LAS VEGAS — Dana White’s philosophy in promoting fights over the past two decades plus can be summed up by six words:
Give the people what they want.
And by quickly agreeing to a deal with Jorge Masvidal on Sunday to challenge Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title in the new main event of UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi, the UFC president proved yet again why his company is one of the so-called Big Four sports in the U.S.
The UFC has a long way to go — a long, long, long way — to catch the NFL and the NBA in America. And let’s face it, it’s never going to catch soccer in terms of worldwide popularity.
But this long-held notion that the Big Four in the U.S. are the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL is well past its sell-by date.
A little more than a decade ago, a few days before the UFC’s first event in Vancouver, British Columbia, a knot of reporters squeezed around White in the bowels of what was then known as GM Place following the news conference. Many of them were hockey writers who took the opportunity to find out a little more about this sport that was gaining so much attention.
One of the reporters innocently asked White, “Do you think there will ever come a day when the UFC is as big as hockey?”
White broke into a huge grin and chortled. In his mind, the UFC had surpassed hockey long before.
There was at least some doubt then. But what White has done during his second decade of ownership of the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion is to consistently confound skeptics.
Usman versus Masvidal is the fight he wanted to make all along. He sent them to the Super Bowl in February to cruise Radio Row in anticipation of a fight during International Fight Week at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in July.
The UFC couldn’t come to terms with Masvidal on a deal, and he withheld his services until he said he was paid what he felt he was worth. So the UFC turned to Gilbert Burns, who might have been the hottest fighter in the sport at the time, to challenge Usman. He was coming off of a win over ex-champion Tyron Woodley that was stunning in its comprehensiveness. Burns was better than Woodley — far better — in every aspect of the game.
And a guy who was just another face in the crowd at the beginning of the year was suddenly perceived as a real threat to defeat Usman and become the UFC champion.
Burns arrived in Las Vegas on Thursday and was set to leave Friday to fly to Fight Island. But Burns and Usman weren’t on the plane because, as it turned out, Burns, his brother, Herbert, and one of his corner people, all tested positive for COVID-19.
The fight was off, and it created a crisis for the UFC because the best fight of its biggest and most high-profile show was gone. It was a good card with the rematch between Alex Volkanovski and Max Holloway for the featherweight title as the main event and the bout for the vacant bantamweight title between Petr Yan and Jose Aldo as the co-main.
It’s a great card, though, with Usman-Masvidal on the top of the marquee, and White made it happen.
These are the times when White’s at his best, when he’s facing a crisis and needs to make something dramatic with next-to-no time to do it.
Details of Masvidal’s new deal weren’t released and because neither Masvidal nor Usman has passed their COVID-19 tests, White and UFC officials aren’t commenting. Masvidal manager Malki Kawa confirmed to Yahoo Sports that the BMF champion “is extremely happy” with the deal to fight Usman at the Flash Forum.
UFC 251 will be the ninth show the UFC has promoted since it got back to work after the pandemic-inspired stoppage. In that time, it has staged three fights that are in the debate for Fight of the Year and several more which were entertaining.
At UFC Vegas 3 on June 23, Josh Emmett defeated Shane Burgos in a mind-blowing battle that moved alongside the women’s strawweight title between between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk as the front-runners for Fight of the Year.
Seven days later, Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker staged a classic that in some quarters became the front-runner for Fight of the Year and, at least temporarily, made many forget about the classic for the interim title six weeks prior between Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson.
Even when it doesn’t have big names on the cards, the UFC delivers electrifying action. There were many grumblings on social media when Cynthia Calvillo and Jessica Eye headlined UFC on Vegas 2 on June 13 at Apex. Some dared to call it the worst card the UFC had ever put together.
But the first three fights ended in 59 seconds, 32 seconds and 22 seconds in a flurry of jaw-dropping violence that left those watching deliriously happy. In all, there were five first-round finishes on that show.
The following week was Emmett and Burgos and the week after that it was Poirier and Hooker.
Now, White swoops in and brings Masvidal back into the fold and while NBA and MLB players are opting out of their seasons, and the NFL tries to figure out how to get going, the UFC stands to have a massive pay-per-view headlined by the fight its fans wanted to see more than any other.
White and his company doesn’t allow injuries or illnesses or a pandemic or skeptics or holdouts or anything else to get in the way of a great fight card. To use an old football coach’s line, it’s next man (or woman) up, as far as White is concerned.
If there are fireworks, as expected, in the main event on Saturday, just remember how close we might have been to no card at all.
For all the great work he has done since purchasing the UFC in 2001, this may well be White’s finest hour.
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