Make no mistake: There still are questions that need to be asked about UFC 249, particularly after Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for COVID-19 the night before the event.
But something else is just as unmistakable: The first major sporting event of the coronavirus era in the United States was an evening that long will be remembered in mixed martial arts lore.
It may have taken awhile to get used to the odd sights and sounds of an elite fight card being held in an empty arena. But by the time Justin Gaethje put his stamp on the proceedings with a paradigm-altering performance in a magnificent victory over Tony Ferguson in the evening’s main event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Jacksonville, Fla., fans who have been pelted with unrelenting bad news for two straight months got exactly the night of escapism only a great night of fights can provide.
It was clear from the outset this evening was going to be a little different. Bryce Mitchell put on a superlative performance on the floor in his one-sided decision victory over Charles Rosa. In another setting, the crowd would have oohed and ahhed; this time, it played out like on old-school VHS grappling instructional video.
Both Carla Esparza and Greg Hardy credited hearing the commentary of the boisterous Daniel Cormier with making adjustments that led to their victories, which certainly wouldn’t have occurred on an ordinary fight night. Francis Ngannou’s knockout power is an impressive sight to behold in any circumstances, but his brutal finish of Jairzinho Rozenstruik seemed downright terrifying as it played out in dead silence.
Somewhere between Mitchell’s twisters and Ngannou’s thunder, the oddity of the empty arena gave way to the rush of fight night adrenaline. By the time Calvin Kattar notched his biggest career win with a violent finish of veteran Jeremy Stephens, it was starting to feel like one of those roller coster, memorable nights that happen a few nights per year
And that was before Ngannou’s stunning knockout, Henry Cejudo’s masterful win over Dominick Cruz (which came with the twin dramas of a debatable stoppage and Cejudo’s retirement), and Gaethje’s awe-inspiring victory.
If this was just another monthly pay-per-view card and not the first UFC event in two months, Gaethje would be just about the only thing we’d be discussing right now. It was a masterful performance by one of the sport’s most relatable athletes, a demonstration of his maturation from brawler for dollars to championship-level competitor. If first-timers who bought UFC 249 because they’re bored during quarantine watched the fight, they’d be impressed with Ferguson’s toughness, but they’d never guess Ferguson was on a 12-fight winning streak the way Gaethje schooled him.
Is it a shame that we’re not going to see Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson? Maybe. Or maybe the fact it fell apart five times shows it was never meant to be. And maybe the workmanlike Gaethje instead of the talented but aloof Ferguson is the right guy at the right time to play the role of Rocky against Khabib’s Ivan Drago.
But even during a great night of fights, you can never fully escape. The man whose head-in-the-sand approach to the coronavirus put the country in this spot in the first place, President Donald Trump, insinuated himself into the broadcast and dropped a ham-handed piece of propaganda during the middle of his reelection campaign, for which ESPN did not offer equal time for a rebuttal. Just as you were starting to enjoy the fights, Trump’s obnoxious presence reminded us that a large football stadium’s worth of Americans are dead from the virus and the nation has its worst unemployment numbers since The Great Depression.
Which brings us right back to the fact that COVID-19, in fact, is not over – of which we had been reminded Friday night. Souza reported at the start of fight week that a relative tested positive for the virus. Hindsight being 20/20, he probably should have been sent home at that point, and hopefully, with two more shows to go in Jacksonville over the next week, the UFC will learn from that call.
Before being pulled from his fight with Uriah Hall, at Friday’s weigh-ins, Souza fist-bumped White, who wasn’t wearing a face mask, who then found himself hugging fighters, high-fiving them, and stepping in the middle of the faceoffs, which themselves seemed an unnecessary bit of stagecraft given the circumstances.
Social distancing breeches — aside from the most obvious one, which is that you can’t have a fistfight at social distance — continued throughout fight night Saturday. Joe Rogan shook hands with fighters, the referees were not wearing face masks, and so on.
This all may seem harmless now, but on average it takes about five days for COVID-19 symptoms to start showing, and some who carry the virus never show it at all, but still can spread the disease. In a worst-case scenario, come this time next week, this could still very well mutate into a story about how the UFC tried to get the ball rolling in the sports World too fast, and a lot of people got sick. No one is rooting for this to happen, but nor should we pretend it isn’t a possibility.
For one night, though, the fight game produced the exact sort of thrill ride that got everyone into this game in the first place, and that psychological boost provided by the likes of Gaethje’s finest hour, too, is worth something.