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Nothing normal about a return to sports at UFC 249

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m nowhere near as tough as UFC heavyweight star Francis Ngannou.

That’s why I started to get nervous watching him uncomfortably get through his coronavirus nasal swab test as he checked in for UFC 249 fight week at the downtown Hyatt Regency on Wednesday. I was loosely shadowing him to try to detail the check-in process for one of the strangest sporting events I have covered, and I knew my test was next.

Turns out, it wasn’t that bad. The technician told me that of all the fighters, staffers and even media who are undergoing the testing protocols, the fighters generally have it the worst because of the damage their noses have taken.

Makes sense. For the rest of us, the test looks far more uncomfortable than it is. The swab enters far beyond a point you think is possible, then sends a bit of a shock through your brain and it’s over. I wanted to flinch, but my pride took over with several spectators looking on. Several commented that I appeared to handle it like a champ. Looks can be deceiving.

The antibody test also was fairly easy, just a finger prick and then 10 nervous minutes waiting for the result.

Turns out, I was the first person of the day to test positive for the “good” antibodies that indicate I might have been infected at some point and recovered. I was very ill a few months ago, but not treated. That might have been it. It also could be that I had it at some other time and was asymptomatic. Or it was a false positive.

Regardless, I was told it was good news, but not to treat it as some “Get Out of Jail” free card that allowed me to wander freely as if I were immune. Not enough is known yet.

So, like everyone else, I was instructed to do my best to self-isolate until the results of the swab test were back. Mine was negative.

It was all part of the UFC’s plan to bring live sports back and start to regain some sense of normalcy.

Nothing was ordinary, however. Sanitation stations were everywhere, as were employees wiping down surfaces throughout the host hotel. Everyone entering the common areas, including those staying off property like myself, were subject to temperature checks in order to get wristbands each day.

So much for a relaxing evening

Things were going fairly well until Friday night. That’s usually the time during fight week when the prefight work is done and there is a ton of networking among fighters, agents, UFC officials and even the media. This was especially true for this event as we gathered at a local restaurant.

Most of the conversations involved some form of discussion about how the week had gone, with plenty of chatter about how smooth things had been. Then the texts started popping into everyone’s phone moments before the news broke on Twitter that Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen had tested positive and would be removed from the card.

Speculation circulated about the card being canceled, but UFC officials and the Florida State Boxing Commission quickly confirmed that the fights would go on the next night.

After working the rest of the night on the breaking news, there was a quick check of the phone Saturday morning to make sure the event was still a go. Once confirmed, it was off to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, where attendees were greeted by more temperature checks and empty concourses.

Fanless fights surreal experience

You understand you’re going to cover a cage fight on essentially a closed TV set instead of in front of what normally is a raucous, wild gathering of mayhem-loving fans juiced up on alcohol and adrenaline. But it’s still a bit jarring once the fights start and there’s no buzz in the arena.

The piercing sound of leather impacting flesh on each punch, the way the coaches’ and commentators’ voices carried through the hollow space and the sound of heavy breathing, particularly later in the fights, was unexpected.

But the action was good, especially the thrilling main event and the stellar performance of Justin Gaethje. The postfight news conference was another exercise in social distancing. With about 10 credentialed media members, each had his own table and microphone.

It’s not fair to call the way the UFC conducted things for the first major sporting event back in business the new normal. It’s temporary, but it might have to do for a while.

It would sure be nice if travel remained so simple. My first flight experience since the start of the pandemic was glorious, as long as you’re OK with wearing a face mask from door to door. Planes 90 percent empty, security lines lightning fast and suitcases waiting on the carousel in the baggage claim before passengers even make it there?

What a dream. Again, not permanent but a brief ray of sunshine in these dismal times.

As for Ngannou, the nasal swab was the biggest shot he took all week.

He needed all of 20 seconds to knock out Jairzinho Rozenstruik on Saturday night.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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