Greg Hardy takes a unanimous decision by outworking Yorgan De Castro.
Greg Hardy was clearly the better athlete. The former All-Pro defensive lineman is long-limbed and limber, and quicker than Yorgan De Castro, his opponent in the heavyweight bout that opened the pay-per-view portion of U.F.C. 249.
But in the first round De Castro, a Cape Verde native now fighting out of Brocton, Mass., appeared to be the superior fighter, landing several sharp right hands to Hardy’s head, and series of chopping kicks to Hardy’s left thigh.
Then an apparent toe injury slowed De Castro midway through Round 2, allowing the 31-year-old Hardy to seize the initiative.
Afterward, Hardy said he blocked De Castro’s leg kick when he heard commentator Daniel Cormier suggest it at ringside. In an empty arena, the fighters can hear the broadcasters’ every word, and Hardy credited Cormier’s commentary with turning the fight in his favor.
Hardy (5-2, 1 no contest) recorded his first win of 2020, after competing five times in 2019.
The quiet arena is affecting the fights themselves.
The absence of a crowd isn’t just affecting how viewers at home experience the presentation of the bouts, it is affecting the outcome of the fights themselves. Without 15,000 screaming fans, the fighters can actually hearing the commentary from television announcers Jon Anik, Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier, who are seated just outside the octagon.
After he won via a doctor’s stoppage, Vicente Luque said he could hear Rogan calling for his opponent to choke him. Carla Esparza said that not only could she could hear Cormier, but that she actually took advice from his commentary and changed her tactics. Perhaps it worked: She won via split decision.
As the pay-per-view card began, Cormier and Rogan leaned into the weirdness of the event, which is under scrutiny as the first major U.S. sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the top leagues.
“I don’t understand why we’re so far away from each other but we’re so close right now. None of this makes any sense,” Rogan said during a conversation with Anik and Cormier as they stood in the same shot before moving back to their seats at separate tables.
Anthony Pettis takes a wild third round and the fight.
Donald Cerrone landed a right kick to Anthony Pettis’s face. He knocked Matt Brown unconscious with a similar shot in 2016, but Pettis took it and kept fighting. Pettis had controlled much of Round 3 until then, but Cerrone’s thunderous right kick tilted the momentum his way.
For but a moment.
Overall, the judges favored Pettis, awarding him the bout 29-28 on all three cards.
Cerrone and Pettis are close going into the last round.
One more close round. Donald Cerrone completed another takedown. Anthony Pettis landed heavy blows to Cerrone’s body — a left hook and a spinning back kick.
Somebody has to win.
These two fighters are 0-5 combined in their most recent fights.
Cerrone hurt in Round 1 vs. Pettis.
Donald Cerrone finished the first round against Anthony Pettis with swelling on his face, but at least he finished the first round.
Cerrone, who is better known as Cowboy, has lost his last three bouts, and was stopped in the first round of his previous two. He and Pettis competed evenly in Round 1, with Cerrone landing a takedown, and Pettis connecting with several clean punches.
As heavyweight Aleksei Oleinik pressed forward in the opening round, his cornermen shouted for him to hit Fabricio Werdum’s body.
Seemed like a good idea.
Werdum entered the octagon with the sloping shoulders and fleshy midsection of a middle-aged dad — he’ll turn 43 in July. Oleinik had trimmed some body fat since his last U.F.C. fight nearly four months ago, but was actually the older of the two combatants by a month.
So while Oleinik dominated Round 1, by midway through the second, the bout looked exactly like a matchup between fighters whose combined age was 84. The pace of Oleinik’s attack slowed. Werdum managed to land a few punches, and wrestled Oleinik to the mat. They traded blows in the final round and the final buzzer sounded without a decisive winner.
In the end, two judges favored Oleinik’s power punching, awarding him a split decision. The win marked Oleinik’s 59th victory in 73 pro bouts. Werdum, a former U.F.C. heavyweight champion, dropped to 23-8-1.
