UFC chief Dana White’s determination to drag the mixed martial arts series out of coronavirus quarantine culminates on Sunday (AEDT) at UFC 249.
White’s controversial plans to stage a fight card in April in California were thwarted but he got the green light to hold bouts in Florida without spectators and will put on a card headlined by an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje.
Both fighters made weight at Saturday’s weigh-in where media members and most UFC staff were kept at a distance. Those closer to the fighters wore masks and the scale was sanitised.
But on Saturday morning the news White was hoping to avoid was announced, one fighter on the card returned a positive test for coronavirus.
Jacare Souza is off the card after a positive test being returned. Souza had weighed in and completed a stare down against his opponent Uriah Hall, which led MMA write Sean Sheehan to question how it got this far.
“Someone who has COVID-19 weighed-in and did a staredown before #UFC249. How the f*** did it get that far? More tests, further out are needed. Immediately,” he wrote.
Questions were also raised about just who Souza had come into contact with and who he had been around. With many left believing the event could simply not go ahead.
ESPN’s Ariel Helwani reported no other fighter on the card had returned a positive test and Souza had since left the hotel where the fighters were staying.
Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo and former champ Dominick Cruz both made weight for their title bout as well, which will be the co-main event on Sunday.
However, Jeremy Stephens wasn’t so lucky. His opponent Calvin Kattar weighed in at 146 pounds (66kg) for their featherweight clash, right on the limit, but Stephens came in heavy, tipping the scales at 150.5 pounds (68.3kg).
The American stripped down naked in the hope he’d squeeze in without the added weight of his clothes but that didn’t help.
Stephens has missed weight twice before in the UFC. In 2009 he weighed in 1.3kg over the limit for a fight against Gleison Tibau and in 2015 he was 2kg too heavy for a match-up with Dennis Bermudez.
“Lil Heathen”, who hasn’t won a fight since February 2018, will be fined 30 per cent of his purse while his fight with Kattar will go ahead as a catchweight bout.
WHITE WANTS TO LEAD THE WAY
With the NBA, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer all on hold — along with the US PGA Tour and LPGA — White touts the return of UFC as a step toward normalcy and a boon for sport-starved fans.
And he says that’s a step US President Donald Trump was backing in a conference call with US sports league leaders back in April.
“The president’s take on it was we have to get live sports back first,” White told the Los Angeles Times. “Show everybody how to do it safely. Give people who have to stay home some entertainment so they’re not bouncing off the walls. From there, we can figure out how we get people back to work and how we get kids back to schools.
“I’m going first. … hopefully after I do this, other leagues will start looking and say, ‘Yeah, we can do this’.”
White thought he would escape California state lockdown measures when he planned an event for April 18 on Indian casino land, but that plan eventually folded when Walt Disney Co, owner of UFC broadcaster ESPN, stepped in and asked him to postpone.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis opened the door when he gave “essential services” status to employees at pro sports and media productions with a national audience.
And White, who has also announced cards for May 13 and 16 in Jacksonville, insists the production won’t put anyone at risk.
“Listen, we have families, too,” White told CNN Sport. “I have a family; I don’t want to hurt my family. I don’t want to die.
“This isn’t just some crazy, this is a well thought-out plan. We’ve had very, very smart people, doctors and people that have been involved with the UFC for a very long time working on this thing non-stop since it started. We believe that we have this thing in a place where it can be as safe as it can possibly be.”