JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Kicks, punches and grunts echoed through the empty arena. Coaches, commentators and camera clicks resonated like never before. Blood, sweat, swollen eyelids and face masks signaled the return of UFC, the first major sporting event to resume since the coronavirus shuttered much of the country for nearly two months.
UFC 249 ushered in a new look for sports, too. One without fans and amid several safety precautions.
It was definitely different — two fighters adjusted their approaches because of what they heard announcers say — and a welcome reprieve for a sports-craved country that went nearly eight weeks with few live events.
“We did this for you, to bring sports back,” fighter Tony Ferguson told fans following his loss in the main event.
Five hours after President Trump congratulated UFC for restarting the sports world, Justin Gaethje stunned heavily favored Ferguson (26-4) in the finale. Gaethje earned a TKO in the fifth and final round of the headliner that was deemed an interim lightweight title bout. It essentially gives Gaethje (22-2) the right to fight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov next. Nurmagomedov was unable to fight this weekend because of travel restrictions.
Gaethje flipped over the top of the cage and back in following the biggest victory of his career. He then screamed repeatedly.
“I want the real one,” he said as he threw down the interim belt. “There’s no other fight I want right now.”
The stacked card saw 33-year-old Henry Cejudo, with blood gushing from his forehead and running down his chest, defend his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz and then announce his retirement in the middle of the octagon.
“I really do want to walk away, but money talks,” said Cejudo, an Olympic gold medalist in 2008. “It gets stagnant. I want to leave on top.”
The event also included heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou pummeling another opponent, former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy winning for the sixth time in eight fights and former welterweight champion and fan favorite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone losing his fourth straight.
Trump grabbed the spotlight early. His taped message was played during ESPN’s broadcast of the undercard.
“I want to congratulate (UFC President) Dana White and the UFC,” Trump said. “They’re going to have a big match. We love it. We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. Do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back.”
UFC 249 was originally scheduled for April 18 in New York, but was postponed in hopes of helping slow the spread of COVID-19.
The mixed martial arts behemoth will hold three shows in eight days in Jacksonville, where state officials deemed professional sports with a national audience exempt from a stay-at-home order as long as the location is closed to the public.
The UFC came up with a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, procedures that led to Jacaré Souza testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday. His middleweight bout against Uriah Hall was canceled that night. Souza’s two cornermen also tested as positive, the UFC said.
All three men left the host hotel to self-isolate elsewhere, where UFC’s medical team will monitor their conditions remotely and provide assistance with necessary treatments.
The positive results surely increased the focus on the event. Every other sport is watching closely to see how it plays out.
“The whole word is weird right now. Everything’s weird. This event’s weird,” White said. “It’s different. We live in a different world than we did two months ago. The bottom line is the system worked. What you don’t want to do is two days after the fight say, ‘Awe, Jacaré tested positive.’ So it worked. The system worked that we put in place.
“Without sounding like a jackass, we’re really good at what we do. We’re very, very good at what we do. We’ll just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology’s going to get and the faster it’s going to get. We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”
White didn’t want to postpone any fights. He tried to host the event on tribal land in California and still hopes to create a “Fight Island” for future cards.
He settled for Jacksonville for at least a week — without fans and with social-distancing rules in place.
Judges and broadcasters worked from separate tables. Fighters, trainers, referees, judges, UFC staff and even outside media had to undergo COVID-19 testing to get inside Veterans Memorial Arena.
Many of those in attendance Saturday wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate. Referees, ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring girl were unmasked. Play-by-play commentator Joe Rogan, who initially was supposed to interview winners remotely, ended up doing them inside the octagon.
The cage floor was disinfected between bouts, and the padded parts of the octagon were wiped down between rounds.
Without fans, though, sounds that usually would be muted or completely drowned out filled the desolate arena. Fighters said it affected their bouts. Hardy and Carla Esparza said they altered their approach after hearing commentators during early rounds.
“It’s hard to assess without the crowd,” Anthony Pettis said after beating Cerrone in a wild welterweight fight. “When I land stuff, I hear the crowd and know it was a good one. This time, there was no crowd. I saw his head pop, but there was nothing behind it, so it’s hard to tell.”
Also on the card:
— Cejudo (16-2) caught Cruz (22-3) with a right knee to the face that sent him reeling to the canvas. Cejudo then delivered nearly a dozen unanswered blows before the referee stopped it. Cruz argued it never should have been called because he was working to get back on his feet. Cejudo surprisingly ended his career a few minutes later, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.
— Ngannou knocked out fellow heavyweight Jairzinho Rozenstruik in 20 seconds. Ngannou rushed Rozenstruik and delivered a flurry of blows that left Rozenstruik so woozy he had trouble getting into his slides long after the fight ended. It was Ngannou’s fourth consecutive victory totaling less than 3 minutes in the octagon.
— Calvin Kattar (21-4) stopped Jeremy Stephens (28-18) in the second round after consecutive elbow blows, one standing and another on the ground.
— Hardy (6-2) celebrated a unanimous decision over Yorgan De Castro (6-1) in a heavyweight bout.
— “Showtime” Pettis (23-10) beat Cerrone (36-15) in an unanimous decision. Pettis and Cerrone last fought in 2013. Pettis won that one as well. Cerrone has dropped four in a row, including losses to Conor McGregor, Gaethje and Ferguson.
— Aleksei “The Boa Constrictor” Oleinik (59-13-1) beat Fabricio Werdum (23-9-1) in a heavyweight bout featuring a pair of 42-year-olds. It was a split decision that included more toe-to-toe blows than ground grappling.
— Carla Esparza (16-6) edged Michelle “Karate Hottie” Waterson (17-8) in a split decision. It was Esparza’s third straight victory in the straw-weight division.
— Vicente Luque (18-7-1) won for the seventh time in eight fights when he beat Niko Price (14-4) in a bloodbath. The fight was ruled a TKO in the third round after Price developed a nasty cut above his right eye. Luque was ahead on all three cards when it was called.
— Featherweight Bryce Mitchell (13-1) defeated fellow grappler Charles Rosa (12-4) in a unanimous decision.
— Spann (18-5) extended his winning streak to eight by beating veteran Sam Alvey (33-14) in a split decision.