After being deprived of live action for weeks, sports fanatics will finally have a suspenseful event they can cheer and tune into tonight when MMA fighters go toe-to-toe at UFC 249. Though the event has (finally) arrived, it didn’t get here without controversy. But despite rescheduling, relocating, the reshuffling of fighters, and so much more uncertainty, just about every sports fan and sports league decision-maker will be watching closely and hoping for a huge success.
UFC 249 will act as an indicator for other sports leagues, with the outcome of the event answering a very critical question: Can live sports continue during a social-distancing era, and without fans in attendance? Since gatherings have come to a halt, the NBA, MLB, NCAA, and many other leagues have all floated the idea of resuming games without fans. Sure, it isn’t ideal. The cheers and jeers of live crowds add needed intensity to clutch moments in sports. The sounds, or lack of, in a fan-less sporting event will surely feel awkward for the athletes competing and the millions of viewers at home. But maybe something is better than nothing. That’s what UFC chairman Dana White is betting on.
If White can pull this off with high pay-per-view viewership numbers, it will send a strong message to other league officials that, fans in attendance or not, people want and need live sports to look forward to.
UFC 249 was initially planned to take place on April 18 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY headlined by the much-anticipated battle between undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and former interim champ Tony Ferguson. The scheduled co-main fight was between former UFC women’s straw-weight champion Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade. All of those details subsequently started to crumble.
The venue became out of the question as NYC went on lockdown. White persisted, securing an alternate location, but couldn’t lock it down in time for April 18. The event was rescheduled a couple of times. He was eventually able to secure a venue, VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, but with the caveat of having no fans in attendance.
Nurmagomedov, who had been training in California, went back to Russia with the understanding that the fight will likely take place overseas. Being out of the U.S. instantly complicated his ability to participate in UFC 249 if it were to occur in the States because of travel restrictions. His absence seemed to almost guarantee a complete cancellation of the event. However, White wasted no time in replacing him with Justin Gaethje.
Additionally, the co-main fight had been called off after Namajunas withdrew due to two coronavirus-related deaths in her family. Right up until yesterday, another fight scheduled for tonight between Uriah Hall and Ronaldo Souza has been canceled after the 26-9 Brazilian fighter, Souza, tested positive for COVID-19.
If there were ever an event that appeared to be cursed with controversy, it is UFC 249. But even more so, what it has proven is how persistent Dana White can be. His determination could be what finally breaks the ice and gets fans across the country what they’ve been missing for weeks: Live sports.
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