UFC 294: Dana White overruled, flag ban is back?

Ari Emanuel, boss, and Dana White, employee | KylexTerada / USA TODAY Network, IMAGO

UFC ‘boss’ Dana White announced flags were back two weeks ago

Life moves fast. Just two weeks ago, Dana White, freshly promoted to CEO of the UFC under its new TKO corporate parent, gleefully announced that flags were back in the Octagon after a nearly two year ban.

“Flags are back,” White said at the UFC Vegas 80 post-fight presser. “I was on vacation during the Mexican Independence Day, and the no flag thing drove me crazy. So I was like, ‘Yeah, f*ck that. We’re bringing flags back.’ It drove me crazy.”

“There’s a lot of things that go on in a company this big,” White said. “You can’t micromanage everything. Sometimes things are done for the intentions of the right reasons, or whatever. Everybody in this room knows the way that I feel about a lot of things. Basically, ‘I don’t give a f*ck,’ is the answer to most things.

“Everybody’s too soft, everybody’s too sensitive about everything. When the decision was made to do this, I was just like, ‘Eh, what’s the big deal if they don’t have flags?’ Mexican Independence Day flipped the switch and I was like, ‘That’s enough of the no flags thing.’ Flags are back. If any flags hurt your feelings, too f*cking bad.”

Despite Dana’s pronouncement at the presser, there has been no official statement from the company announcing a change in their policy.

The weekend’s card is being held in Abu Dhabi and the UFC’s hosts may have different feelings (that apparently do matter) about the display of flags in the Octagon. This is especially true given the extremely tense geopolitical situation which has led the U.S. State Department to issue a “Worldwide Caution” alert for stateside travelers visiting Abu Dhabi or anywhere in the Middle East.

Apparently the flag ban is back for UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi

Like we said, life moves fast because according to at least one fighter on the UFC 294 card, the flag ban is back. Muhammad Mokaev, a Russian-born flyweight facing American Tim Elliot this weekend tweeted: “No flags at UFC 294.”

Dana White ‘loves Abu Dhabi’ announces extension of deal

Yesterday, Dana tweeted his enthusiasm for this weekend’s host country and announced a five year extension of their existing agreement.

“What’s up guys, we are here at DCT headquarters, you know how much I love Abu Dhabi, we just signed a deal to extend our partnership for many, many years to come,” Dana posted on X. “We’re going to be with these guys forever. We’ve just EXTENDED the deal, I tell you all the time, you have to come to Abu Dhabi. Listen, let the UFC be the excuse you come to Abu Dhabi, you have to come see this place it’s amazing, I could not be happier to extend our deal with these guys.”

Long-time Bloody Elbow readers will remember that Abu Dhabi hosted UFC’s “Fight Island” during the initial months of the covid pandemic which allowed the promotion to be one of the first sporting promoters holding competitions during the lockdowns.

Dana White baffled why fans in Abu Dhabi would boo India

We’ll get to more history of the UFC flag ban in a bit but there was an incident at yesterday’s UFC 294 pre-fight presser that we found very telling.

At the 25 minute mark of the video below, a reporter steps up and asks Dana about Indian fighter Anshul Jubli who is fighting on the card and the UFC “boss” seemed utterly confused as to why the local Abu Dhabi crowd was booing.

“Yeah, you know listen, you know that I’ve been looking all over the world for fighters, from every part of the world,” White said, “Yeah, We’ve been excited about India, and looking for talent throughout India, Asia, everywhere else.”

When the reporter followed up to ask when and if the UFC would hold an event in India, the boos continued and White expressed his confusion and consternation.

“What’s wrong with India? What’s everyone shitting on India for?” the baffled Bostonian enquired. “We eventually want to go everywhere. Yes sir, we will come to India. We don’t know when, we have no plan right now. But, you know I want to go everywhere.”

It’s not hard to speculate that long-standing tensions between India, a nation currently ruled by a strongly Hindu nationalist government, and its Sunni Muslim neighbor Pakistan contributed to the boos, given that the vast majority of the population in Abu Dhabi are also Sunni Muslims.

