The Ultimate Fighting Championship plans to hold a pay-per-view event on tribal land in central California this month, an attempted end run around widespread federal and state guidelines against holding large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Even as most sporting events have ground to a halt worldwide because of the highly contagious virus, Dana White, the UFC president, has insisted he can safely hold mixed-martial arts events.
“This place where this fight is going to be on April 18 I have locked up for two months, so I’m going to continue to pump fights out,” White told ESPN on Monday, though he declined to say exactly where.
The location will be the Tachi Palace Casino Resort near Lemoore, Calif., about 40 miles south of Fresno, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because White had not announced the venue. The casino, which closed the night of March 20 because of the pandemic, is on land belonging to the Tachi-Yokut Tribe, part of the federally recognized Santa Rosa Indian Community.
A representative of the Tachi Palace Casino Resort could not immediately be reached for comment, and the UFC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The location was first reported by Jeff Sherwood, an independent MMA reporter.
The UFC postponed three events in March and April as stay-at-home orders became increasingly widespread and states began requiring nonessential workers to stay home. Nevada, where the UFC is based, is under a statewide stay-at-home order until at least April 30 — it has even shut down the Las Vegas casino industry.
The Association of Ringside Physicians, which represents safety personnel in combat sports, has urged the suspension of all combat sports.
“Any combat sport taking place during this global pandemic places the athletes, officials, and anyone else involved in the event under unnecessary risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19,” the association said in a statement. “In addition, combat sports athletes often require medical attention after a bout, and we do not wish to see any additional strain on an already overwhelmed medical system.”
By holding the event on tribal land, the UFC is not subject to California’s executive order mandating that people stay at home. The fights on the card also do not need to be sanctioned by the California State Athletic Commission, which normally regulates mixed martial arts events in the state. The commission has canceled all fights through May 31.
“The commission echoes the guidance of California Governor Gavin Newsom, the Department of Public Health, local health officials, and the recommendations of the Association of Ringside Physicians regarding the cancellation of events where people may be at risk of contracting COVID-19 and encourages the industry to do the same,” the California athletic commission said in a statement. “The commission will not participate in the UFC event on April 18, regardless of the event location.”
UFC 249 was originally scheduled to be held on April 18 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and to be headlined by a lightweight championship bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson — one of the UFC’s most anticipated matchups in years. But after Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York restricted mass gatherings and the New York state Athletic Commission announced it wouldn’t authorize the event, White said the UFC would go forward at a different location.
On Monday, White said that Nurmagomedov, now at home in Dagestan, Russia, was out of the fight and would be replaced by Justin Gaethje in the interim lightweight title matchup. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have been scheduled to fight each other five times since 2015, but each plan fell apart because of injury, illness and now the pandemic.
To book any fights involving athletes who cannot travel to the United States, White has said he secured an island but has not disclosed where.
Although the UFC produces all of its own events, the April 18 pay-per-view event will be sold by ESPN+, ESPN’s streaming service, and the preliminary card will be scheduled for one of ESPN’s cable channels. An ESPN spokeswoman declined to comment on Tuesday.
Tribal casinos, including the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, regularly host mixed martial arts and boxing matches with the full support and participation of state athletic commissions. World Extreme Cagefighting, a mixed martial arts company founded in 2001, held most of its first two dozen events at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort. It was purchased in 2006 by Zuffa, the parent entity of the UFC, and merged with the UFC in 2010.
But tribal casinos also sometimes host mixed martial arts events that cannot be sanctioned elsewhere, a form of venue shopping that most state athletic commissions view unfavorably.