By Nathan Tucker
On May 9, the world’s premier professional fighting championship, the UFC, held their first pay-per-view event since suspending events and operations as COVID-19 began its spread in the US. It was the first actual major sporting event on US soil since sports leagues decided, almost in unison, to halt operations to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
It was also the first major US sporting event to test the waters on having a live event without fans.
Pro wrestling companies WWE and All Elite Wrestling have been broadcasting live events without fans, both in Florida, in large part due to the state’s quicker “reopening” as it’s been coined. To this end, UFC 249 also took place in Florida, in Jacksonville, as the show wouldn’t go on in most other states that haven’t considered fighting and pro wrestling “essential business”.
Some of the fighters were having fun with the lack of atmosphere. Sam Alvey started the night by coming out of the tunnel and high-fiving a non-existent adoring public.
His opponent, Ryan Spann, was asked by UFC commentator and interviewer Joe Rogan about it being weird fighting in front of an empty arena.
“Nah. I don’t like people.” Spann said. “Nah, I do like people, but I don’t like that many people.”
The event was thrown into scrutiny the day before, as fighter Jacare Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for coronavirus. Souza was due to face Uriah Hall, and UFC cancelled their bout.
Souza and Uriah Hall were the only two UFC fighters at this week’s weigh-in to wear masks as they stared each other down for photos. Souza even shook hands with UFC owner Dana White, who sat ringside for the entirety of UFC 249.
In the famed octagon, a prelim welterweight battle between Vincente Luque and Niko Price would have rocked arenas full of fans. A great fight, where both combatants stood and threw their best punches, ended with a vicious hook by Luque that completely closed Price’s eye, forcing a ringside doctor’s stoppage.
Again, in Normal World, this steals the show. The crowd goes home remembering what happened four hours before the main event. In the empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, not a cheer was heard, not even a supportive clap.
Pro fighting of any type has always been dictated by the fans, and fans have always been key in the best moments in fighting’s history. Thinking back to Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder’s already infamous two-fight series, the Fury faithful chanting and singing for their “Gypsy King” is part of what makes those fights so special.
So what is there to do for UFC? Since they have clearly decided that the health and safety of their fighters, employees, and anyone associated with either do not matter as much as their PPV payday, they’ve forced some of their biggest shows into a universe without anyone to cheer for them live.
As I sat and watched UFC 249, I realized how hollow this all was. And I don’t just mean the 15k seat arena with no one in attendance.
The attempts by Dana White and UFC to “practice social distancing” and “sanitize the ring after each fight” are hollow attempts to placate naysayers. A sanitized ring doesn’t matter when Dana White and Joe Rogan are ringside shaking hands with everybody.
Further, anyone actually concerned about the potential transmission and spread of coronavirus simply would not be holding events of any kind right now. Sure enough, the President of the United States kicks off the preliminary card of UFC 249 by saying “we need our sports” while a 9/11 amount of Americans still die every day from COVID-19.
Actual “social distancing” and “proper sanitization” doesn’t come from holding a PPV so Dana White and the gaming industry can make money. It comes from not having this event at all.