A Tale of Two: Combat Sports & COVID-19

by Peyton Wesner

Mixed martial arts (MMA) and professional wrestling could not be any different. 

MMA — often called “cage-fighting” — has been labeled one of the most brutally violent sports of all-time. The objective is to incapacitate your opponent through stand-up strikes or make the opposition submit in grappling.

Professional wrestling, on the other hand, is scripted sports entertainment with predetermined outcomes as each athlete works together to tell a story through feats of athleticism and body language.

Just as the two sports contrast, the response to COVID-19 from industry leaders — Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) — are similar yet different.

For the world’s MMA leader, UFC and President Dana White were prepared to reintroduce the sport with a pay-per-view (UFC 249) event scheduled for Saturday, April 18. Everything that could have affected UFC 249 transpired. The event’s main event headliner and UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was stuck in Dagestan and unable to travel to the United States. State athletic commissions, which oversee all professional bouts, suspended operations and postponed future events. 

Regardless, White was adamant to bring MMA back to the fight world by hosting the event at a Native American reservation — which is not subject to athletic commissions. However, Disney and ESPN top executives pulled the plug on the fight card and its partner’s plan, as another sport submitted.

“This whole thing has been a battle since day one,” White told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “We got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney and the highest level of ESPN.

“The powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event.”

WWE is taking a different route. A route that allowed the top professional wrestling company to still have WrestleMania, a spectacle comparable to the NFL’s Super Bowl. Even in an empty WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla., the show went on. 

Starting today, the show will go live as WWE is reintroducing live programming after weeks of taped matches and shows, including WrestleMania. This development comes after a WWE employee tested positive for COVID-19 towards the end of March.

“We believe this matter is low risk to WWE talent and staff, as the individual and a roommate became symptomatic in the days following exposure,” WWE said in a statement. “The employee had no contact with anyone from WWE since being exposed to those two individuals, is doing well, and made a complete recovery.”

WWE Performance Center and NXT’s Full Sail Live are both situated in Orange County, Florida. Both locations are subject to Governor Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order, which exists through April 30.

But, at this present moment, WWE appears on track for its next WWE Network exclusive Money in the Bank on Sunday, May 10. Whether the pay-per-view goes on as planned will have to wait until next month. 

For now, WWE has local approval from Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings, which is enough to stay afloat during this fluid situation.