'Nothing is going to change': Dana White indifferent as UFC faces potential talent drain

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — UFC president Dana White said trying to put together fight cards as the coronavirus pandemic rages and the country is in the midst of chaos with riots on the streets is the hardest thing he’s ever done.

It’s been so difficult that White just shrugs his shoulders and grins at the news that his biggest star announced his retirement on social media just as one of those fight cards he worked so hard to put together had ended.

Amanda Nunes capped off a sensational night of fights at UFC 250 on Saturday at Apex by destroying Felicia Spencer. It was like a major league All-Star pitching against a high school junior varsity lineup. Nunes did what she wanted, and when, and won a decision by scores of 50-44 twice and 50-45 to defend her featherweight championship.

But Nunes had barely made it to her locker room when former featherweight/lightweight champion Conor McGregor announced his retirement via Twitter. This isn’t the first time he’s retired — when he was battling with White about skipping a news conference at UFC 200 in 2016 he announced he was done — and the reasons weren’t clear.

At other times under similar circumstances, White would breathe fire and blister McGregor verbally, but given what he’s been up against, even a star of McGregor’s caliber threatening to retire wasn’t his biggest issue.

The card was the fifth the UFC has staged since the world went on lockdown in March because of the coronavirus. No other sport is going and MLB owners are so incredibly short-sighted and greedy that they may blow their season.

Conor McGregor tweeted Saturday that he's "decided to retire from fighting." (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

McGregor joins Jones, Masvidal in wanting out

McGregor is just the most recent prominent fighter to speak out publicly. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones threatened to retire and asked for his release when White wouldn’t meet his salary demands. He was followed on Friday by BMF champion Jorge Masvidal with the same threats.

After a sensational one-punch KO of Eddie Wineland on Saturday, rising bantamweight star “Suga” Sean O’Malley threw his hat into the pay-me-more ring. The big one, though, was McGregor, but White said he has enough on his plate trying to keep the wheels of this massive machine rolling that he hasn’t had time to think about it and isn’t all that concerned.

“So I’ll remind everybody that we’re in a pandemic and the world is a crazy place right now with everything that’s going on,” White said. “I think that everybody feels this. There are no fans. We can’t travel to fights around. Everybody is pissed off and fuming. We’ve been locked up in the house for three-and-a-half months. There’s protests. There’s riots. The list goes on and on. Listen, if you don’t think that what I’m doing right now is probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.

“If you don’t think that three times a day that I’m ready to say, ‘[Expletive] this [expletive].’ Believe me. And the amount of people I have gunning at me now is insane. One of the beautiful things about this sport is, you don’t have to fight. This isn’t the NBA or the NFL where you’d better be at practice and you better show up and do this and do that. If these guys want to sit down and retire right now or if anybody feels uncomfortable with COVID or in any way, shape or form with what’s going on, you don’t have to fight. It’s all good.”

White said that Masvidal and Jones are each one fight into new eight-fight deals and so he’s a bit perplexed by their requests for more money.

Jones wanted a career-high payday for moving to heavyweight to fight Francis Ngannou, which he’d clearly deserve under normal circumstances. But it’s hard to pay Jones or McGregor or anyone else record paydays given there are no fans in the stands.

White says he’ll deal with fighters’ pay issues

White said Nunes made a hefty payday Saturday. She was guaranteed $350,000 and made $100,000 to win, but she’ll get much more from the pay-per-view receipts, which White said would be considerable.

“There are more eyeballs on these kids who are fighting than we’ve ever had before,” White said.

NFL owners not only have to figure out how to get the season going even though Dr. Anthony Fauci calls football a breeding ground for the coronavirus, but they have to find a way to work with the players on their protests against police brutality.

MLB may forego its season because the owners and players can’t agree on either the length of their season or how they’ll be paid.

Hockey is going to begin its playoffs next month, but without fans, and the NHL relies on ticket sales more than any other of the big four professional leagues, so that’s going to create lasting problems.

White, though, isn’t letting those kinds of issues impact him. He said not only hasn’t any on his staff been laid off, no one has taken a paycut.

His business is back almost to where it was before the pandemic, with the exception of the fans.

When he bought the UFC in 2001 with casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. They built the brand more than relying on individual fighters, so now, when the biggest stars in the sport are threatening to walk away, White knows it won’t have a lasting impact.

There may be some short-term pain, but someone always comes up and becomes the next star.

The business isn’t reliant on any one fighter, even one as popular as McGregor. The result is that White can put his head on the pillow and sleep and not worry about the talent drain he may potentially face. Combined with the retirement of bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo last month, it’s a lot of talent that could be on the way out the door.

White insists he’ll deal with it.

“If they want to retire or do something or whatever, that’s what they’ll do and the kids who want to fight, we’ll get them fights,” White said. “Nothing is going to change.”

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