U.F.C.’s owners insist they are not holding the bouts because of financial pressures.
Dana White went from downplaying the risk from the coronavirus to acknowledging it while insisting that the U.F.C. would be the first sport back. Why the rush?
It’s not financial, according to Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, which owns the U.F.C. “We are not putting fights on to satisfy any contracts or because of any particular financial situation at Endeavor,” Shapiro said. Endeavor has $4.6 billion in debt, and has laid off, furloughed or cut the pay of a third of their 7,500 worldwide employees.
Instead, he and U.F.C. officials have said their efforts are in service of the athletes, who do not get paid unless they perform. “We have fighters itching to fight, and that have contracts that require us to put them into an octagon,” Shapiro said.
One fight was canceled because an athlete and two cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus.
Usually in early May, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is competing with the N.B.A. and N.H.L. playoffs, a full slate of baseball games and other big events like the Kentucky Derby and boxing.
Not on Saturday night, as the U.F.C. attempts to stage fights amid the coronavirus pandemic. U.F.C. 249 is being held in Jacksonville, Fla., where state authorities have deemed professional sports (and even professional wrestling) an essential business. Athletic regulators there agreed to sanction mixed martial arts bouts when other states, like New York and California, have not during the outbreak.
The event is going forward even though one of the U.F.C.’s 24 fighters, Ronaldo Souza, and two of his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus Friday in the run-up to the fight. U.F.C. officials have been guarded about their measures to keep fighters safe during three events planned — including two next week — but they insist they can minimize the risks associated with large gatherings.
Souza, who was not showing symptoms, told the promotion company when he arrived in Jacksonville on Wednesday that one of his relatives might have had the virus, a U.F.C. executive told ESPN, which is airing the preliminary bouts and selling the pay-per-view card.
The headline fight is between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, an interim lightweight title bout that pits two combatants who have a history of exciting knockouts.
There are 11 fights scheduled.
The main pay-per-view card on ESPN+ features five bouts, with Ferguson and Gaethje in the main event. The full list:
Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje, interim lightweight championship
Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz, bantamweight championship
Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik, heavyweight
Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar, featherweight
Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro, heavyweight
There are six preliminary bouts:
Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone, welterweight
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum, heavyweight
Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson, strawweight
Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price, welterweight
Bryce Mitchell vs. Charles Rosa, featherweight
Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey, light heavyweight
Who is Dana White?
Dana White has been president of the U.F.C. for almost 20 years, a tenure that has seen mixed martial arts rise from a niche sport banned in many states to one minting worldwide superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. But after earning hundreds of millions of dollars, why is he still working 24/7, and does the U.F.C. still need a bombastic street fighter as a leader?
Where is Khabib Nurmagomedov?
The undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to headline this card with a title defense against Tony Ferguson. Instead, he is in his native Dagestan, the Russian Republic, where pandemic-related travel restrictions prevent him from leaving.
Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have now been scheduled to fight five different times, with each bout canceled for progressively extreme reasons — injuries, illness and now a global outbreak. Ferguson has accused Nurmagomedov of deliberately avoiding a U.F.C. 249 showdown, but the promotion company’s president, Dana White, insists that the champion was ready for this fight and simply got marooned in Dagestan, while the U.F.C. scrambled to find a location and work out other logistics for Saturday’s card.
“The world was literally changing by the day,” White said in a recent interview with BT Sport. “We had all made some bad decisions that got him stuck in Moscow.” White added: “I take responsibility for that, too. It happened.”
For his part, Nurmagomedov awaits the winner of Saturday’s main event, and says he will be prepared to fight after Ramadan, which ends May 23.
“It was the best training camp,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post, referring to his preparation for the Ferguson bout. “I haven’t felt myself that good for a while.”
He pledged to “come back even better.”
Conor McGregor, the U.F.C.’s biggest pay-per-view attraction, has been at home in Ireland, where he will watch Saturday’s card to size up future opponents and judge how the sport is organized amid the pandemic.
Where is Dominick Cruz?
He’s back in the octagon after more than three years away from competition, facing the bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo.
Cruz won 12 straight bouts between 2008 and 2016, a run that has prompted many observers to rate him as the best bantamweight ever. But he also dealt with injuries and layoffs. After defeating Demetrious Johnson in October 2011, he didn’t fight again until September 2014, when he knocked out Takeya Mizugaki. Cruz then missed all of 2015 before fighting twice in 2016, his most recent bout a unanimous decision loss to Cody Garbrandt.
Since then, Cruz has worked as an analyst on U.F.C. broadcasts, but he never retired. In prefight promotional videos, Cruz and the U.F.C. have been selling the idea that his time on the sidelines will make him a smarter fighter.
Cruz, now 34, made clear to reporters during an online news conference on Thursday that he doesn’t believe in ring rust, the idea that time away from competition dulls a fighter’s skills. Instead, he said, he’s happy to be healthy enough to compete and confident even as he faces Cejudo.
“It creates a thankfulness for little things,” Cruz said Thursday. “I’m grateful to be in this position.”
Where is Grandma Cerrone?
Whenever Donald Cerrone fights, his grandmother Jerry Cerrone usually sits ringside. After Conor McGregor knocked out Cerrone in January, Jerry entered the octagon to console her grandson, who is nicknamed Cowboy, and was herself consoled by a victorious McGregor. But when Cerrone packed up his R.V. to drive from New Mexico to Jacksonville, Fla., for Saturday’s fights, he left Jerry at home.
Not that he wanted to. Cerrone told reporters on Thursday that his grandmother had volunteered to make the drive with him, and that he wanted her in Jacksonville during his fight against Anthony Pettis.
But, he said, Dana White insisted that the 82-year-old Jerry Cerrone stay home to limit the number of people involved with the event, and the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“I’m not going to be the guy that gets Grandma sick,” Cerrone recalled White telling him.