Dana White Says U.F.C. 249 Is Being Cautious. Is That Good Enough?

The nearby hospital isn’t planning for the fights. The host tribe had closed its casino because of the coronavirus. And some legal experts think the highly anticipated event could still be shut down.

Dana White, the president of the U.F.C., has said he can safely hold mixed martial arts bouts despite widespread guidance against hosting large events.
Credit...Zhe Ji/Getty Images

Dana White, the Ultimate Fighting Championship president, has insisted that his plans for a 12-fight mixed martial arts showcase this month will be safer for participants than staying at home or going to the grocery store during the coronavirus pandemic.

But with the showcase, U.F.C. 249, just 10 days away, it was unclear how White and the U.F.C. could ensure the safety of an entertainment venture that, unlike a grocery store, is not essential.

The closest major hospital, which could be needed if fighters get hurt, is a 40-minute drive away, and a hospital spokeswoman said her employers had not heard a word from the U.F.C. as of Wednesday. The Native American tribe that is providing the site — a casino that was shuttered because of the virus — has previously sought help with fights from California state referees, judges and other officials, but the U.F.C. is on its own now as it evades regulators who have told it not to proceed.

And while the U.F.C. has insisted on pressing forward — despite additional objections from combat-sports doctors and public health officials — some legal experts believe that county and state officials could step in, even though the April 18 event is being staged on sovereign tribal land.

A U.F.C. spokeswoman did not respond to a request from The New York Times to speak with White.

“We are going to take every precaution to make sure everybody is safe,” White said Wednesday morning on ESPN.

Fans will not be allowed to attend, and the U.F.C. will most likely take precautions like limiting the number of camera operators and people allowed in each fighter’s corner, while moving the announcers away from just outside the cage.

But putting on a full fight card with 24 fighters still requires dozens of personnel, including production staff, referees, judges, medical staff, coaches and U.F.C. officials, which would contravene the president’s guidance that gatherings should be limited to 10 people or fewer.

And White has said the U.F.C. 249 event will be just the beginning — that he plans to stage bouts for at least two months at the same site, as well as others perhaps as early as May on a private island, for fighters from other countries who might have trouble entering the United States.

White and U.F.C. officials have asserted that the fighters will have access to emergency care. The Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, Calif., is the only Level 1 trauma center within a three-hour drive of the Tachi Palace Casino Resort near Lemoore, Calif., where U.F.C. 249 will take place. The U.F.C. has not been in touch with the hospital, said Mary Lisa Russell, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

At least seven people tested positive for the novel coronavirus after an Olympic boxing qualifier in London last month, and the Association of Ringside Physicians has warned that combat sports are risky for participants and place undue demands on hospitals.

“We do not wish to see any additional strain on an already overwhelmed medical system,” the association said in a statement.

Credit...Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

In holding the fight on tribal land, the U.F.C. is attempting to bypass stay-at-home orders that have been issued in nearly every state, including New York, where the fight was originally scheduled; Nevada, home to the U.F.C.’s headquarters and where it hoped to hold U.F.C. 249 after New York rejected the event; and California.

But while the Tachi-Yokut Tribe, which owns the casino and is part of the federally recognized Santa Rosa Indian Community, retains sovereignty over its land, that doesn’t necessarily mean state and county officials are powerless to enforce stay-at-home orders there.

The Tachi-Yokut Tribe and the Tachi Palace Casino Resort did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

“Since the 1950s, the state of California has full criminal authority over activities in Indian country,” said Gabe Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California and the managing lawyer at Galanda Broadman, a firm that focuses on tribal legal issues.

Galanda said that while there are gray areas, state and county officials have a stake in criminal matters, as well as some civil ones, on tribal land because of a federal law passed in 1953 — Public Law 280. Various local law enforcement agencies interact with tribes differently, and the stay-at-home executive order from California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is unprecedented.

State and county governments regularly enter tribal land to enforce state and county laws — even laws that are contradicted by tribal laws — and California officials have begun criminally charging people and businesses who violate the stay-at-home order.

Galanda referred to a concept known as “rent a tribe” — whereby businesses set up on tribal land to avoid state regulation — and said California might intervene to stop U.F.C. 249.

“U.F.C. is quite literally renting a tribe for purposes of a single event in contravention of a state declaration of emergency, and that is a bad optic for the tribe and the U.F.C.,” he said. “I don’t think that’s one that the state of California will be allowed to tolerate.”

David Robinson, the sheriff in Kings County, which surrounds the Santa Rosa Indian Community, said in an email that the county follows Public Law 280 in its response to tribal land. He emphasized, however, that this is sovereign land and that “the county’s shelter-in-place order cannot be enforced on tribal land.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

If the event does go forward, participants could be punished by state or tribal athletic commissions, which regulate combat sports in the absence of any federal regulation.

Tachi Palace Casino Resort regularly hosted regional mixed martial arts events under the moniker Tachi Palace Fights from 2009 through 2018, when it stopped because of a reduced entertainment budget, according to Richard Goodman, the matchmaker for the fights. For several years those fights were unsanctioned, with Goodman hiring referees, judges and medical personnel as independent contractors, but beginning in 2016 he hired the California State Athletic Commission to administer the fights.

Many tribes have their own athletic commissions, but the Tachi-Yokut does not.

“The California commission started really coming down on us as far as not counting these fights on the professional record,” Goodman said, explaining why he began sanctioning the fights, even though it was an added cost.

The California athletic commission has said it will not approve any fight through at least May 31. But the U.F.C. — which commonly authorizes its own events in countries with limited combat-sports infrastructure — has its own referees, judges and medical personnel to hold fights. For years, the U.F.C. sought the legitimacy of state commissions; now, in many ways, that is immaterial as the company keeps its own records.

“It won’t matter to them as long as it is in their U.F.C. database,” said Goodman, who is now an executive at Valor Bare Knuckle boxing. “They are the top dog. Even if you say this fight doesn’t count for us, it is on TV, everyone knows it happened.”

Participants in unsanctioned fights have been punished in the past, and the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports has specifically warned that could happen again.

“All officials that decide to participate in the event, they may be sanctioned on a tribal/state level,” the association’s board of directors said in a statement to The MMA Report. Brian Dunn, the A.B.C.’s executive director and the deputy athletic commissioner of the Nebraska Athletic Commission, later said that he had discussed the event with the U.F.C. and that the A.B.C.’s official position on the event was neutral.