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Inside the efforts to keep UFC's March 21 fight card

An eight-fight win streak should guarantee Leon Edwards a huge bout when fighting resumes. But will he get one? Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Gilbert Burns stopped Demian Maia via TKO on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC Brasilia in front of no fans. In his postfight speech in an empty arena, Burns called out Colby Covington, the most polarizing figure in the UFC's welterweight division.

Little did Burns know that 18 hours later he would be grappling with Covington -- for the right to face Tyron Woodley in the headliner of the UFC's displaced card scheduled for March 21.

Burns' finish of Maia helped kick off one of the most hectic 48 hours in UFC history, as the promotion and its fighters, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, tried to piece together an event that would have happened Saturday.

Here's how the UFC and its fighters tried to pull off a fight night for March 21.


As President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Saturday afternoon that travel restrictions from Europe would be expanded to include the United Kingdom and Ireland, the UFC realized that its goal of hosting an event in London the following weekend wouldn't be possible.

Dana White's focus shifted, and he and his small team began to work internally to figure out the logistics. Where would next weekend's event be held due to the last-minute change in venue? Who would be on it?

White would then appear on SportsCenter to break the news.

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At 12:06 a.m. ET on March 15, about four hours after Burns beat Maia, White announced that the UFC's next three events were moving locations. But they would go on, he assured fans.

White said as a result of the latest travel restrictions there was no way to hold a show in London. The plan was to move it to the United States and keep the big welterweight fight between former champion Woodley and top contender Leon Edwards as the main event. The only problem was that there was no replacement venue at the time. The UFC boss said he hoped to have a new location as soon as possible.

Less than five hours later, Edwards woke up at his Birmingham, England, home to a call from his manager, Tim Simpson of Paradigm Sports Management.

"Your fight is no longer in London," Simpson told Edwards.

But in three hours, Edwards would have to be in London -- about a two-hour train ride from Birmingham -- so he could fly to Las Vegas. Simpson asked Edwards to get his coaches together in a hurry for the international fight.

"I was just baffled," Edwards said. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

Edwards, after talking with his team, decided against taking the flight. There was no venue, and no guarantee he could return to his family in the United Kingdom after the fight.

View this post on Instagram

Last night I went to sleep still with some hope that UFC London would continue next week. I woke up this morning to the news that it won't be. We have been working with the UFC on possible solutions to keep the fight alive, but unfortunately with such a short window of time, nothing was viable. Myself and my team are all fathers, husbands, sons and brothers, and not all of us can leave our families right now. I wish we could have found a way for the fans, I truly do. I have been dreaming of headlining a UFC show in my home country since I started this sport. This cancellation is truly heartbreaking. I have never worked harder and never been more prepared for the biggest moment in my career. But I know that the whole world is hurting right now and this is bigger than me, this is bigger than sports. All I can hope for is that all of you stay safe and look after each other as we get past this and move forward. I am humbled by the thousands of messages of support I have received in the hours since the announcement, I truly appreciate you all and feel a lot of love right now. I look forward to this event being rebooked when it is safe to do so, so Tyron and I can put on the show that you all deserve. Please take care, we will all get through is. Rocky

A post shared by Leon "Rocky" Edwards (@leon_edwardsmma) on

"It just wasn't possible in the timeframe that I had," Edwards said. "Now it makes sense that I didn't go, because now I would be stuck there, away from my family, away from my kids."

Meanwhile, the UFC was working on contingencies and notified Woodley's manager, Malki Kawa of First Round Management, about the change in plans Sunday morning.

Woodley, who is based in St. Louis but was already in Los Angeles, had a flight scheduled from Los Angeles to London for 7 p.m. local time Sunday. But around noon ET, Kawa told him he didn't need to get on the flight after all. The fight card was being moved to the United States.

"I was a trooper," Woodley told ESPN's Ariel Helwani on Wednesday. "I was in it for the whole time. That's normally not my s---."

At the same time it was trying to piece together a main event, the UFC was also actively looking for replacement fighters with the card being moved. According to an email sent to managers and representatives and obtained by ESPN, the UFC was looking for "anyone currently under UFC contract, from bantamweight to welterweight, who wants a short notice fight."

2:04 p.m. ET: Before Edwards could tell the world he was out of the fight, Burns made his intentions known. He said he heard Woodley needed a new opponent -- and he wanted to be the one to fight him.

At the time, Burns didn't really know if it was a possibility. But then he got a call from his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, asking if he wanted to fight again on six days' notice. Burns said he did, so Abdelaziz said he would call the UFC to try to get him the opportunity.

"As soon as Ali called me," Burns said. "I knew it was serious."

If Burns got the fight, he would have set the record for the quickest turnaround from a fight to another fight since 2000, which is considered the beginning of the modern era of the UFC. Chas Skelly currently holds the record for having fought twice within 13 days in 2014.

3:06 p.m. ET: Covington chimed in, tweeting that he saw Edwards was out and proposing that he beat up Woodley "next week for your entertainment and my own personal pleasure."

