It appears the UFC’s indefinite suspension of events during the global coronavirus pandemic won’t last long.
On Friday, the UFC announced its plan to bring back fights in a big way, beginning with UFC 249. The May 9 pay-per-view will kick off a trio of events closed to the public that also includes dates on May 13 and May 16 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., with the regulatory oversight of the Florida State Athletic Commission.
UFC 249 will be a 12-fight card that features two championship fights, headlined by an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo will take on Dominick Cruz in the co-headliner.
Fights for events beyond UFC 249 are unknown.
“I can’t wait to deliver some great fights for the fans,” UFC president Dana White in a statement. “I want to give a big thanks to Mayor Curry, VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena and Florida State Boxing Commission executive director Patrick Cunningham for getting this thing done and giving us a venue to put on these incredible cards, as well as our media partners including ESPN and ESPN+, for bringing it to fans. My team is ready to go, and the fighters are excited to get back in there with these back-to-back events.”
This marks the UFC’s third attempt at a return after initially canceling three events through April 4. UFC 249 originally was scheduled for April 18 in Brooklyn, N.Y., but Barclays Center quickly became a non-option as the coronavirus outbreak forced a ban on mass gatherings (and eventually stay-at-home orders) in New York and nationwide.
In response, the UFC tried getting around California’s order by still hosting UFC 249 on April 18 on tribal land at Tachi Palace Casino Resort near Fresno, but that plan was shut down after Gov. Gavin Newsom urged Disney/ESPN, the UFC’s broadcast partner, to intervene.
Florida became an attractive option for the UFC after WWE was allowed to continue filming shows at its Performance Center in Orlando. Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order regarding essential businesses, which included “employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience – including any athletes, entertainers, production team, executive team, media team and any others necessary to facilitate including services supporting such production – only if the location is closed to the general public.”
The UFC’s plan, while still controversial amid the global coronavirus pandemic, has received the full endorsement of both ESPN and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.
“Sports play an important role in people’s lives and can bring moments of escape in challenging times,” ESPN said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing UFC to fans again.”
Added Curry: “The UFC organization is a renowned entertainment brand that’s presented a safe and sensible plan to use this Jacksonville location, and we are thrilled to have our city highlighted nationally on ESPN and ESPN+.”
White, who in the past has scoffed at the dangers of coronavirus, told ESPN that the UFC intends to go above and beyond to ensure fighter safety during the escalation of COVID-19, which is up to 906,000 cases and 51,000 deaths in the U.S. Globally, there have been 2.8 million cases and 195,000 deaths.
White declined to answer directly when asked if fighters specifically will be tested for COVID-19.
“We’re gonna follow all the rules and guidelines for social distancing, screening, the list goes on and on,” White said. “We have a whole comprehensive plan. We have a 30-page plan that we submitted to the governor of Nevada (where UFC is headquartered) on not just how we’re gonna run the sport but run our office when things get back to normal. Health and safety is something that we think about all the time, every week, coronavirus, no coronavirus. It’s a big deal to us.
“Obviously I’ve been out in front of this thing talking about finding solutions. We’re gonna do everything we can. We’re gonna spend a lot of money to make sure that people are safe.”
UFC 249 originally was to be headlined by a lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. Once Nurmagomedov was forced to withdraw because of travel restrictions in his native Russia, the UFC inserted Gaethje to fight Ferguson for an interim title.