Strawweight contenders Carla Esparza and Michelle Waterson spent two-and-a-half rounds in a tense, tactical, tightly contested chess match.
Then a fight erupted in the final 30 seconds.
Waterson, a karate expert fighting out of Albuquerque, N.M., landed a left roundhouse kick to Esparza’s body. Esparza absorbed the blow but trapped Waterson’s leg and tried to drag her to the mat, where Esparza’s experience as a college wrestler would give her an advantage. Waterson escaped and Esparza landed a left-right combination. Esparza kept pursuing and Waterson swatted her across the face with a left roundhouse kick.
In a bout without a clear winner, the opinions among the judges were divided. One scored all three rounds for Esparza, while another awarded all three to Waterson. Esparza (16-6) prevailed on the third judge’s card to win her third straight U.F.C. bout.
Niko Price’s body didn’t give out, even after nearly three rounds of trading punches and kicks at midrange near the center of the octagon. And his fighting spirit didn’t break, even as blood streamed from a cut below his right eye and dripped from another cut above it.
But after welterweight Vicente Luque landed a perfectly timed counter left hook late in Round 3, Price hit the canvas. When the referee called timeout, the fight doctor looked at Price’s quickly swelling right eye, and the two cuts near it, and advised the referee to stop the bout.
Until then, Luque and Price had engaged in a brutal bout that resembled bare-knuckled kickboxing. Luque landed a big right hand over Price’s lazy left jab. Price connected with a front kick to Luque’s chin. Both fighters landed thudding kicks to each other’s thighs.
Luque looked drained late in Round 2, but in the late phases of the third landed the explosive left hook that ended the fight. The win was the 18th of Luque’s career, while Price drops to 14-4.
The U.F.C. had fighters agree to not criticize its handling of the coronavirus.
The news that fighter Ronaldo Souza, known as Jacare, and two of his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus Friday night drove home how difficult it is to safely hold events during this pandemic. But if any other fighters have concerns, you probably will not hear about them, as the U.F.C. clamped down on criticism of its health and safety guidelines.
U.F.C. 249 fighters could lose significant amounts of money if they “suggest or communicate” that the event is being held “without appropriate health, safety or other precautions,” according to a copy of a participation agreement obtained by The New York Times. If fighters violate this provision, the U.F.C. may “revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won by the Participant.” These can include “purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties.”
Asked for a comment on the contract, a spokeswoman for the U.F.C. pointed to an interview Dana White did with Yahoo Sports, where he said that only untrue statements about the U.F.C.’s health and safety procedures would violate the non-disparagement clause.
Nothing in the agreement obtained by The Times said that only untrue statements can be punished.
President Trump congratulated the U.F.C. on holding the event.
A surprise guest made an appearance early in the streaming portion of the telecast: President Trump.
A prerecorded video from the president was played between the second and third fights of the night. “I want to congratulate Dana White and the U.F.C. They’re going to have a big match,” he said, adding: “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 friendship between President Trump and White dates back nearly 20 years. The first U.F.C. event after White took over the mixed martial arts promotion company, U.F.C. 30 in 2001, was held at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. White praised President Trump for supporting the U.F.C. when many casinos and arenas wouldn’t host their fights, and he paid back the favor by speaking in support of then-candidate Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
On Friday afternoon, the U.F.C. featherweight contender Bryce Mitchell posted a photo of himself engaged in a post-weigh-in staredown with his opponent, Charles Rosa.
“Time to cook em to the bone,” the caption read.
A day later Mitchell, a 25-year-old submission specialist, spent three rounds mauling Rosa, dragging him to the canvas and running him though an endless series of chokes, arm cranks and other holds designed to make opponents quit.
Rosa, a 33-year-old jiu-jitsu black belt, figured to challenge Mitchell if their bout turned into a grappling match, but the third time Mitchell pretzeled himself around Rosa and yanked on his arm, it was clear which fighter was more skilled in fighting on the ground.
