UFC 249 will not proceed on April 18, despite UFC president Dana White’s efforts to move forward with the pay-per-view event.
All other UFC events have also been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Today, we got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney, and the highest level at ESPN … and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event on Saturday,” White told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto on Thursday.
UFC 249 was scheduled to air on ESPN+. ESPN has a five-year contract as the exclusive home of UFC fights on its networks and pay-per-view services.
“ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249. Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons,” the network said in a statement. “ESPN expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood.”
On Monday, White told ESPN he had secured a location in the U.S. to host weekly fights for at least the next two months. He told ESPN on Thursday that he was “ready to go” at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California — near Fresno.
The California State Athletic Commission had canceled all combat sporting events through May 31, but because the Tachi Palace Casino Resort is situated on tribal lands, the ban did not apply. The casino also did not have to follow an executive “stay at home” order by the state.
White said he will bring a big fight to the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in the future.
“It’s been a battle since day one,” White said of the card. “We’ve been fighting nonstop all day and all night, since this pandemic started, to put on this event on April 18.
“… 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. And let me tell you this: When the world gets back to normal, California, that [fight] will be at Tachi Palace.”
The pay-per-view event was to be headlined by an interim lightweight title fight involving Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. A likely heavyweight title eliminator between Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik also was on the 12-fight card.
The co-main event between former UFC women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade already had been called off after Namajunas withdrew due to two coronavirus-related deaths in her family, her agent said.
Before UFC 249 was called off, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., released a statement Thursday saying she was “concerned” about the event taking place at the casino.
“This event would involve dozens of individuals flying to California and driving to a casino for a purpose no one can honestly claim is essential,” Feinstein said in her statement. “I understand this event is scheduled to take place on tribal land and therefore is not subject to state law. However, at best this event ties up medical resources and sends a message that shelter-in-place orders can be flouted.
“At worst, participants and support staff could carry the virus back to their home communities and increase its spread.”
The UFC was forced to postpone three events, on March 21, March 28 and April 11, because of the coronavirus.
“All of my fighters that are under contract with me, I want them to feel safe, take time with your families, and enjoy this time,” White said Thursday. “Don’t worry about the financial part of this. You’re gonna get the fights in your contract, and I’m gonna make things right with the people who were willing to step up and fight next weekend on April 18.
“And I’m gonna take care of as many people as I possibly can, and do whatever it takes to make these guys all feel comfortable.”
UFC is not legally obligated to pay any fighters during this time off.
In addition to the U.S. site, White said earlier this week that he had secured a private island, where he could conceivably book fights for international athletes who can’t come into the United States.
White remained adamant the UFC will be the first sports organization back in business.
“It’s all good. We’re going to get through this,” he said. “We’ll be the first ones back. Fight Island is coming, all the good stuff. It’s coming, man. We’ll get this thing squared away, get a date from ESPN, and we’ll be back first and we’ll get these fights going that everybody wants to see.”
UFC 249 was supposed to feature undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov against Ferguson. However, Nurmagomedov was removed from the event when it became clear he would have trouble leaving his native Dagestan and re-entering the U.S., where he had held some of his camp.
The event originally had been booked for Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
ESPN’s Brett Okamoto contributed to this report.