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The Ultimate Fighting Championship is among other things a brilliant marketer of itself. This is embodied by longtime UFC President Dana White, by design the promotion’s biggest star. White has so successfully mythologized his role in the rise of the UFC that it may be now functionally be fact.
The so-called Zuffa Myth—named after the parent company from 2001-16—has been repeated often enough that you can’t blame newer fans for believing it. You will receive a high dose of the Myth in any UFC retrospective documentary, but the short version is that White, alongside Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, pulled the promotion from the brink of collapse into mainstream viability by pursuing regulation. In reality, the previous owner, Semaphore Entertainment Group, had fought aggressively for regulation, and the first iteration of the Unified Rules were created before Zuffa purchased the UFC. Plus, the UFC had already established enough name value to be synonymous with the sport before White and the Fertittas took the reins. Zuffa no doubt pushed the promotion and the sport to another level, but it didn’t buy a corpse and resuscitate it; it bought an already valuable asset and had deep enough pockets to weather blunders that otherwise would have sunk lesser promotions.
That’s the genius behind the craft, though. Not only does White repeat the Myth with enough frequency and conviction to drown out reality, he also weaves it into the promotion’s present-day narrative, perpetually in motion nearly every weekend of the year. The Zuffa Myth is one chapter in an ongoing story where White plays the protagonist, bearing the weight of the sport on his shoulders so that it might live another day. Another chapter of that story is being written, and it was taking root in real time at UFC on ESPN 11 on Saturday.
The most flagrantly propagandistic example is the UFC 251 commercial entitled “Can’t Hold Us Down,” dealing a defiant blow to COVID-19’s microscopic ego. It begins with clips of ESPN anchors announcing the cancellations of all the other major sports leagues—the NHL, MLB, March Madness and the NBA. Fade to black. Then White appears on screen and nobly walks away into the future with his back to the camera while an interview clip plays overtop dramatic music: “Everybody is panicking,” White says in the clip, “and instead of panicking, we’re actually getting out there and working with doctors and the government to figure out how we keep the sport safe and how we can continue to put on events.” Then White walks toward the camera. We see his seriousness as the song sprouts perfectly synced lyrics: “Feeling like a warrior, not afraid to bleed. The fight inside’s in all of us, so we won’t concede.” The fight against the deadly pandemic? No. The fight against the real virus, the haters. “A lot of people did not want this to happen,” White says.
For anyone paying attention, this is more than just a generous interpretation of what happened. It elides a lot of troublesome details, like how the UFC initially tried to skirt lockdown measures by hosting events on Native American tribal land, how its original half-baked plans were overruled by Disney and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and how it failed to enforce the social distancing guidelines it professed to implement. A lot of people may have indeed not wanted the UFC to continue to put on events during the pandemic, but a substantially greater number of people absolutely did. Whatever headwind of opposition White felt—mainly from epidemiologists, or “pussies” as White likes to call them—it was dwarfed by the chorus of cheers behind him.
This is not a story of a renegade outfit risking it all and fighting the odds; it’s a story of a financially strained outfit playing the odds by outsourcing the risk to fighters, who are under even greater financial strains. White is not a courageous leader marching into the unknown; he’s a bratty child being marched into his room until his parents think he’s cleaned it enough to be allowed out again.
Still, just like the Zuffa Myth, this one is already starting to stick. Two fighters on the main card expressed Myth-friendly sentiments in their post-fight interviews. Belal Muhammad, whose father’s store in Chicago was recently destroyed, said the following: “We’ve been through a lot, but honestly, the world’s going through a lot. Just to be here and have the opportunity to come out here and do what I love, get my mind off what’s going on—it’s an amazing thing.” After winning in the next fight, Raquel Pennington chimed in: “I’m truly grateful for fighting for this promotion, who’s just really out there focusing on their athletes and getting us back out there to do what we love. I’m truly grateful.”
These are no doubt genuine and heartfelt feelings. I think we all would really appreciate an opportunity to do the things that make us feel normal again. While Muhammad’s statement is much milder, they both stem from an assumption that it’s the UFC taking the risk, not them. The UFC will gladly implement whatever procedures it is forced to, as long as it can put on shows and chip away at its multi-billion-dollar debt. Fighters, however, get the same treatment they always have: They get stuck with whatever consequences befall them. The UFC doesn’t even need to imply that fighters should be grateful for as much; the fighters are already doing that work for the promotion. Even anodyne and otherwise honest comments are ripe for planting the Myth.
The dumb part is that there really is no need for mythmaking like this. Zuffa turned a $2 million investment into a $4 billion industry behemoth. That’s remarkable enough without all the embellished heroism of White and the Fertittas. Similarly, a better tone for its decision to carry on with fights during the pandemic would be to simply admit that, like everyone else, it was taken off-guard by the suddenness of it all. “We got f-----’ blindsided by this thing,” you can almost hear White saying at the dais, “but we bounced back, and now we’re doing everything we can to get the baddest men and women in the world back in the Octagon.” That’s it; that’s the angle. No shucking off the haters trying to stop him or bravely towering above the cowards of the sports world. Just putting in overtime to do what’s best for the fighters and put on a show for fans.
Of course, that leaves the UFC vulnerable to have to actually follow through on doing right by fighters, so it’s probably a lot simpler to just lie. That kernel of truth is buried somewhere in the new Myth, but how nice would it be if we didn’t have to wade through shovelfuls of UFC Juche to get there? Imagine if people in power just explained why they did what they did instead of clumsily and needlessly trying to rewrite reality in hopes that enough people will be duped into forgetting?
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.