I am the mythical MMA fan who grew to love the sport during the pandemic

You gotta hate proving Dana White right.

This isn’t a slight on the UFC boss. It’s just that there is no one on earth who so delights in being right, especially if he counts you among his imagined enemies. For a man purportedly worth $500 million, White certainly believes a lot of people are out to get him, the UFC, and anything else he feels is under his purview. You might think the piles of cash he drives his all-terrain vehicles through would prove that he had already bested those enemies—so much so that getting Ws would have become a tired exercise. But not so! No one revels in a win quite like Dana does, his shit-sly grin constantly permeating press conferences as he takes yet another victory lap in a perceived war that he is continually winning. All you have to do is ask him.

That’s why it pains me so much to say this.

Remember during the early days of the pandemic, when other sports leagues were being cancelled around the globe, White was one of the few people who said he wanted to just keeping running UFC events no matter the circumstances? In fact, remember when he tried to do just that, only to be rebuffed by pesky things like state laws and athletic commissions and, ultimately, the corporate bigwigs at Disney?

And remember that once he did get things moving again, in Jacksonville, Florida in May of 2020, there was a theory being floated that, simply by being the only game in town during this period, the UFC would be able to pick up a large number of new fans?

That concept always sounded like bullshit, right?

Well, unfortunately, that’s me. I’m that fan. I am that fictional MMA fan that Dana White told us time and again he was creating by running events senselessly during the pandemic.

I should say, I’ve always enjoyed watching MMA, in large part because I am Canadian and so is Georges St. Pierre. But even as GSP’s fights increasingly became appointment viewing, the rest of the UFC didn’t appeal much to me. I’d watch the odd fight here or there if it was on and would be occasionally become interested in various fighters—your Ronda Rousey here, your Brock Lesnar there—but I was never a dyed-in-the-wool fan. Fight Nights? Forget it. A PPV without a massive headliner? No thanks. As a massive fan of multiple other sports and an athlete competing at a high-level myself (in curling, but that’s a story for another time), I just didn’t have the time to add something else.

And then wouldn’t you know it, I suddenly had all the time in the world.

Dana White was banking on this. For the first time in centuries, we all had a forced, collective vacation from all the other things we enjoyed, and White was betting we’d want to fill it with whatever we could sink our teeth into. He even smartly preyed on people who wanted the pandemic to feel like a true vacation by calling an arena with no distinctive characteristics “Fight Island,” while selling flimsy merch with palm trees on it, as though simply getting to watch the UFC was vacation enough. But look, he was right. I saw the tiny cage they built on the beach at Yaz Island and thought the fighters were fighting there, like an old WCW pay-per-view. I saw his plan to stage fights every weekend, rotating between the UFC’s warehouse in Las Vegas and the venue in Abu Dhabi. In the immortal words of Neil Young, I was an old man who took a look at his life and realized … this looked a lot like me.

It started with one event. A craven need to fill the sports hole in my soul, and a tossed-off “hey whatever, I like UFC, why not?” Then it became another, and another. Perhaps most crucially, it turned out my fiancée liked it, too—and then it was all over.

My fiancée, Becca, doesn’t mind sports, but never goes out of her way to watch them. You can convince her that a live sporting event is good, and you can convince her to get involved once the playoffs roll around, but other than that? She’s not interested. So, it came as a surprise to me when she expressed an interest in watching UFC. In fairness, this too came before the pandemic, as she’d join me in heading over to a buddy’s house to watch UFC PPVs on occasion. But again, the idea of her carving time out of her schedule to watch a weekly Fight Night was never going to happen. It was simply a marriage of convenience and wanting to spend time with me, bonding over something mostly I enjoyed. But then COVID hit, and she started to love it. As anyone who is in a relationship with someone who doesn’t love sports as much as them (or even close) can understand, this was a very welcome development.

It became our weekly routine at a time when there were both no sports, and no routine. Having SOMETHING fresh on the calendar to look forward to every weekend became one of the things that kept us sane during those early pandemic days. Then, even as things began to open-up, and our lives achieved some degree of normalcy again, we found that we were invested, and it continued.

A year and a half later, we’ve missed just one Fight Night since this thing started. We’ve seen every PPV. We both developed favorite fighters. We critiqued post-fight interviews, press conferences, and grew to dislike Dana White even more. Becca, to her credit, even developed a real love for referee Jason Herzog well before he became the newly-minted “Best Ref in the UFC” by the general public.

Hell, we even watched a Bellator card.

So, what does this mean now? Being a UFC fan isn’t easy—what with the Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, and just generally bad people that populate the sport. The fighter pay and treatment is terrible. It doesn’t always feel great. But we’re here now. We are invested.

It was something that we needed in a time when the need for something fresh was great, and White correctly assumed the sport could sell itself if you gave it time. There’s something about the fighters’ stories—and there’s something about the violence—that does draw you in.

And the pandemic ensured we had the time to get drawn in.

So you win, Dana White. Goddammit.

John Cullen is a comedian and podcaster from Vancouver, Canada. Check out all his stuff right here.

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