The UFC’s return to Florida, starting on May 9 with UFC 249, certainly was something to behold.
After nearly two months without a UFC event, UFC president Dana White managed to pack three of them into one week.
The problem, however, was not just putting together cards, but finding a venue to hold MMA events during a worldwide pandemic. Nevada said no, California almost let it go but a last second call by the Governor to Mickey Mouse (Disney owns ESPN, the UFC’s broadcast partner) stopped that event from happening. Still, White was not ready to wave the white flag just yet, no pun intended.
While talk of Fight Island filled headlines for every single MMA site (including this one), Florida raised its hand in a ‘hold my beer’ moment and volunteered to host professional sports without fans in attendance. Professional wrestling had already been deemed ‘essential’ so why wouldn’t MMA and the UFC be as well?
As UFC 249 was slated for Jacksonville, fans waited in anticipation of another cancellation. Each day we got closer to the event brought with it a slew of tweets saying, “Oh today HAS to be the day this gets cancelled” or “There’s no way this actually happens.” Prayers to the MMA Gods were said silently as fans skimmed Twitter for the latest updates.
Finally we got to weigh-in day. Even after all the fighters had hit the scale many fans believed UFC 249 was not going to happen. Something would bring this event, and the UFC, to its knees once again.
And then it happened. Jacare Souza and his cornermen tested positive for COVID-19. All hell broke loose on social media. Two sides formed and battled it out online in a meaningless back-and-forth about whether the event should or shouldn’t happen.
Then Saturday May 9 finally came. MMA fans rejoiced and forgot all about Jacare. A stacked card brought fans to their feet in their living rooms and at CDC guideline-violating watch parties. We laughed, we cried, we cheered the bloody violence.
Calvin Kattar brought his version of the hellbow to Jeremy Stephen’s chin and ended his night early. Francis Ngannou showed why he’s the scariest human being on the planet and made his case for a title shot. Triple C finished a legend in a questionable finish and fake-retired (probably) and Justin Gaethje put the nail in the coffin of what would have been the greatest title fight in lightweight history. It was glorious!
The aftermath of that event brought optimism to not only the UFC and its fans but the sport. The tiny glimmer of hope that White was looking for when he first tried to pull off UFC 249.
MMA was at the forefront of the return of sports, but more importantly the UFC was at the forefront. For days before the event went down the UFC was the leading story on all newscasts second only to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was even ahead of President Trump’s alleged ratings-leading press conferences. Trump actually sent the UFC and Dana White a shoutout on video, which was played right before the PPV began.
What we learned from these last three events in Jacksonville is simple. People need a distraction. The hunger for a distraction from world events, from this new normal, is so large that people actually began to cheer for Dana White and showed ire for the MMA Media, which they felt was the ‘enemy of the sport.’ This need for live sports is so big that people will overlook a lack of following guidelines (even the UFC’s own guidelines), and even fighter safety. Jacare’s positive COVID-19 test seems like an afterthought at this point.
So where do we go from here? If you’re Dana White the answer is quite clear: the Apex in Las Vegas is the place to be. Nevada has not lifted its ban on non-essential business and Las Vegas remains, for the most part, closed. Yet White has set the Apex as the venue for a Fight Night card headlined by former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley as he makes his return against Gilbert Burns on May 30.
With just days until that event is set to happen people still remain in wait-and-see mode as it pertains to future events. The NSAC will meet May 27, and likely decide the event’s fate. Fans do have a reason to be optimistic because if we learned nothing else from the UFC’s stay in Jacksonville, it’s that you never bet against Dana White.
Because he will find a way to win, just to stick it to the naysayers — even in the midst of a pesky pandemic.