Is UFC a good model for the return of pro sports?

Some see UFC mixed martial arts as a blueprint for other sports seeking to resume play. But others say it's not following public health guidelines.

AP Photo/John Raoux
Fighters battle without spectators during a UFC 249 mixed martial arts bout on May 9, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla.

UFC President Dana White wanted a major fight card weeks ago. He was confident his team could pull it off whether it took place on a tribal land, on a private island, or in any of the 10 states offering to host it.

Coronavirus testing. Fan-free arena. Social distancing. Self-isolation. Mr. White looked at all those unprecedented details that seemed too complex and too risky to some outsiders as merely extra challenges.

“I knew we could do this,” he said following UFC 249 on Saturday night. “I knew we could figure it out. Even with all the hurdles that we had early on, this has been fun. It’s been challenging and it’s been fun.

“I know that sounds a little demented to say I’ve had fun going through this. It’s been challenging and I’ve enjoyed the whole game of it, if you will.”

What made this event in Jacksonville's Veterans Memorial Arena by Mr. White and the UFC noteworthy was that it could serve as a blueprint for other sports leagues around the country and the world as they start to resume during a global pandemic.

The NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR, all of them had to have an eye on how the UFC approached and handled the first major human-centric sporting event in the United States since the new coronavirus shuttered much of the country nearly two months ago. The UFC created a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, which included disinfecting the octagon between bouts and mandating tests and masks for nearly everyone in attendance.

“I want to congratulate Dana White and the UFC,” President DonaldTrump said in a video featured at the pay-per-view ESPN event. “... Get the sports leagues back; let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back."

The spotlight on the fight only intensified when one fighter, Jacaré Souza, and two of his cornermen tested positive for COVID-19 a day before the stacked card.

Mr. Souza was pulled from the fight and removed from the hotel where hundreds of UFC employees are staying this week. The UFC’s medical team continues to provide assistance and is helping with necessary treatment, Mr. White said.

But UFC was criticized for how it handled Mr. Souza and his cornermen. Zachary Binney, an adjunct instructor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, tweeted Saturday that White and the UFC “were negligent” in restarting so soon, adding, “If this was your system working as designed, your system is bogus.” He went on to question the UFC on social distancing, in part because it allowed Souza to attend the weigh-in after he notified officials he had been exposed, the Washington Post reported.

The UFC has two more fight nights scheduled this week in Jacksonville, beginning Wednesday, and plans to administer more than 1,000 more coronavirus tests for everyone scheduled to take part.

“However it was handled this week, this was our first week,” Mr. White said. “It will only get better. And we can share what we learned here doing three events with other sports leagues who are reaching out to us and asking.

“A lot can be learned by what we’re doing here. Not just for professional sports but for sending people back to work and lot of other things in life.”

Mr. White said he never considered postponing UFC 249 following Mr. Souza’s positive test and got support from the Florida Athletic Commission, the governor, and local authorities.

The show went on and, by most accounts, got rave reviews.

Justin Gaethje stunned Tony Ferguson in the main event, earning a TKO in a lightweight bout that set the winner up to fight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov next. Henry Cejudo, with blood gushing from his head and dripping down his chest, defended his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz and then announced his retirement.

Heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou pummeled his fourth straight opponent, this one in 20 seconds. Former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy won for the sixth time in eight fights. And former welterweight champion and fan favorite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone lost on the undercard, his fourth consecutive defeat.

About the only negative was the empty arena, where punches, kicks, grunts, steps, trash talk, corner coaching, and TV commentary echoed off metal beams and vacant seats.

“It was weird,” Mr. White conceded. “There’s so many things that you love about live sports, whether you’re home, in a bar, or there live. One of the big, key components to live sports are the group of people that you’re with and the energy that you get when cool things happen.

“Tonight was an amazing event, but that was definitely missing tonight, these moments. … It’s all part of what makes this so great.”

Finding a way to recreate those missing moments could be the next challenge, one Mr. White surely would welcome as long as the show goes on.

“We’re still figuring this whole thing out,” he said. "This was the first one. It was a success. Wednesday will be better. Saturday will be better than that.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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