UFC 249 defies pandemic practices

UFC 249 defies pandemic practices

Photo Credits: TESSA KOGA / AGGIE

Event goes on despite heavy criticism, satisfies sports-hungered fans

Advertised as one of the most stacked cards in recent history, UFC 249 brought an official end to the near two-month sports drought last saturday, amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

After first trying relentlessly to make the event happen back on April 18, UFC president Dana White released a statement marking May 9 as the official date of the event in Jacksonville, Florida. Even though stay-at-home orders had been lifted in some states, sporting events were still not allowed. In the state of Florida, however, employees of professional sports organizations are considered essential workers, thus giving White the ability to bring the event to the mainstage.

Headlined by a lightweight championship bout between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, UFC 249 was held in an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Although the event was approved to go on despite safety concerns, questions were raised regarding whether the UFC had the capabilities to continue while also ensuring public safety. 

White’s resistance to public and governmental scrutiny is nothing new — he has defied many critics throughout his career. But this seems like his biggest risk so far. 

Outlined in a 30-page health and safety precautions document, the UFC presented its plan for keeping the event sanitized and safe. The document has not been released to the public, but UFC did provide details about certain precautions that it was taking. White told Yahoo Sports there would only be about 150 people from the company in the building on fight night, and distancing would be a priority. 

  “We’re gonna go so overboard making sure everybody is healthy and safe that I just don’t see how we can possibly f— this up,” White told Sports Illustrated. 

White’s claim seemed to hold true, as it was reported that the company used 1,200 coronavirus tests on 300 people throughout the week leading up to the fight. Fighters were tested upon arrival to the hotel housing all fighters. 

“It’s just more calm,” said bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo in an interview with ESPN. “Obviously, we know we’re fighting, but it doesn’t feel like fight week. It’s deserted, which is actually kind of peaceful.”

During the week leading up to the fight, it looked as if there was a possibility the event would go on without any concern. That ended, however, on the Friday before the event, when one of the fighters tested positive for COVID-19. Ronaldo Souza was scheduled to fight Uriah Hall, but was immediately pulled after he and two of his cornermen tested positive for the virus. 

Souza arrived in Jacksonville from Orlando, where he was staying with family and training for the event. Upon arrival, he informed UFC that a family member may have been infected. At Friday’s weigh-in, Souza arrived wearing a mask and gloves, still awaiting the results from his test. Once the test came back positive, all three men left the host hotel and self-isolated off the premises. 

Unsurprisingly, questions and criticism were abound after the positive test result. But the event would go on as planned. All 23 other athletes tested negative for the virus, so the card would continue with 11 fights. 

When it came to fight night, the event itself ran rather smoothly. Besides the fighters themselves, nearly all who were present wore a mask and gloves. The set-up was different from any previous UFC event, as announcers, crew members and others were separated in order to follow social distancing guidelines. 

The card was both exciting and filled with great fights. Four of the five matches on the main card ended in technical knockouts, including the main event between Ferguson and Gaethje, which resulted in Gaethje pulling off the upset. 

The one action that raised some eyebrows came from color commentator and post-fight interviewer Joe Rogan. It’s tradition at UFC fights for Rogan to join the fighters after the bout to interview them, but the UFC announced prior to the event that these in-ring interviews would not be held. Instead, fighters would be taken to an isolated area outside of the cage where they would be interviewed by Rogan from a separate location. 

It is unknown what changed, but after the conclusion of all but a few fights, Rogan joined the fighters in the octagon and proceeded to interview them normally. Wearing no gloves or mask, he stood right beside them and even shook the hands of some fighters after the interview was over. This went against the safety precautions the company stated it would follow. 

Nevertheless, the event served sports fans their first taste of new action in almost two months. It was a great event, but questions remain about whether it should have even been held to begin with. 

White made it clear that he fought hard to make this event happen, and even secured the support of President Donald Trump. But that doesn’t mean the decision to hold it was a perfect one. 

The weigh-ins were held in the host hotel ballroom and included the traditional faceoff. Faceoffs are typically done for promotional purposes, so why this was instituted is unknown. This was unnecessary given the circumstances and the fact that the UFC was going to proceed with the fights the next day regardless. Doing this before the fighters’ tests results came back appeared irresponsible. 

Souza, who eventually tested positive, did not yet know his results when he arrived at the weigh-in. Although he had a mask and gloves on, he faced-off against his opponent and fist-bumped White as he left. To make matters worse, White did not wear gloves or a mask during the face-offs, hugging and fist-bumping everyone.

The criticism leading up to the event came from almost all places but one. Interestingly enough, no one who was set to participate in the event had anything critical to say. Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports, reported that all participating fighters and their teams were required to sign a contract stating that they would be in danger of losing their purse and bonuses if they said anything negative about the UFC’s protocols. 

White doubled down on this claim, telling Yahoo Sports that these types of agreements had been in place for other events and would only come into play if the claims made by someone were untrue. That explanation seems fair, but a third party who chose to remain anonymous shared the non-disparagement clause of the document, showing that that may not have been the case. 

Fighters in the UFC have rarely been vocal due to the nature of the company. Since White is in charge of the money and making the fights happen, some athletes fear that saying or doing anything that goes against the UFC could negatively affect their careers. 

“My fighters and my employees have been told: If you’re not comfortable coming back to work, you don’t have to,” White said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. 

Fighters only get paid when they step into the octagon, so refusing to do so because of the pandemic may have an impact on their future long after this is over. White’s fear tactics have long been criticized by former fighters, and it seems as if UFC-249’s non-disparagement clause is another one of those tactics.  

“We don’t need it decided in the court of public opinion,” said Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, the live-events conglomerate and primary owner of the UFC.

Continuing with the event was obviously done without regard to public opinion. The value that the event brought outweighed any other concerns in the eyes of both the UFC and ESPN. Only time will tell what impact this may have on sports going forward, but it is possible that the layout presented last saturday night may be one that leagues like the NBA and MLB replicate. 

White has tried for years to grow the UFC and make it as big as other major sports organizations. UFC 249 was another example of how far he is willing to go. Being the only official sporting event taking place in the U.S. at the time, all eyes were on the UFC, just what White has always wanted. It seems likely that more events will continue regardless of what else is going on in the world, but whatever happens, good or bad, it will be on White. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org