Updated May 6, 2020 - 9:01 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — UFC heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou was welcomed to the mostly empty Hyatt Regency downtown Wednesday by a 6-inch swab jammed into his nose.
The procedure was part of a coronavirus screening performed on each fighter and staffer working the UFC 249 pay-per-view event, which will take place in front of no fans and minimal personnel Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
“It was my second time taking it, and it’s still weird,” the Las Vegan Ngannou, who will fight Jairzinho Rozenstruik, said of the nasal swab test. “It’s not comfortable, but we have to do it. It’s for the safety of everyone.”
The UFC is set to be the first major U.S. sport to return to competition after a nearly two-month shutdown because of the pandemic. Its last event was at an empty arena March 14 in Brazil, making the organization one of the last to discontinue competitions.
There was an attempt to host UFC 249 on April 18 on tribal lands in California, but broadcast partner ESPN asked UFC president Dana White to call off the card because of government pressure. While that event was going to be self-sanctioned and take place outside the realm of government regulation, Saturday’s is fully approved.
UFC officials put together a nearly 30-page proposal outlining health and safety measures for the card, and the plan was approved by Florida officials.
The organization intends to host three events in eight days at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, and White told the Review-Journal on Wednesday that he is working on a plan to host an event May 23 in Las Vegas. A Nevada Athletic Commission representative declined comment on the feasibility of that event coming to fruition with the state still largely locked down and a moratorium on combat sports in place.
The three Florida events will take place just blocks from a free drive-thru testing site at TIAA Bank Field for any elderly or symptomatic person, as well as any front-line workers.
All UFC fighters and personnel have their temperature taken upon arrival at the hotel, where they are mostly expected to remain isolated throughout their stay except for fight night at the nearby arena. They also are asked a series of questions about their health, including travel history and whether they have experienced symptoms.
Then comes the nasal swab and a finger prick to take blood for an antibody test, followed by a suggestion to remain isolated until the results come back.
“One of my trainers was (expletive) scared (expletive),” said Tony Ferguson, who will fight in the main event against Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title.
Ngannou, who also took the test when he was scheduled to fight April 18, gritted his teeth and was audibly uncomfortable.
The technician noted some resistance in the nostril and commented he must have broken his nose at some point.
“I don’t know how I feel about everything yet,” Ngannou said of the unique logistics, which include fighters only being allowed to bring licensed cornermen on the trip. “I won’t really know until fight night, but it’s definitely not like how it usually is. It’s something very different, but life is about new experiences, and this is definitely new. Nothing is normal right now.”
The health and safety protocols extend far beyond the screenings, which will be done daily in some form. All crew members and staffers will wear personal protective equipment on fight night, and postfight interviews are expected to take place away from the cage, which might be disinfected between fights.
The typical fight-night production crew will be cut by about 35 percent, according to a person familiar with the plans. The limited number of staff and media members will be spread out in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
While several workout rooms are typically set up at the host hotel, each fighter has a dedicated personal room this week. The UFC would ordinarily bring four portable saunas for fighters cutting weight; they brought 26 to Jacksonville.
After issuing a statement in early April calling for the postponement of all combat sports, the Association of Ringside Physicians has softened its stance based on additional safety protocols.
“Although it is impossible to eliminate all risk of COVID-19, precautions can be made to reduce the risk of viral transmission,” a statement read. “Many athletic commissions, organizations and promotions are developing new guidelines to limit exposure to all involved at events, including athletes, their teams, commission personnel and support staff.
“Combat sports event procedures regarding COVID-19 precautions should be actively developed, regularly reviewed and modified based on the evolving knowledge and scientific evidence put forth by public health authorities. These guidelines should also involve local and regional public health officials as well as infectious disease experts and epidemiologists.”
The pay-per-view event streams live at 7 p.m. Saturday through ESPN Plus.