He, like many other MMA fans, has accepted the fact that watching a sport in which two athletes are locked in a cage and ordered to fight, sometimes until one of them can fight no more, requires a certain tolerance of imprudence. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was founded in the 1990s with an air of lawlessness, attracting fans even as its promoters clashed with state athletic commissions that often refused to provide licenses for M.M.A. events. (Back then, people usually referred to it as “cage-fighting,” which was a derogatory term but not entirely untrue.) However, M.F.C.’s 2018 contract with ESPN made it look less like an underground phenomenon and more like one of the main American sports organizations, much like M.M.A. did in the 2000s when it was widely legalized and legitimized.
In March, when the scope of the coronavirus outbreak became obvious, U.F.C. joined other sports organizations in canceling activities. Yet U.F.C.’s outspoken president, Dana White, could never fully embrace this reality. He planned an event on April 18 at a California casino on property held by the Tachi-Yokut Tribe, but it was canceled when political figures, including Governor Gavin Newsom and Senator Dianne Feinstein, voiced their opposition. In addition, White has mentioned holding bouts on an unidentified island, where he would be immune to prosecution. Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida, White delivered on his promises and hosted U.F.C. 249, the first big American sporting event since the nation went into lockdown two months ago. For better or worse, the UFC is both a mainstream sports league and an insurgent force, and epidemiologists might argue about whether or not this event was prudent, but fight fans can agree that it was extremely entertaining. It was also the beginning of a new age, the first peek into the future of American athletics.
A commentator named Joe Rogan observed, “It seems odd here” when the ESPN program at 6 o’clock started. (The main event, a five-bout card, went to pay-per-view at 10 o’clock.) We really don’t need such a large facility, you know? The VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena played host to the event; it is a minor league basketball and hockey arena with a capacity of up to fifteen thousand. However, because Saturday’s event was private, Rogan and the other analysts had to deliver their speeches to an enormous, mostly empty hall while adhering to social-distance standards that were, at times, confusing to the audience. Rogan subsequently pondered the mystery of the unmasked commentators’ split attention between the two tables they occupied throughout the bouts, while they were shown sitting side by side. Fighters in Jacksonville allegedly were not allowed to speak out against U.F.C.’s safety policy, which is in stark contrast to the company’s usual shows. In contrast, Rogan’s “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast is one of the most listened-to shows in the world, and he has the freedom to express his opinions without fear of retaliation because of his own fame.
Play-by-play announcer Jon Anik remarked, “Most of the athletes have been cleared.” He then named the one who hadn’t been cleared. The experienced Brazilian boxer Ronaldo (Jacare) Souza was forced to withdraw from the fight when he and two of his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus.
That’s terrible, but it proves the system works; the U.F.C.’s safety measures are effective, Rogan said. It wasn’t unanimously agreed upon, though, since a video seemed to show Souza, in a mask, coming almost face-to-face with an unmasked UFC 249 competitor, Fabricio Werdum. Inexperienced epidemiologists at home might spend all night debating the best course of action. Were the ladies who held the cards announcing each round being uncovered for any purpose other than vanity? For what reason did Rogan choose to shake hands with the competitors while the announcer, Bruce Buffer, opted for elbow bumps instead of his customary fist bumps? Rogan saw this as well. He made the remark, “Everyone’s been tested,” in reference to Buffer. As in, “Bumper fists with him, dude!”
Many spectators have pondered the prospect of watching sporting events devoid of people, but M.M.A. supporters should be used to this by now. U.F.C.’s long-running reality competition program, “The Ultimate Fighter,” often culminates in crowd-fewer bouts, with just the sound of a few dozen fighters and coaches hollering support from the cage. There were brief moments on Saturday night when I forgot that the stadium was almost empty. The disgraced ex-football player turned M.M.A. heavyweight Greg Hardy won a lackluster three-round win despite taking several leg kicks from his opponent. ( Skeptics, and there are many of them, would point out that Hardy’s opponent was a high school security guard, as evidence that Hardy is not a very skilled fighter.