More recent developments have seen India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declare “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour” which cannot have contributed to goodwill for India in the Arab world which overwhelmingly opposes Israel’s recent actions in Gaza.

Bloody Elbow’s Zach Arnold recently warned that the rapidly changing geopolitical situation would lead to a re-institution of the flag ban, “Try waving the Israeli or Palestinian flag right now at a UFC show on foreign soil and see how flexible TKO is on their speech & expression policy when tensions flare up.” 

It’s kinda funny but also deeply concerning that a humble blogger would have a better handle on not only the geopolitical situation impacting the UFC as it travels in the Middle East but also about the internal politics of the new company Dana White now works for.

History of the UFC flag ban

MMA: UFC 235-Shahbazyan vs Byrd, Mar 2, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Edmen Shahbazyan (red gloves) defeats Charles Byrd (blue gloves) during UFC 235 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports, 02.03.2019 16:37:13, 12272353, T-Mobile Arena, Byrd, Edmen Shahbazyan, MMA PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY 12272353
Edmen Shahbazyan displayed a U.S. flag backed with the flag of a of Artsakh, a separatist region of Azerbaijan at UFC 235. | Stephen R.Sylvanie / USA TODAY Network, IMAGO

Fighters displaying flags in the Octagon has increasingly been a fraught subject as global tensions have heated up in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and now the Middle East over the last few years.

Beginning at least four years ago, UFC fighters like Max Holloway began to complain that then-UFC sponsor Reebok objected to his desire to display the Hawaiian flag at UFC 245.

“Dana had to approve me walking out with my flag,” Holloway shared. “I was like, ‘nah, we’re going to talk to Dana…’ Dana texted me and said, ‘That’s stupid as s—t kid, just walk with it.’”

Things got more serious the following year when, as Karim Zidan reported for Bloody Elbow at the time, “UFC middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan donned an Artsakh flag ahead of his UFC Vegas 5 main event bout against Derek Brunson — an aesthetic choice that caused international backlash from Turkish and Azerbaijani embassies around the world.”

That incident reportedly led to the firing of a 20-year-old UFC intern, but did not lead to a general ban on flags in the Octagon.

In recent weeks things have heated up even more in that region as Armenia pulled support from the breakaway republic and Azerbaijan took back control and forced the migration of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians.

The UFC has never exactly stated why they banned flags in early 2022, but it presumably has to do with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here’s what Dana White said at the time:

“You guys know why,” White told reporters when asked about the decision at the UFC 274 post-fight presser. “Let’s not even play that f—king game.”

Dana White might want to watch the fate of Vince McMahon closely

When then-UFC-parent company Endeavor announced its acquisition of the WWE and that they would be merging it with the UFC to form a new company, TKO, we attempted to warn fans that the days of Dana White and Vince McMahon running their respective empires were numbered.

Fan reaction was dismissive or negative to say the least. But, I just wanted to point out some WWE news: “Vince McMahon stripped of creative control at WWE.

As pro-wrestling business guru Dave Meltzer wrote about the situation:

n April, when the announcement was made that Endeavor had put together a merger of WWE and UFC, and the new corporate structure was listed, Emanuel was on top as CEO while McMahon was underneath him as the Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors.

“When CNBC interviewed McMahon and Emanuel after the merger was announced, Emanuel said that McMahon would remain in charge of WWE. When asked specifically if there was a disagreement between the two of them, what would happen, and Emanuel said that if there was a disagreement, they would do what McMahon wanted as it pertained to wrestling.

“But it was only a few weeks into the new company being finalized last month that Emanuel made the move of removing McMahon from the creative side. Between that and his quote last week regarding the reasons for the decline of TKO stock and Emanuel mentioning McMahon’s name, this becomes a very interesting situation.”

Watch your back Dana or, maybe look at some maps and watch some news coverage of the regions in which you are operating.

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About the author

Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of BloodyElbow.com. As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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