UFC 242: Khabib v Poirier
Jeff Bottari

It's a refrain that is often shared in response to our uneasy acceptance of the coronavirus pandemic and works just as well when talking about the current lot of combat sports: stop waiting for things to "get back to normal." This is the new normal. 

Without a crystal ball or working knowledge of epidemiology to confirm, one can safely guess we aren't all that close to being out of the woods just yet and may not get there at all by the end of the calendar year. What that means for big-time boxing and MMA events amid COVID-19 fears and projections is the likelihood that empty-arena cards and no live gate continue. 

So when UFC announced a loaded July 11 pay-per-view card that will see the promotion return to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi for UFC 251, the news was met with contrasting emotions. On one hand, there was a rightful groan in response to the reality of what UFC Fight Island actually is, including a glaring omission of the kind of tropical mystery and romantic danger that Dana White cryptically teased. On the other hand, the card is insanely loaded and headlined by a trio of title bouts, which is extra impressive considering how difficult a time other sports have had even figuring out a working plan to return.  

Can't get enough of the Octagon? Listen and subscribe to the State of Combat with Brian Campbell podcast where we break down everything you need to know in UFC and beyond each week.

Equal parts raving madman and combat sports' answer to Robin Hood, if there's one man who deserves a ton of credit, it's White. The UFC president has been able to somehow keep working without laying off any employees and responded to a week's worth of negative headlines surrounding fighter pay and so many UFC stars threatening revolt by doing what he does best: pooling resources and announcing, quite possibly, the best card of 2020. 

So, yeah, about last week's narrative. You remember, right? Unhappy superstars Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal asked for their release just as Henry Cejudo and Conor McGregor announced sudden retirements. Also, the idea that none of them would fight anyway during the remainder of the quarantine because of no live gates and an unwillingness to accept short pay. 

Without question, the spinoff conversations those headlines produced were important ones, including UFC's potential longterm labor issues and whether top fighters will ever truly get a fair share of the company's revenue without organizing. But the outrage to Fight Island's bait-and-switch presentation may have obscured UFC's short-term solution to getting around those issues: the international site fee.  

If you research the American public's reaction in recent years to even the rumored idea of combat superfights being shopped to high-rolling foreign suitors, it has largely been lukewarm. Whether the outcry was fueled by nationalism, alternate start times or even moral objection to the host country or origin of the bankroll, combat sports fans haven't been shy in speaking up. 

Yet, from Top Rank boxing promoter Bob Arum peddling an aging Manny Pacquiao around Macau, Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn pushing Anthony Joshua to accept upwards of $80 million to rematch Andy Ruiz Jr. in Saudi Arabia and even UFC's current five-year deal in the United Arab Emirates, great promoters typically only stay at the top by accepting the richest offer. The only difference now is that combat sports never needed the presence of a stereotypical (and deep-pocketed) international oligarch, whether of ethical or immoral repute, more than it does right now to ensure the biggest bouts get made.

If you don't agree, ask yourself when the next big boxing PPV bout is rumored to take place? Or, how about title fight of any value involving two boxers with popular names? 

Granted, the sport of boxing is at a far bigger disadvantage than UFC considering there are so many rival promoters with their own individual broadcasting deal to fulfill during difficult times. UFC also has an exclusive PPV deal with ESPN+ which provides a sturdy financial foundation for each show. 

But both sports simply can't maintain high-level matchmaking and paying star fighters their worth without either a live gate or the help of deep pockets abroad. And if your moral and ethical compass prevents you from supporting this new normal for any reason, understand that the fight game's health may end up dependent upon it until things get better. 

Was it understandable to question the values of everyone from Hearn to WWE for bringing events to Saudi Arabia the past few years despite the nation's egregious human rights violations? 

Absolutely. 

Is it fair to question whether a suspected Irish drug cartel boss like Daniel Kinahan should be at the center of prospective negotiations for a Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua superfight while currently being labeled a "person of interest" in three murder plots of his rivals? 

Um, yeah. Of course. 

At the same time, boxing in particular has had a long history of shady associates and dirty money to spark a moral conundrum no different than the one that first must be passed in order to enjoy a sport centered upon the distribution of cash prizes for removing one's opponent from consciousness. For better or worse, it has long been a necessary evil. 

One thing remains certain: until paying customers are allowed to be just that once again in physical form, the fight game will need to maintain its creativity to stay in business -- even if that means teaming up with a benefactor. If the recent success of White and the UFC is any indication, no other sports seem as equipped to survive during such unprecedented times as the ones who fight for a living. 

This is the new normal.