It’s not sport as we know it, but UFC 249 gave fans and athletes an insight into how the world of mixed martial arts will look in the short term, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all slightly mad.
The controversial event, which took place at an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, gave fans never-before-seen insight into the sport with everyone but a small section of the media, the fighters and UFC staff permitted in the arena.
The UFC is renowned for its vociferous fans that regularly sell out arenas to catch a glimpse of their favourite fighters in action across the United States and the world.
UFC 249 gave fans and athletes an insight into the short term future of mixed martial arts
The controversial event saw no fans allowed, and only fighters, media and UFC staff allowed
Understandably, given the threat of the spread of the deadly coronavirus, fans won’t be allowed to attend sporting events for some time, and on Saturday it made for an eerie atmosphere in Jacksonville.
Fans ride the wave of the action like thrill seekers approaching the peak of a rollercoaster, energised by the build up and anticipation, before crashing down and hanging on tight through every hook, takedown and submission attempt. The fighters, too, feed off that energy.
UFC 249’s main event, which saw Justin Gaethje defeat Tony Ferguson to claim the interim lightweight title, saw such ferocious, spine-tingling shots thrown by both men that would have elicited countless ooos and aaas from fans had they been in attendance. The fight itself was deserving of an audience to express their appreciation.
No fans in attendance made for an eerie atmosphere, and highlighted how crucial they are
Instead, sat at home, those fans could hear EVERYTHING. The terrifying sound of one fighter’s padded glove crunching into the other’s jaw, the light skipping of an athlete on the canvas and the barking of instructions from each corner. It was a compelling watch for those viewing from home.
That novelty will surely wear off in time, and won’t mask the fact that the fans play such a crucial role in every UFC event. Most fighters will want them back sharpish to give them that much-needed extra boost.
In the meantime, UFC 249 saw some fighters benefit greatly from there being no fans in the stands for one rather peculiar reason.
Justin Gaethje’s win over Tony Ferguson was a fight deserving of a rapturous ovation
The pair’s enthralling trades were made all the more compelling without the energy of the fans
Jacksonville is not New York City or Las Vegas, but the UFC ensured that it had its all-star commentators in place on Saturday night’s action. In Jon Anik, Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier, there aren’t many better commentary teams in the sport, and all three were in place, albeit at a social distance, to call the action.
And it was former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Cormier who found himself affecting the action more than he had anticipated. At 41 years of age, and having achieved seemingly all there is to achieve in the sport, there are few in a better position than Cormier to read and analyse top level fights.
At cageside and with no fans to generate a din, Cormier’s analysis of the fights was audible from inside the octagon, and fighters were able to pick up on his comments and adjust their fights accordingly.
No fans meant that viewers heard every terrifying punch landed in the engrossing contest
For heavyweight Greg Hardy and strawweight Carla Esparza, it took Cormier’s instructions on commentary, rather than the calls of those in their corner, to evoke the necessary response and change the course of the fight, with both emerging with wins on Saturday.
‘Thank God for not having the crowd,’ Hardy told Rogan in his post-fight interview. ‘Shout out to DC (Daniel Cormier). I heard him tell me to check him (Yorgan De Castro’s leg kicks), that I needed to figure out how to check it. So I started trying to check him. Game-changer.’
Esparza benefitted from Cormier’s analysis that she was struggling to find a rhythm against the tricky Michelle Waterson, and that mixing up her wrestling and striking would help her overcome that hurdle.
‘It’s crazy because he was kind of criticising me!’ Esparza said. ‘Part of me was like, “Hey! That’s my stuff! Why are you saying that?” But, I was like, that’s actually a good idea.’
Interestingly, fighters benefitted from the analysis of the commentary team on Saturday night
Carla Esparza (right) changed the course of her fight with Michelle Waterson (left) after hearing remarks made by former heavyweight and light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier
Greg Hardy too took on advice from Cormier to earn a points win over Yorgan De Castro
Cormier admitted after the event that his expert insight may prove to be an issue at upcoming events.
‘We’ve got to do something about that,’ he said. ‘If we’re going to do it like this, we’ve got to find a way to not coach these guys. We worry about it when the fans are in the arena… my mind is a cheat code!’
Away from the action, all eyes were on the UFC to implement the infrastructure necessary to ensure that the sport could continue safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Dana White said that in the build up to Saturday’s event, the UFC administered 1,200 tests, on 300 people.
UFC 249 suffered a huge blow on Friday after Jacare Souza had to pull out of his fight against Uriah Hall after testing positive for coronavirus, with plenty ready to slam the organisation for putting the fighters’ health at risk.
A handful of journalists were allowed in the arena, but had to sit socially apart from each other
It has also emerged that fighters signed participation agreements before Saturday’s event
The event suffered a big blow when Jacare Souza pulled out after testing positive for covid-19
Dana White has insisted that all fighters were being regularly tested for the virus and were undergoing anti-bodies tests, while temperatures of all surrounding staff were being monitored daily.
The promotion were also quick to ensure that no fighter criticised the UFC’s approach to health and safety during the event. Reuter’s news agency reports that all fighters taking part in UFC 249 were asked to sign an eight-page event participation agreement.
A non-disparagement clause in the undated agreement states that ‘the Participant will not suggest or communicate to any person or entity’ that the events ‘have been or will be held without appropriate health, safety or other precautions, whether relating to COVID-19 or otherwise.’
Reuters reports that the UFC inserted a clause that said fighters could not say that the event had gone ahead without health checks, or else they would lose their fight purse
The agreement goes on to say that if a fighter does breach this clause, ‘the Company may revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won … including, but not limited to, purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties.’
It will be interesting to see whether other sports follow that trend in an effort to seek full harmony among athletes competing during the crisis. The clause garnered criticism from Showtime Boxing’s Stephen Espinoza, to which White responded with a less-than-flattering appraisal of Espinoza’s character.
Despite the farce with Souza, UFC 249 will be viewed as an overwhelming success by White and his cronies. With two more events coming from Jacksonville this week, the UFC train is showing no signs of slowing.
It’s a mad world but for the short run, we are going to have to embrace it.
The UFC train marches on with two events next week, it’s a mad world but let’s enjoy the ride