'Stand down': How Disney forced UFC 249 to be scrapped

Dana White was forced to announce the cancellation of the upcoming UFC 249. Pic: Getty

UFC boss Dana White has made a stunning backflip after revealing the “high level” intervention that forced him to scrap UFC 249.

The UFC president had previously insisted that the MMA pay-per-view showcase scheduled for April 18 would go on in spite of public health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic.

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However, White on Thursday (Friday AEST) told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto that he got a call from Disney and ESPN chiefs that left him with no choice but to cancel the event.

ESPN is UFC’s broadcast partner and the sports broadcaster’s parent company is Disney.

White said he was left with no alternative after receiving a call at the "highest level" from Disney and ESPN chiefs, urging him to "stand down".

“Today, we got a call from the highest level you could go at Disney and the highest level at ESPN,” White said.

“One thing I’ve said since we started our relationship and partnership with ESPN, it’s been an incredible one. 

“It’s been an amazing partnership. ESPN has been very, very good to us and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event.”

UFC looked to skirt COVID-19 safety protocols

The event was originally scheduled for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center before the coronavirus took hold in the United States and led to the suspension of all major sporting events and other large gatherings.

White promised that the event would go on at an undisclosed location, teasing multiple times that he had secured a private island to host UFC cards.

Reports earlier this week stated that he had arranged to hold it at a casino resort on Central California tribal land that would allow the organization to skirt federal and state regulations restricting gatherings and canceling MMA events in the state.

The California State Athletic Commission has canceled all fights through May 31 and Gov. Gavin Newsome has issued a mandate that people stay home unless conducting essential tasks like seeking medical help or purchasing food in an effort to thwart the spread of the coronavirus.

UFC 249 was slated for California

White confirmed the report in his interview with ESPN.

“Tachi Palace in California — the Indian reservation — has had our back this whole time, has stood their ground and was willing to do this fight,” White said of the resort south of Fresno.

“Let me tell you this. When the world gets back to normal, the California event will be at Tachi Palace.

“I’m doing a fight there. I’m gonna bring them a big fight. I appreciate them standing with me in this thing.”

White then looked at the camera and addressed “all of my fighters that are under contract with me.”

“I want them to feel safe and take time with your families,” White said. “Enjoy this time. Don’t worry about the financial part of this. ... I’m gonna take care of as many people as I possibly can.”

‘Fight Island is real’

He then vowed that UFC would “be the first sport back” and that “Fight Island is real.”

Shortly after White’s interview with ESPN, UFC released a statement confirming the cancelation of the event.

White has been under fire for insisting on moving forward with UFC events in light of the safety concerns brought on by the deadly coronavirus. In March he called his media critics “the weakest, wimpiest people on Earth.”

After most of the sports world shut down in mid-March, White pushed on with UFC Brasilia in an empty arena. The March 15 event took place three days after the NBA suspended its season, a decision that preceded the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments and postponement of the start of MLB’s season.

Headlining names pulled out of UFC 249

UFC 249 was one of the most anticipated cards in the history of mixed martial arts, originally headlined by a title showdown between undefeated middleweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and challenger Tony Ferguson, a fight the UFC community has anticipated for years.

The card weakened when Nurmagomedov announced on April 1 that he would not participate as he would remain with his family in his home in Russia during the pandemic. Justin Gaethje since replaced Khabib on card earlier this week.

On Wednesday, women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas pulled out of the card. On Thursday, her manager announced that she withdrew because two of her family members had died after contracting COVID-19.

With Yahoo Sports US