys that are involved in boxing. So this is going to play out over the next couple of years and I truly do believe that we will be a massive player in boxing in the next couple of years.”

Or not. On Feb. 13, 2020, the NY Post ran a story that sent ripples of anger and disbelief through many folks who didn’t get a big chunk of change from a dividend dispensed to investors. $300 million got farmed out to people like Mark Wahlberg and Gisele Bundchen, after Endeavor got their take, about $150 million. Laborers weren’t enthused that they didn’t share in the bounty, though most kept their anger off the record, fearing blowback. They read that UFC funnels about $200 million into Endeavor coffers, and did some back of the envelope math, and yelled epithets. In the Post piece, Endeavor executive Mark Shapiro let slip that he didn’t see them getting into boxing.

White’s can got kicked, then.

On Mar. 24, 2020, he’d started singing a new tune. In talking to Kevin Iole, the showman made it clear that he’d over-promised, and now wouldn’t deliver on his plan to make an impact in pugilism.

“I hate speaking negatively about the sport of boxing, other than it’s a mess,” White said. “We all know it’s a mess and it needs to be fixed, if it can be fixed. I told you guys I would have a press conference last October and announce all these things, but as I dove into this thing and started to look into the sport of boxing, the economics of boxing — that sport’s a mess. It’s a mess and it’s in big trouble. I don’t know if it can be fixed.”

Now, it’s looking like his mysterious island of fighting is the shiny new can to kick.

Who knows, maybe White is as far along as he says regarding his island. But maybe a “wait and see” mentality is the wise play for fight fans when he talks about this island, where he thinks he can jet in fighters from around the world for bouts.

Here in New York, some 22,623 have died from COVID-19. We will hit the 60,000 tally in the US in a couple days, weeks after Trump said he believes projections that will stop the death tally at under 60,000. More than 211,000 people have been infected and killed by the virus worldwide. Forgive me, it may be that I see all this from a different angle than White. Nevada, after all, has seen “just” 219 COVID-19 deaths to date. The borough I live in, Brooklyn, has seen 3,700 or so dead from the virus, making it the hardest-hit county in America.

I’m not apologizing to White. I’m saddened and disgusted by his consistent display of a lack of empathy, for his “the show must go on” proclamations, his regular bullying broadsides at media. He is addicted to the action, he’s lost the plot as a human being, and this hippy right here won’t pretend that I’m not very put off by his actions and behavior.

White parades this lack of empathy gleefully, and, I’m pretty sure, lots of people that didn’t consider it before now do. Essential workers go out and risk their lives as this plague skulks and stalks, and fat cats sit in safety and call for the worker bees to keep the economy humming. Lots of the humble laborers, though, don’t have health insurance. Around here, lots of people have lost loved ones, and eyes are being opened, through the tears. We see a President that Tweets angrily at news media, and never, ever get emotional about the toll taken on humanity by the virus — and we see and hear Dana White taking shots at the press, and focusing obsessively about getting his fight league going again, while trying to play it off like he is doing that because people on quarantine are bored.

More and more regular people are waking up, though, and understanding, these big shots care about themselves, first and last. “Making money is a big deal, for your mind,” says Dana White. It’s a big deal for him, for maintaining his empire.

But wouldn’t that be something, if when we come out of this, all those people who were awakened band together, and say, “Fuck going back to normal.” The sweat and tears and blood of the fighters and the workers attracts money, which gets scooped up by the executives, and then they hand out lil’ slices to the ones who took the risk.

Keep one eye out for that, while White mesmerizes you with talk of his island and how he takes incredible care of everyone who is loyal to him. You don’t think some of these brave-hearted fighters aren’t going to put their feet down, after going hungry as independent contractors left to fend for themselves, and start their own league, so they can negotiate from a possition of shared strength?

Rhetorical question, of course — I can guarantee you Dana White is hoping like hell that the coronavirus settles down, and things do return to normal, and he can keep his fighters in the dark. That means he can keep paying out less than 20% of UFC revenue to the fighters, while the NBA, NFL, and MLB pay up to 50% of revenue to the athletes.

Even if White curtails his anti-media stance, the rest of his act — the way he sees how regular Joe and Jane workers are getting treated during this viral reckoning — won’t soon or easily be forgotten or dismissed.