UFC 249 gets Mixed Martial Arts back underway behind closed doors in Florida

Blood, sweat, swollen eyelids and face masks have signalled the return of UFC, the first major sporting event to resume since the coronavirus put on hold sporting events across the world for months.

UFC 249 ushered in a new look for sports, too. One without fans and with several safety precautions.

It was definitely different — two fighters adjusted their approaches because of what they heard announcers say.

It was a welcome reprieve for a sports-craved country that went nearly eight weeks without any live events.

Nearly five hours after President Donald Trump congratulated UFC for restarting the sports world, Justin Gaethje stunned heavily favoured Tony Ferguson (26-4) in the main event, earning a TKO in the fifth and final round of the headliner that was deemed an interim lightweight title bout.

It essentially gives Gaethje (22-2) the right to fight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov next. Nurmagomedov was unable to fight this weekend because of travel restrictions.

Gaethje flipped himself out of the octagon and back in after the victory.

“I want the real one,” he said as he threw down the interim belt.

The stacked fight card saw 33-year-old Henry Cejudo, with blood gushing from his forehead and running down his chest, defend his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz and then announce his retirement in the middle of the octagon.


It also included heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou pummel another opponent Jairzinho Rozsenstruick, to win for the sixth time in eight fights and former welterweight champion and fan favourite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone lose his fourth straight.

Mr Trump was part of the event as well. His taped message was played during ESPN’s broadcast of the undercard.

“I want to congratulate (UFC President) Dana White and the UFC,” Mr Trump said.

“They’re going to have a big match. We love it. We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. Do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back.”

UFC 249 was originally scheduled for April 18 in New York, but was postponed as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

UFC is holding three shows in eight days in Jacksonville, where state officials deemed professional sports with a national audience exempt from a stay-at-home order as long as “the location is closed to the general public”.

The UFC came up with a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, procedures that led to Jacaré Souza testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

His middleweight bout against Uriah Hall was cancelled late on Friday. Souza’s two cornermen also tested as positive, the UFC said in a statement.

“All three men have left the host hotel and will be self-isolating off premises, where UFC’s medical team will monitor their conditions remotely and will provide assistance with any necessary treatment,” the UFC said.

The positive results surely increased the focus on the event. Every other sport is watching closely to see how it plays out.

White previously said Mr Trump wanted the event to serve as a blueprint for the return of live sports.

White said he did not want to postpone any fights. He is still hoping to create a “Fight Island” for future cards, but settled on Jacksonville for at least a week — with social-distancing rules in place and no fans.

A cameraman wears a face-mask as he points his camera at two MMA fighters.
The camera crew were among those taking protective measures at UFC 249.(AP: John Raoux)

Judges and broadcasters were separated. Fighters, trainers, referees, judges, UFC staff and even outside media had to undergo COVID-19 testing to get inside Veterans Memorial Arena.

But not everyone followed the rules. White mingled and bumped fists with nearly every fighter during official weigh-ins held inside a hotel ballroom on Friday.

Souza arrived wearing gloves and a mask while he awaited his test results. But he had alerted UFC officials that a family member in Orlando, where he was testing, might have tested positive for the coronavirus.

His opponent, Hall, wore a mask and kept his distance. White stood between them without a mask.

Many of those in attendance on Saturday wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate. Referees, ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring girl were unmasked.

A man wearing a face-mask uses a big pump to spray sanitiser in an MMA ring between bouts.
Organisers were taking no chances during UFC 249, with regular spraying of sanitiser to protect fighters and others involved.(AP: John Raoux)

The cage floor was disinfected between bouts, and the padded parts of the octagon were wiped down between rounds.

Without fans, though, sounds that usually would be muted or completely drowned out filled the desolate arena.

Fighters said it affected their bouts. Greg Hardy and Carla Esparza said they altered their approach after hearing commentators during early rounds.

“It’s hard to assess without the crowd,” Anthony Pettis said after beating Cerrone in a wild welterweight fight.

“I saw his head pop, but there was nothing behind it, so it’s hard to tell.”



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