Coronavirus pandemic

MMA: Despite empty stadium, first UFC live event in pandemic 'worked out great'

Despite Jacare infection and empty stands, first US event in pandemic 'worked out great'

Justin Gaethje (left) hurting Tony Ferguson en route to a technical knockout victory in the fifth round of their UFC 249 lightweight bout on Saturday.
Justin Gaethje (left) hurting Tony Ferguson en route to a technical knockout victory in the fifth round of their UFC 249 lightweight bout on Saturday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JACKSONVILLE • The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on Saturday night pulled off the first major sporting event on American soil in two months, leading President Donald Trump to congratulate the world's biggest mixed martial arts promotion.

The controversial card put the UFC in the spotlight like never before, but it did not go off without a hitch after middleweight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza was dropped when he and two of his cornermen tested positive for Covid-19 last Friday.

The UFC and its president, Dana White, have been blasted for staging UFC 249 - which took place behind closed doors - amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite having strict health and safety protocols, like the wearing of face masks and safe distancing, in place.

Jacare's positive test was more ammunition for its critics, but the road bump caused by the Brazilian's enforced withdrawal failed to derail the event, which went ahead in Jacksonville, Florida.

State authorities in Florida have deemed professional sports as "essential businesses", making MMA the first sport to return in North America since the crisis spiralled out of control in March.

White was delighted to hold the fight card despite earlier hurdles, including failed attempts to host it in New York and California - both due to restrictions on live public events.

"It worked out great," he said. "I am happy with the way it went tonight."

Mr Trump was equally thrilled, saying in a video that was shown on the undercard: "Get the sports leagues back, let's play. You do the social distancing and whatever you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back."

That thirst for live sports meant the UFC reportedly doubled the pay-per-view buys of UFC 244, 245, 247 and 248 in countries like Canada and Australia, amounting to around 1.5 million-plus PPV buys. UFC 246 was headlined by its biggest star Conor McGregor.

Downplaying the negative impact of Jacare's positive test, White insisted it showed they were on top of things, adding: "Obviously, the system that we set up works.

"We found out he was positive and all the other tests were negative. We have two more fights this week. We will do over 1,100 tests."

  • 1.5

  • million pay-per-view packages UFC sold for its latest bouts.

There will be two other smaller fight cards for Wednesday and Saturday in Jacksonville.

While White is expecting more positive Covid-19 tests as they are "testing that much", he believes the health and safety measures imposed means all those involved will be safe, with any infected personnel receiving top medical care.

Fighters are unlikely to raise objections as they have to sign a participation agreement, in which a clause states that if they claim the precautions being taken were inadequate, it would constitute a contract breach, leading to possible revocation of prize money.

White told Yahoo it would only be violated if "something that is not true" was said.

 

The main event saw underdog Justin Gaethje dominate No. 1 contender Tony Ferguson with a fifth-round technical knockout victory in the lightweight division.

Gaethje finished off his American compatriot, who came into the fight on a 12-win streak, in the fifth round to lift the interim crown.

And he signalled his intent to challenge for the title of Russia's unbeaten champion Khabib Nurmagomedov by tossing aside his interim belt before saying: "I'll wait for the real one".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2020, with the headline 'UFC passes lockdown test'. Subscribe