UFC in Jacksonville: Looking back at landmark week as MMA bounces back

Claudia Gadelha (left) celebrates after her victory over Angela Hill (right) in their strawweight fight

The UFC has concluded its triple header of events in Jacksonville, Florida, as it became the first sporting organisation to return to action in the United States since the cornavirus shutdown.

With the health of fighters and support staff a concern, the UFC sought to reduce the risk by employing multiple measures, including Covid-19 and antibody testing, and daily medical check-ups.

There was one notable scare before 9 May’s UFC 249 event when Brazilian fighter Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for Covid-19 upon their arrival in Jacksonville. But, rather than cancel the event, the UFC instead moved to isolate the three men and provided immediate medical support while continuing with the shows, which delivered a hat-trick of spectacular fight nights.

“It feels good,” UFC president Dana White told reporters at the post-fight news conference.

“I’m happy to have it behind me. It was successful in every way it could be successful. I feel great about it. More importantly, nobody is sick. Nobody has gotten sick. There’s no guarantees in life, but hopefully that’s the case and we all go home. It was a great event. It was a great week.”

‘It’s like having 77 coaches – I heard everything’

Greg Hardy defeated Yorgan de Castro in Jacksonville

The events themselves were held behind closed doors at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. It made for an eerie, yet compelling viewing experience, with the roar of the crowd replaced by the sound of punches and kicks echoing around the empty arena, with the voices of the cornermen clearly audible during the fights.

One fighter who said he relished the experience was UFC heavyweight Greg Hardy, who explained that he directly benefited from the lack of crowd noise as he reacted to hearing co-commentator – and former two-division UFC champion – Daniel Cormier describing how he should deal with the punishing leg kicks he was receiving from opponent Yorgan de Castro.

“It’s like having 77 coaches,” he laughed.

“You’ve got Daniel Cormier back there, like, ‘Hey, if he doesn’t check that leg, he’s going to lose that front leg.’ I heard everything.

“I could hear my individual coaches. I could hear individual instructions. I could hear De Castro’s coaches, so it was super sweet.”

Hardy, who has asthma, was open about his coronavirus concerns heading into fight week, and admitted after his victory that hearing about Souza’s failed test left him in a slight panic before his fight. But he leaned on his prior experience as an NFL player to help him stay focused during the build-up.

He said: “We’re quarantining, panicking all the way up until the fight, and as soon as I found out that I didn’t have it, but ‘Jacare’ has it, I was, like, ‘Oh my god. Do I get retested? What do I do?’

“So I freaked out a little bit, but like I said, the main thing about this camp was keeping composure because we knew it was going to be crazy. It was about being a professional, using what I learned in the NFL, transitioning into MMA and making sure I was a pro this week.”

What next for the UFC?

Dana White says he has secured the use of a private island, dubbed ‘Fight Island’, where he plans to host international events

While the lack of a crowd may have offered a different ambience to the Jacksonville shows, long-time fans who have watched the UFC’s talent-finding reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, and midweek fight-night programme Dana White’s Contender Series, will be familiar with seeing fighters compete in near-empty rooms, with both shows featuring prospects fighting on closed sets at the UFC’s purpose-built facilities.

It is hoped the newest of those facilities, the UFC Apex, will form the temporary home for the organisation’s Las Vegas shows in the near future. The multi-million-dollar facility was built specifically for the UFC to hold small-scale events for broadcast on its live-streaming platform, UFC Fight Pass. But now the Apex could come into its own as the UFC’s home for US-based shows over the coming months, with restrictions expected to be eased in Nevada in the coming weeks.

But, with travel restrictions into, and out of, the United States meaning a large portion of the UFC roster is still unable to travel to America to compete, White and the UFC need an additional solution to ensure their full international roster can return to action. Remarkably, White has addressed the problem by securing the use of an unspecified private island, where he plans to host international events in the coming months.

Dubbed ‘Fight Island’, the mystery location could, according to White, stage the returns to action of undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Irish superstar Conor McGregor, as well as the UFC’s UK fighters, including Darren Till, Leon Edwards and Molly McCann.

It seems unlikely we’ll see fans inside a UFC arena until much later, after travel restrictions and social distancing measures have been significantly eased. But, after successfully hosting three events in quick succession, White and the UFC head home to Las Vegas and are preparing to start hosting regular events – albeit behind closed doors – once again.

“We worked hard to pull this thing off,” said White, whose team has shared its operational documentation with other US sporting leagues and executives.

“Nothing means more to me than the safety of everybody that was involved in the event. Not just with Covid-19, but the fight that wasn’t stopped soon enough – all these type of things. Anytime we finish an event, I want everybody to go home safe. It’s not any different now with the Covid-19 thing.

“We will do everything in our power. We will spend the money. We will get the best, the brightest. We’ll talk to doctors and experts in the field to figure out how to beat it. One of the things I always do is I believe nothing is impossible. Everything can be done, especially in 2020. You just have to be willing to work hard enough, spend some money and come up with solutions.”

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