At a news conference after a pay-per-view card, Dana White, the Ultimate Fighting Championship president, usually strolls to the dais clutching a sheet of paper and reads out the event’s attendance and ticket revenue.
But U.F.C. 249 in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday night wasn’t a usual fight card. It landed there after the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement and a venue change. Along the way, the U.F.C. had to replace one of the fighters in the main event. And the fight card, the first major North American pro sports competition since mid-March, unfolded without spectators, who were barred from the arena under guidelines meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Still, after Justin Gaethje beat Tony Ferguson to win the interim lightweight belt, White appeared at the postfight news conference as he always does, stat sheet in hand.
“Gate was zero. Attendance was zero,” he said. “That’s a first.”
But despite the hit to ticket revenue, White left Saturday’s event optimistic about the near-term future.The U.F.C. has two more events scheduled for Jacksonville this week, on Wednesday and Saturday, and White is seeking clearance from the Nevada Athletic Commission to host fights on May 23 at the U.F.C.’s Apex Center in Las Vegas. He held up Saturday’s event as proof that under the right guidelines, pro sports events could proceed safely.
“We can share what we learned here, doing three events, with other sports leagues, who are reaching out to us and asking,” White said at the news conference.
In late April, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the leading U.S. infectious disease expert, said in an interview with The New York Times that widespread testing with rapid, reliable results would be needed if sports leagues were to safely restart their seasons.
After Friday morning’s weigh-ins, the light-heavyweight Ronaldo Souza, a Brazilian fighter nicknamed Jacaré, tested positive for the coronavirus, the only positive test among the 24 fighters who were scheduled to compete. Two months ago, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test prompted the N.B.A. to suspend its season, and spurred other leagues to follow suit. But on Saturday, the U.F.C. simply canceled Souza’s bout with Uriah Hall and proceeded with the event.
Afterward, White conceded that when spreading 1,200 Covid-19 screenings across 300 personnel such as fighters, officials, judges, cornermen, broadcast crew, ESPN employees and ringside staff, as the U.F.C. did last week, a few positive tests were inevitable. But he said that the experience with Souza, who was first tested on Wednesday, with a positive result coming back on Friday, proved that the safety measures were working as designed.
“The system worked,” White said.
Souza’s withdrawal was the second change to the U.F.C. 249 card. Ferguson was originally scheduled to face the lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on April 18 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But in late March, as the coronavirus spread in New York City, the New York State Athletic Commission ruled that U.F.C. 249 could not take place in the state.
By then the U.F.C. was scouting alternate venues, but a plan to host the bouts on tribal land in California collapsed when high levels of leadership at Disney and ESPN, the U.F.C.’s broadcast partner, implored White to postpone the card. As the search for a new date and location continued, Nurmagomedov returned to his native Russia, and was marooned there by pandemic-related travel restrictions.
By the time the U.F.C. confirmed Jacksonville as U.F.C. 249’s host, Gaethje had replaced Nurmagomedov in the main event. Gaethje, a power-punching former college wrestler from Arizona, scored an upset win over Ferguson, a relentless veteran who had won his last 12 bouts.
From the opening horn, Gaethje outgunned Ferguson. Gaethje landed right hands and left hooks with such force that between rounds his cornermen asked him to dial back the power to improve his accuracy and guard against early fatigue. In the final seconds of Round 2, Ferguson landed an uppercut that wobbled Gaethje, but the horn sounded before he could follow up.
From there, Gaethje continued his assault, bloodying Ferguson’s face by Round 3, and landing a debilitating leg to the thigh in the fourth.
With 90 seconds remaining in the final round, Gaethje landed a stiff jab that made Ferguson swoon. When he swooped in with a follow-up barrage, the referee, Herb Dean, stopped the fight.
“I put myself in a position to be here,” Gaethje said. “And I capitalized on it.”
For his part, Ferguson said the switch in opponents hurt his preparation. He told the in-ring interviewer, Joe Rogan, that he had trained since November to face Nurmagomedov, a wrestling specialist, and had only a few weeks to plan for Gaethje, who wins fights with power punches.
“We prepared for Khabib, not too much for a striker,” Ferguson said, adding, “What can you do?”
The loss knocks Ferguson from the front of a long line of contenders seeking to fight either of the lightweight division’s two biggest draws — Nurmagomedov or the wildly popular Conor McGregor. Ferguson and Nurmagomedov have been scheduled to fight each other five times, with each bout eventually canceled for reasons ranging from freakish injuries to a pandemic. After Saturday, White said the U.F.C. did not plan to match them a sixth time.
In mid-January, before the Covid-19 pandemic and after McGregor ended an 18-month layoff with a 40-second blowout win over Donald Cerrone, White said a McGregor-Nurmagomedov rematch, possibly in a football stadium, would most likely happen this year. Their first bout ended with a submission win for Nurmagomedov and a postfight brawl that earned both fighters suspensions. The brawl also made a second bout an easy sell.
But Gaethje’s win, and the interim title, put him in a position to challenge Nurmagomedov next.