If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced over the past several weeks, it is dangerous lengths to which the Ultimate Fighting Championship will go to protect its profit margins and feed the ego of its unhinged leader. For even as the virus sends the world economy into a death spiral, as America’s public hospitals struggle with devastating shortages in protective equipment and ghastly overages in dead bodies, UFC President Dana White insists that what the world really needed is short-notice, non-descript mixed martial arts bouts broadcast on pay-per-view.
Liters of ink have already been spilt on the UFC’s response to the coronavirus crisis, which has ranged from sycophantic cheerleading from the promotion’s broadcast partners to moral outrage from those who have bothered listening to infectious disease experts and public health officials. Now, as the wheels have finally fallen off the promotion’s flagship UFC 249 event and at least a few weeks of shows after that, it is time to start looking beyond the present to what we want the company—and the mixed martial arts industry more broadly—to look like when we get to the other side.
Historically, somber reflection on big structural issues like the UFC’s labor practices and its (alleged) monopsony over the MMA industry, has been difficult. There’s no doubt that’s by design to a certain extent. Unlike almost every other major sport, MMA has no off-season, with the modus operandi of promoters, fighters and spectators being to galop from one event to the next, dragging the media cycle along with them. While the MMA media—and occasionally walk-ons from the mainstream—still pontificate about issues like fighter pay, revenue share and federal regulation, these are almost inexorably addendums to the headlining act, which is “Fighter X is Fighting Fighter Y for Championship Z This Saturday.”
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