Mitchell won on all three judges’ cards and is now 13-0, with nine wins by submission. Rosa moves to 12-4 overall.
Ryan Spann finished the fight wobbly. Veteran light-heavyweight Sam Alvey hit him hard several times in the final round of the opening bout of U.F.C. 249, catching Spann with a short right hook, and later landing a flurry of blows before the final horn.
But Spann, a 28-year-old contender, had already won the first two rounds, and emerged with a split-decision win.
A second-round kick to Alvey’s head drew a reaction from octagon-side announcers and likely would have triggered cheers from spectators. Except Spann and Alvey met in a near-empty arena, with fans prohibited because of the coronavirus pandemic. Their bout had the feel of an exhibition, with the venue so quiet the camera’s mics picked up instructions from the fighters’ corners and even the athletes’ breathing.
Spann used well-timed front kicks and right hands to control the first two rounds and improved his overall pro record to 18-5. Saturday’s loss was Alvey’s fourth straight defeat.
As televised live sports ground to a halt in mid-March, sports channels turned to their archives and served up a heaping portion of classic games. When there have been live events to show — the W.N.B.A. and N.F.L. drafts, Korean baseball — the production is stripped down and no fans are in attendance. So what will U.F.C. 249 look and sound like on television?
The arena the fights are taking place in seats 15,000, but no fans are allowed, so expect to hear a cavernous emptiness. Dana White told Sports Illustrated this week that he considered piping in crowd noise or some sort of virtual crowd, before deciding not to. The normal in-arena D.J. will be on-site, however, and viewers will likely hear more of the fighters themselves.
The announcers will be calling the fights from near the octagon but will be sitting apart from each other. After each fight, Joe Rogan will interview the winners from at least six feet away. The U.F.C. has not revealed its camera setup, but considering it has always controlled production, it is likely to look very similar to previous events.
At the start of its telecast, a standup shot included all three announcers — Jon Anik on play-by-play and analysts Rogan and Daniel Cormier — close together and without masks. They later appeared to speak from separate tables at different spots around the octagon.
”People are starving. They’re starving for something, some action, some fun,” Rogan said.
U.F.C.’s owners insist they are not holding the bouts because of financial pressures.
Dana White went from downplaying the risk from the coronavirus to acknowledging it while insisting that the U.F.C. would be the first sport back. Why the rush?
It’s not financial, according to Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, which owns the U.F.C. “We are not putting fights on to satisfy any contracts or because of any particular financial situation at Endeavor,” Shapiro said. Endeavor has $4.6 billion in debt, and has laid off, furloughed or cut the pay of a third of its 7,500 worldwide employees.
Instead, Shapiro and U.F.C. officials have said their efforts are in service of the athletes, who do not get paid unless they perform. “We have fighters itching to fight, and that have contracts that require us to put them into an octagon,” Shapiro said.
Usually in early May, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is competing with the N.B.A. and N.H.L. playoffs, a full slate of baseball games and other big events like the Kentucky Derby and boxing.
Not on Saturday night, as the U.F.C. attempts to stage fights amid the coronavirus pandemic. U.F.C. 249 is being held in Jacksonville, Fla., where state authorities have deemed professional sports (and even professional wrestling) an essential business. Athletic regulators there agreed to sanction mixed martial arts bouts when other states, like New York and California, have not during the outbreak.
The event is going forward even though one of the U.F.C.’s 24 fighters, Ronaldo Souza, and two of his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus Friday in the run-up to the fight. U.F.C. officials have been guarded about their measures to keep fighters safe during three events planned — including two next week — but they insist they can minimize the risks associated with large gatherings.
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.
The headline fight is between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, an interim lightweight title bout that pits two combatants who have a history of exciting knockouts.
There are 11 fights scheduled.
