Former Ultimate Fighting Champion Rose Namajunas withdrew from the now-cancelled UFC 249 event after two of her family members died due to illnesses related to coronavirus.

UFC president Dana White confirmed that pressure from broadcaster’s ESPN and owner’s Disney resulted in a U-turn to cancel next weekend’s event, which was due to go ahead in California despite the coronavirus pandemic that has now seen the United States classified as the new epicentre.

Former UFC strawweight women’s champion Namajunas was due to face Jessica Andrade in the co-main event, a rematch of their UFC 237 encounter when Andrade took the championship off Namajunas after knocking her out. But the fight was scrapped on Thursday night when it was revealed that Namajunas had withdrawn, with her manager confirming that the decision was for compassionate reasons after two fatalities within her family.

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“Rose withdrew from UFC 249 due to two deaths in the family related to the Coronavirus,” said Brian Butler, Namajunas’s manager, when speaking to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani. 

“She hopes to return to the octagon as soon as possible but for now, we ask for people to respect their privacy during this time.”

The news of the Namajunas family’s tragedy adds to the controversy that surrounded the UFC’s desire to press on with events, despite the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in the US reaching 16,600 this week, with 1,783 new deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Johns Hopkins University.

UFC president White was determined to press ahead with plans to stage UFC 249, having agreed to relocate the event from New York’s Barclays Center to the Tachi Palace Casino resort in California, located on Native American land some 200 miles north-west of Los Angeles.

But pressure from ESPN – who own the broadcast rights to the UFC in the US – as well as Disney resulted in White receiving phone calls “from the very top” that made it clear the event could not go ahead in the midst of a global crisis.

“I was ready to go on Saturday, but Disney and ESPN asked me to step down,” White said. “The powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event next Saturday.

“I love and respect my partnership with them so I postponed the event.”

He added that he “got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney and the highest level of ESPN”, which forced the sudden U-turn.

An ESPN statement added: “ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249. Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons. ESPN expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood.”

The Tachi Palace Casino Resort is owned by the Santa Rosa Indian Community of the Tachi Yokut Tribe, and White confirmed that he plans to stage a “big fight” in the future at the Casino Resort as gratitude for them coming to the UFC’s aid at short notice.

“Tachi Palace has had our back this whole time, has stood their ground and was willing to do this fight,” White added. “Let me tell you this, when the world gets back to normal the California event will be at Tachi Palace.

“I’m doing a fight there, I’m bringing them a big fight and I appreciate them standing with me in this thing.”

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