Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Belarus's plan to save UFC 249 was a desperate stab in the dark

By Alistair Hendrie

Belarus’s proposal to host UFC 249 on Saturday 18th April looked ambitious at best and was reminiscent of a chancer bursting into an auction as the final bids were made. They’d crash through the doors, causing a commotion and embarrassing themselves. “Listen to me” they’d shout, “I’ll save you; I’ll do anything!”

Last weekend, before Justin Gaethje replaced the self-isolating Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC 249 main event - where he’ll face Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight strap - the executive director of the Belarus Federation of Hand to Hand Fighting and MMA, Maxim Korolkov, revealed he’d made a leap of faith in giving the UFC options for the event to be staged in, say, Minsk, in front of 15,000 fans despite the coronavirus outbreak.

"We received an oral reply [from the UFC]” said Korolkov. "Firstly, we were thanked for the offer. Secondly, our proposal was included as a conditional 'plan B'. They already have venues for this tournament. Dana White does not want to report this, but they have well-developed options. In any case, they are grateful and ready to consider our option with Minsk for future UFC tournaments… By April 18 we will [be able to] prepare everything."

As if these developments couldn’t be any weirder, the country’s Ministry of Sport and Tourism claimed they hadn’t even spoken to the federation about staging the event. Then there’s the labyrinthine logistical issues.

If Belarus was serious about hosting UFC 249 the country would have needed to ensure a raft of athletes from the United States, Brazil and eastern Europe can travel to the country regardless of flight cancelations, airport closures and aviation staff being placed on leave all over the globe.

Furthermore, coaching teams would need to be transported to the show, whereas the federation would also have to convince referees, judges, doctors and other staff that it’s worth working a UFC event during a worldwide pandemic.

In that sense Belarus’s plans to save the UFC’s next showcase were too large of a bet to be taken seriously but when you look into the country’s dismissal of the threat of coronavirus, Belarusian naivety should be no surprise. Its borders are free to roam through. Its train stations are open. Its sports leagues are continuing as if nothing has happened.

On Sunday Yunost Minsk defeated Shakhtyor Soligorsk to win ice hockey’s Belarusian Extraleague, while the Belarusian Premier League is one of the only football competitions still in progress. And this from a country whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, is more likely to be seen wearing a blindfold than a protective mask as he denies the legitimacy of a pandemic which the rest of the world can see.

Lukashenko waved away the dangers of coronavirus when he called it “another psychosis” and added “panic can hurt us more than the virus itself”. Questions over his sanity were raised further when, in his infinite wisdom, he recommended drinking vodka and sitting in saunas as a remedy for symptoms of the virus. It should be noted for balance that according to Google, at the time of writing on Monday 6th April 2020, Belarus has only suffered eight deaths from 562 cases, with 52 recoveries. Still, Lukashenko’s cartoonish demeanour and wilful ignorance are the lasting images of the country’s response to coronavirus.

That said, it’s unlikely that the UFC will accept Belarus’s last-minute bid as they bundle into the conversation, spouting offers and promises they can’t fulfil. For starters, the UFC promoting an event in an arena full of fans would be treacherous in spreading the virus, while the company cooperating with Lukashenko would be a blot on their corporate image.

Added to that, last week US president Donald Trump told UFC president Dana White he is eager to reopen sports leagues as quickly as is safe, and White has since set his sights on staging the event on the US west coast. As such, considering the health risk and PR disaster which could occur from switching Gaethje against Ferguson to another country, Belarus are left defeated, red-faced and clutching a redundant bet slip.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

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