Sport UFC 249 does its best to put up a good fight as US sport returns without fans

UFC 249 does its best to put up a good fight as US sport returns without fans

Calvin Kattar and Jeremy Stephens fight during an eerily quiet UFC 249 on Sunday in Jacksonville, Florida. Photo: AP
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Blood, sweat, swollen eyelids and face masks signalled the return of UFC, the first major sporting event to resume in the United States since the coronavirus shuttered much of the country for nearly two months.

UFC 249 ushered in a new look for sports, too – one without fans and amid several safety precautions.

Kicks, punches and grunts echoed through the empty arena.

Coaches, commentators and camera clicks resonated like never before.

It was definitely different – two fighters adjusted their approaches because of what they heard announcers say – and a welcome reprieve for a sports-craved country that went nearly eight weeks with few live events.

“We did this for you, to bring sports back,” fighter Tony Ferguson told fans following his loss in the main event.

Five hours after President Donald Trump congratulated UFC for restarting the sports world, Justin Gaethje stunned the heavily favoured Ferguson (26-4) in the finale.

Gaethje earned a TKO in the fifth and final round of the headline bout that was deemed an interim lightweight title bout.

It essentially gives Gaethje (22-2) the right to fight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov next.

The Russian was unable to fight this weekend because of travel restrictions.

“I want the real one,” Gaethje screamed as he threw down the interim belt.

“There’s no other fight I want right now.”

The stacked card saw 33-year-old Henry Cejudo, with blood gushing from his forehead, successfully defend his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz and then announce his retirement in the middle of the octagon.

“I really do want to walk away, but money talks,” said Cejudo, an Olympic gold medallist in 2008.

“It gets stagnant. I want to leave on top.”

The event also included heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou pummelling another opponent, former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy winning for the sixth time in eight fights, and former welterweight champion and fan favourite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone losing his fourth straight.

UFC 249 was originally scheduled for April 18 in New York, but was postponed in hopes of helping slow the spread of COVID-19.

The mixed martial arts behemoth will hold three shows in eight days at Jacksonville, where state officials deemed professional sports with a national audience exempt from a stay-at-home order as long as the location is closed to the public.

The UFC came up with a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, procedures that led to Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza testing positive for COVID-19.

His middleweight bout against Uriah Hall was cancelled that night. Souza’s two cornermen also tested positive, the UFC said.

UFC president Dana White didn’t want to postpone any fights.

He tried to host the event on tribal land in California and still hopes to create a “Fight Island” for future cards.

Judges and broadcasters worked from separate tables.

Fighters, trainers, referees, judges, UFC staff and even outside media had to undergo COVID-19 testing to get inside Veterans Memorial Arena.

Many of those in attendance on Saturday wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate.

Referees, ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring girl were unmasked.

The cage floor was disinfected between bouts, and the padded parts of the octagon were wiped down between rounds.