On a man-made island in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, a small group of fighters are readying for UFC 251. Over the next two weeks, starting on July 11, Yas Island, U.A.E., will be transformed into an MMA paradise.
It’s one of the most ambitious moments in the sport’s history. Riche McKnight is a big reason why it’s happening at all, and yet it’s likely few people know this, or even who he is.
This is Riche McKnight.
On paper, he is the general counsel for the UFC, and the deputy general counsel and co-head of litigation for Endeavor. But what he means to the UFC is much more than that.
A calming presence and an encyclopedic resource, McKnight is the person that gets called to the bargaining table when negotiations get intense. People who have been in the room with him remember a poised and logical presence who can calm a frenetic space. And during this time of mass chaos and pandemic panic, he has been one of the main architects of UFC’s plan to stabilize the sport and move forward.
“He’s really taken over, and in many ways, redefined our entire legal operations,” said Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s chief operating officer and former general counsel. “That’s everything from the highest level, dealing with our private equity investors, to our entire HR function, to dealing with the intense day-to-day legal nature of our business. We would not be functioning at the level that we’re at, pulling off events in this atmosphere, without somebody like Riche.”
To truly understand how the UFC has survived during the pandemic, and is in position to put on one of its most memorable series of fights ever, focus on two things: a thorough testing program and McKnight’s role in building it.
As the UFC’s testing program emerged from a primordial soup of ideas and thoughts, to something palpable, McKnight’s brainstorming and overall guidance helped it become a reality. The testing protocols for Fight Island required the athletes and their corners to take COVID-19 tests 24-to-48 hours before leaving for Abu Dhabi on UFC-arranged charters, and then fighters are tested twice after arriving, then there’s a post-fight test.
They entire UFC ecosystem is inside a bubble where occupants are given temperature checks at night, and the UFC enforces social distancing at all times.
Only after all of those testing hurdles are cleared, the UFC says, are the athletes allowed to fight. Some parts of this will likely be used for all UFC fights moving forward. McKnight helped put this all together, and will be a part of anything the UFC crafts in the future.
The UFC is spending $125 per test, according to a person familiar with the league’s testing program, and it’s already conducted thousands of them on personnel and fighters, with likely thousands more to come. Despite the hefty price, the testing protocol has worked in real time and has been well worth the investment. Welterweight title challenger Gilbert Burns was removed from the card last week after he tested positive.
The UFC’s testing regimen arose out of a contentious brainstorming meeting that happened not long before the UFC resumed events in May. Eight senior UFC executives, including McKnight, were trying to decide the best way to restart the fights.
At one point two people in the room got into an extremely heated argument (McKnight didn’t want to say what the argument was about). Things eventually calmed, and at the end of the meeting the two people hugged. The next day, they were laughing together.
“It was one of the most memorable moments of my career,” said McKnight, “because I saw how things got passionate, and then they moved on. That’s how things should be.”
This is also Riche McKnight.
After graduating from Duke, where he became a close friend and confidante of Grant Hill, McKnight got his J.D. from the University of Virginia’s School of Law. Before that he was a partner at the New York firm Winston & Strawn, an executive director at Morgan Stanley and he clerked for a judge on the Fourth Circuit of Appeals.
After four years at Winston & Strawn, from 2011 to 2015, he landed at Endeavor. At every stop McKnight came to be known not only for his sharp intellect but his warm generosity of spirit.
“He really is a rock, someone you can trust and lean on,” said longtime labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who worked with McKnight at Winston & Strawn. “He is one of the smartest and most grounded people I’ve ever known.”
Kessler remembers how McKnight persistently recruited him to join an organization called the Center for Family Representation, which helps mostly parents of color who are in danger of losing their kids to the foster care system. Kessler is now a board member.
“I’m now completely dedicated, and it’s all because of Riche,” Kessler said. “He puts you in the shoes of others so you understand.
“Some of us, particularly in a work environment, we forget or suppress our humanity,” Kessler added. “He encourages people to never forget it.”
Born to parents who grew up in the segregated South, McKnight has always been acutely aware of the issue of race in America. Seeing so much of the country take notice and move toward racial equality in recent months has heartened McKnight, even if it reminds him of his own painful experience with police. While growing up in Greenville, S.C., he was once returning from playing basketball with friends when two police cars arrived in front of his home. Officers jumped out, drew their guns and pointed them at McKnight.
A neighbor who didn’t recognize McKnight had called them. He was about 15-years old.
“I hate that it’s taken so long for us to get to this point,” he said, “but I’m so happy that we’re examining these issues.”
This, too, is Riche McKnight.
He inspires loyalty, and a deep sense of friendship, from people around him. One of those people is Grant Hill.
“He is one of the most talented people in sports in the country,” said Hill, who has sought McKnight’s counsel for decades. “In a lot of ways, he’s a legend. People who know him really admire him. He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known.”
It’s only a matter of time before many more people know his name.