Woodley's interest was piqued. Woodley no longer cared that Edwards was out; he wanted Covington, Woodley's manager Kawa said. This bout was talked about at least twice before while Woodley held the welterweight title, but it never came together.

"It's the fight he really wants," Kawa said. "It's a fight that's a really big deal for him."

For Woodley, it was simple. "I want to fight Colby," Woodley told Kawa. "Send the bout agreement."

Other possible opponents made themselves known on social media, including former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, who tweeted at 8:02 p.m. that if Burns didn't get it, he'd be in.

But the UFC, according to multiple sources, was talking seriously to only the teams for Covington and Burns.

Covington was the preferred opponent -- by both Woodley and the UFC, sources said, because of Covington's name value. But both the Woodley and Burns camps did not believe Covington was a serious player due to Covington's financial demands.

At 8:06 p.m. ET, Burns tweeted that he was on his way from Brasilia, Brazil, to Miami, and that the fight had been offered.

By the time he landed, Burns felt confident he was the front-runner, and that Colby "was just being Colby" and didn't have any intention of fighting.

Burns napped on the plane, but that was it for sleep. When he landed, he went straight into his prefight routine. By Monday morning, he was watching Woodley's previous two fights and setting up a practice for later that night, a pad session with coach Henri Hooft and grappling training with a partner.

"I went from a mood of very happy, accomplishing what I was training for, beating a legend in Brazil, but no celebration at all," Burns said. "Just get a dinner with my family and my team there in Brazil. Boom, next day already on a mission again."

On Monday at 1 p.m. ET, Covington also thought he was still in play, telling Helwani that his talks with the UFC were reaching the "red zone."

"As far as I know, Tyron Woodley might have said yes," Covington said. "I think so. I know he's ducked me a lot in the past. But I think he's said yes and he's on board."

However, according to sources close to the negotiations, Covington's offer to fight Woodley on short notice never really made it off the ground. Covington expected additional incentives for taking what would have been a high-profile fight on short notice, and the UFC had another option in Burns, who was in shape, had just fought and wasn't demanding returns that would have been more consistent with a bout on pay-per-view, instead of a regularly televised UFC Fight Night.

Sources said Covington's management was sincere in its interest in the fight and that the UFC has interest in promoting a Woodley-Covington fight at some point. But it wasn't close to occurring on March 21.

Woodley said White called him personally Monday morning to offer him the Burns fight. He asked White for more money -- "extra cheese to my macaroni," he said -- and the ability to talk with his team before accepting. He had prepared for a tall southpaw in Edwards and would now have to fight a shorter Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion in Burns.

"I talk to [my coach] Din [Thomas] and talk to the guys," Woodley said. "I tell them, 'F--- man, I trained, I put in a lot of energy. ... I want to fight bad.' They say they have my back no matter what."

At around 3:30 p.m. ET, as President Trump was addressing the nation in a news conference, Woodley texted White and agreed to fight Burns.

"He told Dana he was fighting Saturday no matter what," Kawa said. "Tyron being the No. 1 contender in that weight class wants to have the biggest fight possible. If the biggest fight possible would have been Gilbert Burns, that's the fight that would have happened."

It didn't matter, though. At that news conference, Trump recommended that people avoid gatherings of 10 or more people to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The card was off.

"As you've heard me say, I've been in the fight game for 20 years, and this is what we do: We find a way to keep our events going no matter what," White wrote in an email to UFC employees Monday afternoon, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN. "But this is different. The whole world is being affected right now, and nothing is more important than the health and safety of you and your families."

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6:11 p.m. ET: White confirmed the news Monday evening on SportsCenter. He said Woodley vs. Burns was set, and the UFC had a new venue: FireLake Arena in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But after the president's recommendation, there was no way a fight card with full regulation and production could happen.

"That's impossible," White said. "We can't do it."

The next two UFC events -- scheduled for March 28 and April 11 -- were off too.

White's focus turned to UFC 249 and the bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. Trying to save that fight, scheduled for April 18 in a location to be determined, is now the UFC's biggest priority.

Woodley wrote on Instagram that he was "shattered" by the news. He said when the UFC returns to its normal schedule, he only wants to fight Covington.

Edwards, meanwhile, will campaign for the fight with Woodley to be rebooked.

"I truly believe that he really doesn't want to fight me," Edwards said of Woodley. "He knows deep in his heart. He's finding every excuse in the book. Why are you calling Colby out for a random fight? You had a fight postponed literally an hour ago. His day is coming. We were scheduled, and we'll go again."

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Edwards hopes fight with Woodley will be rebooked

Leon Edwards tells Ariel Helwani that he still wants to fight Tyron Woodley, hopefully in London, where the bout was originally scheduled to take place.

As for Burns, he'll now get to enjoy the biggest win of his career in earnest. For the time being, all thoughts of him fighting Woodley or Covington -- or anyone fighting anyone in the UFC -- are on hold.

"Until the president talked, we were all together with the fight," Burns said. "I wasn't even celebrating the fight with Demian anymore. I was thinking of the fight with Woodley, I was thinking of the next fight."

ESPN's Marc Raimondi, Ariel Helwani and Brett Okamoto contributed to this report.