UFC returns in America with cage floor disinfected between bouts and staff and media tested for coronavirus

Gareth A Davies
The Telegraph
Justin Gaethje punches Tony Ferguson during their Interim lightweight title fight - Getty Images
Justin Gaethje punches Tony Ferguson during their Interim lightweight title fight - Getty Images

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was the first sport to return to action in America in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Present Trump praised the sport for resuming following an absence of eight weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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A taped message from Trump was played during the broadcast of the UFC 249 event in Jacksonville, Florida, which took place behind closed doors, aired on ESPN as a pay-per-view event in America, and shown on BT Sport in the UK. 

The fighters and staff at the event - numbering around 300 people including 24 fighters, had undergone daily Covid-19 nasal swab tests, antibody tests, and temperature tests in a sealed off hotel, housing the participants.

"I want to congratulate Dana White (the fight league's president) and the UFC," Trump said. "They're going to have a big match. We love it. We think it's important. Get the sports leagues back. Let's play. Do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back. Congratulations to Dana White and UFC."

The event had one casualty from its process when the fighter Jacare Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday, the Brazilian's contest with American Uriah Hall called off. The Brazilian and his team are now in quarantine. 

White reported that in total 1,200 Covid-19 tests had been undertaken during the week.Fighters taking part at the UFC 249 event had been asked to sign an eight-page event participation agreement and were at risk of losing their purses and bonuses if they publicly criticised the fight promotion’s health and safety precautions for Covid-19.

A non-disparagement clause in the agreement stated that “the Participant will not suggest or communicate to any person or entity” that the events “have been or will be held without appropriate health, safety or other precautions, whether relating to Covid-19 or otherwise.”

White, however, told Yahoo Sports at the event that fighters would not be punished for airing their opinions on the health and safety arrangements. “If a fighter says something that isn’t true or if he says we didn’t test anyone for this or that would (violate the agreement). But if he said something that was true, his opinion, then that is different,” White said.

With no audience at the event, every shout of advice or encouragement from the corners of the fighters could be heard, while some of the 22 fighters saluted an imaginary audience on the way to the combat arena.

It was so quiet that one commentator, the UFC heavyweight Daniel Cormier, was heard giving advice to one of the fighters in his commentary role, with the fighter Greg Hardy later saying he had heard it, followed the advice, and believed it helped him claim victory.

Headliner Tony Ferguson, who lost the Interim Lightweight title by referee stoppage in the fifth round having been dominated by opponent Justin Gaethje, was taken to hospital on precautionary grounds, while former Olympic wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo retired from the sport after retaining the bantamweight title after stopping Dominick Cruz in the second round of their title contest. 

Cruz complained about the stoppage, later claiming that the referee 'smelt like alcohol and cigarettes' . There were some contradictions with regard to social distancing. Some wore masks, others did not. Many of those in attendance wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate.

Referees, the ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring card girl were unmasked. Between bouts, the cage floor was disinfected and the padded sections were cleaned. The event is likely to provide an acid test for other combat sports organisations to return. 

The UFC will now hold events on Wednesday and next Saturday at the same event, with the same coronavirus testing procedures in place.

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