The Ultimate Fighting Championship plans to hold at least three events in Florida in May with the blessing of state regulators and elected officials. They would be the mixed martial arts organization’s first fights since the widespread shutdown of sports because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.F.C. has scheduled events for May 9, 13 and 16 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, according to a statement. The first will be a pay-per-view event headlined by a title bout between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, the same fight that was supposed to headline an event last weekend in California but was canceled. Lineups for the two other events were not announced.
Fans won’t be allowed into the arena, and the fights will be sanctioned by the Florida State Boxing Commission.
Dana White, the U.F.C. president, has seen his plans to hold fights throughout the outbreak stymied by state governments’ stay-at-home mandates for workers deemed nonessential. He went so far as to try to hold U.F.C. 249 on tribal land in California without widely disclosing its location, but California state officials expressed concerns about the plan to Disney and ESPN.
Disney owns ESPN, which pays the U.F.C. hundreds of millions of dollars annually to show its fights. When White called off the event, he said he had received calls from “the highest level” at Disney and ESPN asking him to cancel.
In Florida, however, the U.F.C. has found a welcoming home. Earlier this month, the director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management amended its list of essential services, adding “employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience.” This has allowed World Wrestling Entertainment to hold televised events in the state, and will apparently let the U.F.C. do the same.
Having the state and local government on board, as well as the state’s boxing commission, has mollified any concerns that ESPN — which, with few live events to show, has seen its viewership fall dramatically — might have had about the event. “We look forward to bringing U.F.C. to fans again,” the network said in a statement.
White has insisted he can safely go forward with events, but has provided almost no details about how that can be achieved. He has not said whether the U.F.C. has obtained Covid-19 tests, whether fighters and other personnel will be tested or quarantined, or what will happen if a fighter does become infected. When White was asked by ESPN on Friday if the fighters would be tested for the coronavirus, he did not directly answer the question.
“We are going to spend a lot of money to make sure the people are safe,” White said in an interview conducted live on Instagram. He said that there was a possibility for another event on May 23 and that he was still pressing forward with a plan to hold bouts on a private island outside the United States in June, though he gave no details.
The Association of Ringside Physicians has said that all combat sports should be paused during the pandemic, and the virus has already affected some of the fighters who were supposed to compete last weekend at U.F.C. 249. The welterweight Lyman Good pulled out of the event in early April with an unspecified injury, but recently revealed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. And the strawweight Rose Namajunas withdrew before that event was canceled, as her manager explained that two of her relatives had died of issues “related to the coronavirus.”
The twists and turns of the last month, along with White’s hesitancy about revealing certain details of an event, mean that fighters may be in for a few surprises before they reach the octagon. When Ferguson found out that the California was canceled, the information came not from the organization, but from a reporter in the middle of an interview. And Gaethje learned he was the headliner for the May 9 event only when White announced it to the world.
“Man, it’s very hard as a fighter to find out information on the internet, but that’s essentially how I find out everything,” he told ESPN this week. “Emotionally, as a fighter, it’s very hard to cope with. It’s hard to turn it on, and it’s hard to turn it off.”