JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The UFC’s decision to return to action Saturday during the coronavirus pandemic could have had lasting repercussions after a fighter tested positive for COVID-19 a day before his bout.
But UFC president Dana White forged ahead and declared after UFC 249 that the organization had hit a “home run” despite middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen testing positive. Souza was taken off the card, and all three were removed from the hotel where fighters and UFC staffers were isolating.
“Tonight was absolutely, positively a home run,” White said of the event, which took place without fans at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. “And the (Souza) thing is a home run, too. You want everyone to be negative, but we’re going to be doing like 1,100-plus tests this week, and somebody was going to be positive. It’s impossible not to (happen). What you don’t want to do is find out two days after the fight a guy tested positive.”
Marco Lopez, vice chairman of the Florida State Boxing Commission, agreed with White’s assessment.
“I believe it was a success,” Lopez said. “I’m proud of the UFC and proud of our commission. It was a little eerie, and hopefully we’ll just have to do this a few times before some normality comes back, but it was a great first step. The positive test was isolated, and everything went the way it should have gone.”
If any of the fighters had an issue with how the event’s enhanced health and safety protocols played out, they basically were told to keep their thoughts to themselves.
A clause in paperwork signed by anyone attending the event stated that participants shall not “defame or disparage” the organization nor “suggest or communicate to any person or entity that the activities have been or will be held without appropriate health, safety or other precautions, whether relating to COVID-19 or otherwise.”
White lashed out at critics of the item’s inclusion in the forms.
“There’s a disparagement clause in there that’s in all of our contracts,” he said. “(It) would be for like if you came out and said, ‘The UFC never tested me for the coronavirus.’ But if you had something critical to say about the testing that was true, that wouldn’t be disparagement.”
The clause stated that the company could revoke “all or any part of any prize monies” earned through participation in the event.
White addressed criticism that Souza, who was supposed to be isolating until his test result came back, was seen on a social media video in close proximity to heavyweight Fabricio Werdum, who fought on the undercard. White said Souza had followed the protocol, but was just around Werdum momentarily for the video, which lasted a few seconds.
“The optics obviously look really bad on that,” White said. “But this was our first one. Nothing goes 100 percent perfect. We did the best job we could going into this thing. This is a team effort. We can do everything perfect, but the fighters still have to do their part, too. Not just in the public, but when they go back to their rooms and at night, everyone has to be careful and do their part.”
The UFC plans to hold two more events in Jacksonville this week. “We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely,” White said.
According to White, several athletic commissions and sports organizations have been in contact with the UFC regarding their blueprint for returning to action.
Lopez confirmed that the Florida commission has received similar inquiries. He also confirmed White’s claim that the commission never wavered in its support even after the positive tests because the system worked in getting Souza removed before he fought.
While White said holding a card without fans definitely impacted the overall experience, he was thrilled with playing a role in the return of sports.
“I knew we could figure it out,” he said. “Even with all the hurdles we had early on, this has been fun. It’s been challenging and fun. I know that sounds a little demented to tell you I’ve had fun going through this, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge and the whole game of it.”
UFC 249 facts and figures
Fight of the night: Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje
Performances of the night: Justin Gaethje, Francis Ngannou