Written by Chris Kubala
It’s been a long two months since professional sports shut down in the United States and Canada. Within 24 hours after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA and NHL paused their seasons, MLB postponed Opening Day and the NCAA canceled conference tournaments in addition to their crown jewel, March Madness. Recently though, there have been signs of life on the sporting front. The PGA Tour is expected to return next month, albeit without fans. NASCAR is slated to return next week at Darlington, again without fans. Having live sports programming is like manna from heaven for sports fans and bettors, who have been starved for any kind of action lately.
On Saturday, Dana White and the UFC took center stage with their first card in a couple of months. UFC 249 came to you live, with no fans in attendance, from the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville. In what was indeed the epitome of the word supercard, the UFC rolled out an extravaganza that was scheduled to run for six hours. While there weren’t the big names like Conor McGregor or Khabib Nurmagomedov but there were big fights on the card, highlighted by the main event, an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, with the winner ostensibly fighting Nurmagomedov in a future unification title bout. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ferguson was slated, for what was the fifth time, to fight Nurmagomedov, only to see those hopes dashed for the fifth time.
The lack of sports, plus the announcement by White that the UFC was open for business and ready to get back to action, put the spotlight squarely on the promotion. As it turned out, that was just what White wanted and it showed that fans were starving for live sports. In the days leading up to the card, White said that the PPV buys for the card were already double what the promotion had seen for UFC 244, 245, 247 and 248, which were all held overseas. Sports fans who may or may not be fans of UFC were willing to plunk down $64.95 to see the main card after catching the preliminary bouts on ESPN.
The card was action packed and was highlighted by some memorable moments. Henry Cejudo, the #3 pound for pound fighter in all of MMA, defended his bantamweight title with an impressive TKO win over Dominick Cruz, who was making his first UFC appearance in more than three years. More surprising than the result was the announcement that he made after the fight, when he announced that he was retiring after 11 years in the octagon. Whether the retirement sticks or not will remain to be seen at this point in time but if it is the end of the road, he went out on top.
The main event was an absolute war that went until the fifth round and was decided only when referee Herb Dean called for the bell. In the end, Gaethje, who was an underdog in the bout, prevailed after rocking Ferguson with some bombs, especially in the final round. Dean intervened at the 3:39 mark of round five, capping off a card full of excitement despite the lack of a live crowd. Joe Rogan did his post-fight interviews in the octagon after it was reported earlier in the week that they would be done with him at ringside and the fighter having a headset inside the ring. Bruce Buffer wore a mask outside the octagon but took it off when he was announcing fighters or giving directions inside the ring.
The card didn’t go off perfectly however as Ronaldo Souza was pulled from the card Friday after he tested positive for the coronavirus. That took his bout with Uriah Hall off the card. In addition, two of his cornermen tested positive and all three are self-isolating according to UFC. According to White, Souza was the lone fighter to test positive for COVID-19:
“We administered 1,200 tests this week, on 300 people. It's not unexpected one person would test positive. The system works. And what's good about this is now we know Jacare tested positive, he's doing what he needs to do, and we're in a position to help him if he needs it."
We’ll see how the ratings came out for the card but there won’t be much of a delay before the next UFC card. They’ll be back in action on Wednesday, May 13 and then Saturday, May 16, with both cards emanating from Jacksonville as well.