MMA: Combatants adapt to new normal at UFC 249 as Ultimate Fighting Championship plots recovery

UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson saw fit to wear a mask in a first-ever "virtual media day".
UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson saw fit to wear a mask in a first-ever "virtual media day".PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM WEBEX

SINGAPORE - It is not quite business as usual, but sport will begin to wake from its Covid-enforced slumber when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) holds its UFC 249 event on Saturday (May 9) in Jacksonville, Florida.

The global coronavirus pandemic has ground almost all sport to a halt since March, with the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by a year the most notable casualty. Most football leagues in Europe have also called premature ends to their seasons, although the English Premier League is mulling a June resumption while the German Bundesliga has announced a May 16 return.

Mixed martial arts giant the UFC, though, will hold the distinction of becoming the first major sport entity to resume holding events, with UFC 249 the first of three events scheduled to take place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena over seven days, all held behind closed doors.

Its fighters, while adjusting to the circumstances, are relishing the privilege.

Even Tony Ferguson, the eccentric fighter who trains by swinging a sledgehammer in the air while balancing on an inflated exercise ball, and does backflips off a Segway, saw fit to wear a mask when he faced the press in a first-ever "virtual media day" in the lead-up to fight night.

The virtual session, "attended" by journalists all over the globe, replaced the usual media day, where journalists, videographers and photographers conduct scrum interviews around fighters two days before each event.

"Right now there is no Olympics," said Ferguson, whose fight with compatriot Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title will be the main event of UFC 249.

"There is no Wimbledon. There are no NBA drafts, no NFL drafts. There is no soccer, hockey, or baseball.

"This what we bring to the table, and we are going out there and do our best and we are going to keep sports alive. That is what we are going to do."

Added Gaethje: "This is going to bring a sense of normalcy to people, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

"People need to be inspired right now. They need to not let themselves become depressed, emotional because they can't control what is going on right now. We have got to ride it through."

 
 
 

UFC 249 was initially scheduled to take place in Brooklyn on April 18, with Ferguson challenging for lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov's title. But with the Russian unable to make it to the United States because of Covid-19 travel bans, Gaethje was brought in as his replacement.

UFC president Dana White, who has courted criticism for his zeal in bringing back UFC events even as the United States grapples with a rising death toll from Covid-19 - currently at 76,000 - has insisted that the organisation has taken all the necessary precautions.

Fighters and their teams underwent coronavirus nasal swab tests upon arrival in Jacksonville, and in addition to barring fans, only about 150 people will be inside the 15,000-capacity arena on Saturday.

Commentators Joe Rogan, Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier, usually sat abreast of each other, will be located at different parts of the Octagon to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, and no post-fight interviews will be conducted.

White, who submitted a 30-page safety protocol document to state authorities, told the Los Angeles Times: "Somebody has to dive in and take the lead on this thing, and I'm going to do that. When my event is over, people will see that it can be done safely."

For Ferguson, UFC 249 will be the latest step in his long quest for the recognition his seven-year, 12-fight win streak - equal with Nurmagomedov - deserves. His journey was almost derailed by a serious knee injury in April 2018, but "El Cucuy" (the boogeyman) is only focused on despatching Gaethje.

"I'm not worried about a piece of hardware, I've got the real title," he said, referring to his lightweight interim title win in 2016 which he was later stripped of.

"I don't fight for legacy, I fight for family and friends (and) I've been preparing since September.

"The only thing I care about is going out there and giving my best. We're fortunate to have sports back and I'm honoured to be the main event."

UFC 249: Ferguson v Gaethje will air live in Singapore on FOX Sports (Singtel Ch114 & StarHub Ch 208) on Sunday (May 10) from 10am.