The Ultimate Fighting Championship is back.
On Saturday night, in a nearly empty arena in Jacksonville, Fla., U.F.C. 249 will make the world’s biggest mixed martial arts organization the first major North American sport to return from an industrywide shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, the U.F.C.’s president, Dana White, would have preferred not to take a hiatus at all, even as the rapid spread of the virus shut down sports events from the N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments to the Masters, and forced the N.B.A., N.H.L., M.L.B. and other leagues to suspend their schedules. Instead White pressed forward with plans to stage U.F.C. 249 on April 18, looking toward a lightweight title matchup in Brooklyn between the Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov and the American Tony Ferguson that had been years in the making.
When the New York State Athletic Commission refused to approve the event, the U.F.C. clung to its date while scouting new locations. Nurmagomedov, the U.F.C.’s lightweight champion, eventually dropped out, unable to leave his native Dagestan because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. He was replaced by Justin Gaethje, a top lightweight contender.
When the U.F.C. finally had to postpone the event, White — eager to prove the U.F.C. could host bouts safely in the midst of the health crisis — told fighters to keep training because he would find a solution.
The first answer is Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis declared pro sports an essential industry when issuing a stay-at-home order last month. The U.F.C. plans to stage two more cards in Jacksonville next week after the series begins Saturday with U.F.C. 249. Ferguson, an unorthodox striker known for bloody brawling and submissions, will face a power puncher in Gaethje during the main event, which figures to deliver excitement and a high pace.
With no competition from Major League Baseball or from hockey and basketball playoffs, U.F.C. is positioned for a big viewership win.
And yet its success will also be measured by whether it proves harmful to public health. On Friday night, U.F.C. officials said one of their fighters, Ronaldo Souza, a Brazilian middleweight nicknamed Jacare, had been pulled from U.F.C. 249 because he had tested positive for the coronavirus earlier in the day. The U.F.C. said in a statement that two of Souza’s cornermen had also tested positive for the virus.
Souza, who was not showing symptoms, told the promotion company when he arrived in Jacksonville on Wednesday that one of his relatives might have had the virus, a U.F.C. executive told ESPN, which is airing the preliminary bouts and selling the pay-per-view card.
How to Watch
All times are Eastern.
Saturday’s 11 remaining bouts, with the fight between Souza and Uriah Hall canceled, are divided among two broadcasts.
Starting at 6 p.m., six preliminary bouts will appear on ESPN, the ESPN+ streaming service, and on U.F.C. Fight Pass.
The main pay-per-view card, with five fights, will begin at 10 p.m., and will stream on ESPN+ for $64.99.
What’s different about this card?
The venue, the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, usually seats up to 15,000 people, but U.F.C. 249 will not have spectators. And the U.F.C. is limiting the number of fight-night and TV production staff members in the arena, staging this show with a crew of 150 instead of the usual 300.
Pre-fight and post-fight news conferences have been moved online, and there were no ceremonial weigh-ins on Friday night, when screaming fans and on-stage staredowns would typically have contributed to fight-week hype.
Lawrence Epstein, the chief operating officer of U.F.C., told the Sports Business Journal that about 1,200 Covid-19 tests would be used for fighters and other employees during the three events in Florida. During an online news conference on Thursday, several fighters spoke about the discomfort of having long cotton swabs shoved up their nostrils. The test was particularly uncomfortable for Gaethje, who has a blocked passage in his right nostril because of an old injury.
The fighters themselves are staying in a local hotel, and they have been given private saunas to help them shed weight and private workout rooms. Inside the arena, everyone besides the fighters is required to follow physical distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outside the arena, competitors have been aware of the absence of traveling fans.
“It’s just more calm,” said the U.F.C. bantamweight champion, Henry Cejudo, who will face Dominick Cruz in Saturday’s second-billed event. “We know we’re fighting, but it doesn’t feel like fight week. It’s deserted.”
How did the event get to this point?
When other pro sports outfits suspended operations in mid-March, White made plain his intention to stick as closely as possible to the U.F.C.’s normal schedule. He has said in interviews since then that moving forward has allowed the U.F.C. to avoid layoffs. So when New York regulators barred U.F.C. 249 from Brooklyn, the company targeted the Tachi Palace Casino Resort on tribal land in California, postponing the event only when executives from Disney, the parent company of ESPN, implored White not to go on with his California plan.
By then Gaethje had replaced Nurmagomedov in the main event, and speculation raged about where the card would land. White repeatedly talked about moving operations to a private island where fighters would fly in from around the world for events that the U.F.C. planned to hold weekly. White says “Fight Island” is still a plan, though he has not revealed specifics about its location or timing.
What can viewers expect?
Besides a nearly empty arena and people staying far apart from one another outside the octagon?
Ferguson is a relentless pressure fighter, and Gaethje has put together a string of stunning one-punch knockouts. The preliminary bouts are full of fighters matched to produce maximum violence. In the final bout of the ESPN preliminary fights, Anthony Pettis — whose wall-walking roundhouse kick to Ben Henderson’s head in 2010 became a viral highlight — will face Donald Cerrone, a fighter nicknamed Cowboy who has delivered, and received, some of the U.F.C.’s most spectacular knockouts.
Normally fighters like Cerrone and Pettis would land on the pay-per-view portion of the event, but their presence on cable TV probably isn’t a coincidence, since they are likely to deliver the kind of high-impact violence that could prompt a casual fan to purchase the main card.
What’s in it for the fighters?
For Ferguson and Gaethje, the U.F.C.’s interim lightweight championship and the right to face Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title — eventually.
Other fighters have expressed a sense of honor about participating in the first major pro sports event in the United States since mid-March. The featherweight Jeremy Stephens, for example, said he was proud of proving that he and his peers don’t fear a virus and that White was committed to keeping Americans entertained.
“The stay-at-home man is a dead man,” Stephens said two days before his scheduled fight against Calvin Kattar. He added: “It’s worth the risk. Go out there and do it, and we’re going to bring America back on top.”
Greg Hardy, a former N.F.L. defensive end who will compete in the first bout on the main card, conceded that Covid-19 presents risks, especially since he has asthma.
“I’m terrified, man,” Hardy said. “But it’s not going to stop me from making sure my boss has the most entertaining fight.”