The main pay-per-view card on ESPN+ features five bouts, with Ferguson and Gaethje in the main event. The full list:
Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje, interim lightweight championship
Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz, bantamweight championship
Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik, heavyweight
Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar, featherweight
Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro, heavyweight
There are six preliminary bouts:
Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone, welterweight
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum, heavyweight
Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson, strawweight
Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price, welterweight
Bryce Mitchell vs. Charles Rosa, featherweight
Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey, light heavyweight
Who is Dana White?
Dana White has been president of the U.F.C. for almost 20 years, a tenure that has seen mixed martial arts rise from a niche sport banned in many states to one minting worldwide superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. But after earning hundreds of millions of dollars, why is he still working 24/7, and does the U.F.C. still need a bombastic street fighter as a leader?
We profiled White and took a look at the rewards staging fights during the coronavirus pandemic could bring, as well as legal, commercial and regulatory threats to the U.F.C.’s business.
Where is Khabib Nurmagomedov?
The undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to headline this card with a title defense against Tony Ferguson. Instead, he is in his native Dagestan, the Russian Republic, where pandemic-related travel restrictions prevent him from leaving.
Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have now been scheduled to fight five different times, with each bout canceled for progressively extreme reasons — injuries, illness and now a global outbreak. Ferguson has accused Nurmagomedov of deliberately avoiding a U.F.C. 249 showdown, but the promotion company’s president, Dana White, insists that the champion was ready for this fight and simply got marooned in Dagestan, while the U.F.C. scrambled to find a location and work out other logistics for Saturday’s card.
“The world was literally changing by the day,” White said in a recent interview with BT Sport. “We had all made some bad decisions that got him stuck in Moscow.” White added: “I take responsibility for that, too. It happened.”
For his part, Nurmagomedov awaits the winner of Saturday’s main event, and says he will be prepared to fight after Ramadan, which ends May 23.
“It was the best training camp,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post, referring to his preparation for the Ferguson bout. “I haven’t felt myself that good for a while.”
He pledged to “come back even better.”
Conor McGregor, the U.F.C.’s biggest pay-per-view attraction, has been at home in Ireland, where he will watch Saturday’s card to size up future opponents and judge how the sport is organized amid the pandemic.
Where is Dominick Cruz?
He’s back in the octagon after more than three years away from competition, facing the bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo.
Cruz won 12 straight bouts between 2008 and 2016, a run that has prompted many observers to rate him as the best bantamweight ever. But he also dealt with injuries and layoffs. After defeating Demetrious Johnson in October 2011, he didn’t fight again until September 2014, when he knocked out Takeya Mizugaki. Cruz then missed all of 2015 before fighting twice in 2016, his most recent bout a unanimous decision loss to Cody Garbrandt.
Since then, Cruz has worked as an analyst on U.F.C. broadcasts, but he never retired. In prefight promotional videos, Cruz and the U.F.C. have been selling the idea that his time on the sidelines will make him a smarter fighter.
Cruz, now 34, made clear to reporters during an online news conference on Thursday that he doesn’t believe in ring rust, the idea that time away from competition dulls a fighter’s skills. Instead, he said, he’s happy to be healthy enough to compete and confident even as he faces Cejudo.
“It creates a thankfulness for little things,” Cruz said Thursday. “I’m grateful to be in this position.”
Where is Grandma Cerrone?
Whenever Donald Cerrone fights, his grandmother Jerry Cerrone usually sits ringside. After Conor McGregor knocked out Cerrone in January, Jerry entered the octagon to console her grandson, who is nicknamed Cowboy, and was herself consoled by a victorious McGregor. But when Cerrone packed up his R.V. to drive from New Mexico to Jacksonville, Fla., for Saturday’s fights, he left Jerry at home.
Not that he wanted to. Cerrone told reporters on Thursday that his grandmother had volunteered to make the drive with him, and that he wanted her in Jacksonville during his fight against Anthony Pettis.
But, he said, Dana White insisted that the 82-year-old Jerry Cerrone stay home to limit the number of people involved with the event, and the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“I’m not going to be the guy that gets Grandma sick,” Cerrone recalled White telling him.