The long, winding road to Jacksonville: How we finally got to fight week for UFC 249

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

On March 6, the UFC held a news conference in Las Vegas to formally announce the lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and top challenger Tony Ferguson for April 18 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

More than two months and a 1,000 miles away, the modified event will finally be held Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. Nurmagomedov will be nowhere to be found, as he’ll be in his home in Dagestan, Russia, observing Ramadan. 

In his place opposite Ferguson in the main event will be former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, who in six UFC bouts has won Fight of the Night four times and Performance of the Night three times.

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They will meet for the interim lightweight title that Ferguson once held after submitting Kevin Lee.

“Two-time interim lightweight champion,” Ferguson said to Yahoo Sports. “I like the sound of that. Nobody’s ever done that before, so why not?”

To get to this point, though, the UFC had to go dark for seven weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its last show came on March 14 in Brasilia, Brazil, in an empty arena. 

Four days after Brasilia, the UFC and the New York State Athletic Commission announced that because of the enormity of the COVID-19 cases in New York, the show would not be held in Brooklyn. The gate at the Barclays Center at the time of the postponement had already surpassed $5.5 million.

When live UFC action finally returns on Saturday, there will be no fans in attendance for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve already put [having fans in the building] out of my mind and we’re planning to have none way into the future,” UFC president Dana White said.

White would not say whether the UFC planned to test for the coronavirus, but several fighters have confirmed to Yahoo Sports that they have been told by the promoter that they and their camps will be tested.

UFC events will be staged without any fans in attendance for the foreseeable future, according to Dana White. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
UFC events will be staged without any fans in attendance for the foreseeable future, according to Dana White. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

UFC 249: From New York to California to Florida

It took a circuitous route to get to this point for the UFC to stage what might be its greatest card on paper with not one ticket sold. Given that there has been no live sports for months, television ratings for the preliminaries on ESPN are expected to be enormous, and early indications are that the pay-per-view sales will be brisk despite the soaring virus-induced unemployment rates.

Never has the UFC had to work so strenuously to keep one show together. After it was unable to go to Brooklyn, it looked at venues across the country that might have been willing to host it, and White said several cities had interest.

But when it came time to make a deal, White and the UFC settled on putting UFC 249 at the Tachi Palace in Lemoore, California, on sovereign tribal land. By being on tribal land, the UFC was able to circumvent the objection of the California State Athletic Commission, which had said it was not regulating events during the pandemic.

In addition, it put itself outside of the reach of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had taken an aggressive approach to shutting down the state to fight the virus.

The UFC never announced that the event would be at Tachi, but Sherdog’s Jeff Sherwood first reported it, and then the New York Times confirmed it. All White said when he announced the card was that it would be “somewhere on Earth.”

The UFC was going to take over the closed resort and had arranged for a Level 1 trauma center to be available and to treat fighters. The UFC said it would significantly beef up its medical staff on hand for the show.

The UFC was buying treadmills for every fighter’s rooms and was looking into buying individual saunas it could put in every room to aid fighters in making weight while preventing contact with other people that could have caused more spread of COVID-19.

The UFC was stunned, though, when White received a call from ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro on April 9, asking him to not go through with the event as planned at Tachi Palace on April 18. Newsom had no say over what occurred in Tachi, but he called Disney executives and asked them not to move forward. They complied and Pitaro asked White to, in White’s words, “stand down.”

The UFC could have continued with the show and sold it via its UFC Fight Pass, but White said ESPN has been a great partner and he never seriously considered that.

In areas outside of the U.S. where there are no athletic commissions, the UFC regulates under the direction of Marc Ratner. The highly respected Ratner, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, left his job as the head of the Nevada Athletic Commission in 2006 to become vice president of regulatory affairs for the UFC.

Justin Gaethje will face Tony Ferguson (not pictured) in the main event of UFC 249 on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Justin Gaethje will face Tony Ferguson (not pictured) in the main event of UFC 249 on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

He would serve as the de facto athletic commission when the UFC went to areas without a commission, and he was going to serve the same role for UFC 249 at Tachi Palace. However, because Ratner is 73, White and other members of the UFC would not allow him to attend at Tachi, and he will not be on hand in Jacksonville.

His presence in Jacksonville is not as crucial, though, since the event will be fully regulated by the Florida athletic commission. He confirmed to Yahoo Sports that Florida will assign top-level referees and judges.

Though UFC planned to regulate the event at Tachi, it came off as something of a rogue or wildcat event given it was going to sovereign land where the state and federal government wouldn’t be able to prevent it. 

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opened the door for the UFC when he declared the WWE an essential service that could remain open during his shutdown order. The state is reopening now, and DeSantis and the mayor of Jacksonville each endorsed the event and the two that will follow it on May 13 and May 16.

UFC employees’ jobs not on the line

In addition, no one is being forced to work the show or fight on the card if they feel unsafe. Brendan Fitzgerald, who did play-by-play for the event in Brasilia, will work in Jacksonville.

“We were told that it was voluntary and that if we chose not to work for whatever reason, our jobs wouldn’t be on the line,” he said.

Fitzgerald said it was more difficult for him doing the show in Brasilia, given that it came during the beginning of the pandemic in the Western Hemisphere, and there wasn’t as much information available as there is now.

His flight to Brazil went Las Vegas to New York and then to Brazil. When he got to New York, he learned that the NBA was going to suspend play.

“I landed into a different world than I left,” Fitzgerald said. “I had about an hour layover, and it was pretty stressful because I didn’t know if we were going to go [in Brasilia] and whether I should get on the next plane or go back home. And I didn’t know what was going to go on there, or what the situation was really like.

“It was a more stressful situation in my opinion going to Brasilia. Now, we know a lot more and there are a lot of precautions in place. I am going with no trepidations.”

Physicians association softens stance on MMA ban

On Friday, the Association of Ringside Physicians released a statement that gave a further imprimatur to the event in Florida. Prior to the scheduled event at Tachi, it released a statement calling for the suspension of all combat sports

This time, it noted that an event can be done safely with the proper precautions taken.

“Although it is impossible to eliminate all risk associated with COVID-19, precautions can be made to reduce the risk of viral transmission,” the statement read, in part. “Many athletic commissions, organizations and promoters are developing new guidelines to limit exposure to all involved at events, including athletes, their teams, commission personnel and support staff.

“Combat sports event procedures regarding COVID-19 precautions should be actively developed, regularly reviewed and modified based on the evolving knowledge and scientific evidence put forth by public health authorities. These guidelines should also involve local and regional public health officials as well as infectious disease experts and epidemiologists.”

The personnel in the arena will be kept to a minimum, and those there will be tested to see whether they have the virus currently or if they’ve had it. Announcers are not going to sit against the Octagon, as is normally the case, and they won’t be shoulder-to-shoulder as usual.

The event will be as safe as it possibly can. 

“This is what we do, we take risks, and we put our lives on the line whenever we go in there,” Ferguson said. “But we also know the UFC is doing everything they can and taking all the precautions they need to make, so I am fine with it and ready to fight.”

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