Marcus Gaethje was at dinner with his twin brother, Justin. It was May 8, and the Gaethjes and a few of Justin’s coaches had settled in at Chart House, an upscale seafood restaurant on the riverfront in Jacksonville, Florida.
About 24 hours later, Justin was scheduled to headline UFC 249, the first major sporting event in nearly two months. The card would take place inside an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena and feature Justin taking on Tony Ferguson for the UFC interim lightweight title. Marcus would help work his brother’s corner.
While at the table, the group saw news on social media they thought might put the card in jeopardy. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a fighter scheduled for the UFC 249 prelims, tested positive — along with two of his cornermen — for the coronavirus.
The UFC said in a statement that Souza and his corners were asymptomatic and were removed from the host hotel and told to isolate off premises.
“Justin said, ‘Man, I hope they don’t cancel the event,'” Marcus recalled. “No one called us or anything; we found out like everyone else, on the internet. So, we were kind of freaked out, trying to figure out what was going on.”
UFC president Dana White said UFC 249 was the toughest challenge the promotion ever faced. Originally scheduled for April 18 in Brooklyn, New York, with a main event of Ferguson vs. champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, the event changed locations and fight configurations because of the coronavirus pandemic, until settling on the lineup for Jacksonville. And now this, less than 24 hours before the first fight.
But although the Souza news disrupted Justin Gaethje‘s dinner, it did not affect his bout. Souza’s fight against Uriah Hall was pulled, and the card went on. Gaethje was spectacular in beating Ferguson by fifth-round TKO to claim the interim belt in one of the year’s best fights.
UFC 249 no longer was a challenge White needed to solve. He now described it as an unqualified success, a testament to the precautions his promotion took during the pandemic and an example for other sports to follow in returning to normalcy. But it was just the beginning of a historic, eight-day stretch that would feature two other cards with memorable fights, moments and behind-the-scenes controversy that combined to form a unique legacy for the UFC’s Jacksonville experience.
Tuesday, May 5
Calvin Kattar and his coach, Tyson Chartier, were checking into their hotel rooms at the Hyatt Regency Riverfront Jacksonville when Rob Font, Kattar’s teammate and a fellow UFC fighter, approached with urgent information about another coach on the team.
A few minutes earlier, Kattar’s team had taken two separate tests for COVID-19. One was for antibodies — not the active virus — in a finger-prick blood test that produces results in 15 minutes. The other was a diagnostic nasal swab test that is sent to a lab.
Kattar, Chartier and Font all tested negative for the antibody. The other coach tested positive, Chartier said.
A UFC official explained to the group that the promotion was going to reserve another room and the coach who tested positive needed to stay there — isolated — until the results came back from his diagnostic test.
“We weren’t allowed in his room,” Chartier said. “We would talk to him on the phone, but we weren’t allowed in his room.
“He was ordering Uber Eats and calling room service. For the most part, he was just playing video games the whole time. He brought his PS4 with him. It was a pretty laid-back week for him.”
Chartier, though, didn’t know if the quarantined coach would test positive for the active virus — the results wouldn’t be known for a few days. So, he called UFC welterweight Anthony Rocco Martin, who is close with the team, to see if he could drive from his home in Atlanta and corner Kattar for his fight against Jeremy Stephens. Martin said he could.
“The UFC handled everything perfectly, but it was just the unknown,” Chartier said. “It was an 18-week road to get where we’re going. The uncertainty of how the virus works, how the tests were gonna work, we didn’t know. We were just going through the process for the first time.”
Wednesday, May 6
Henry Cejudo said he had a 6-inch cotton swab stuck up his nose within 15 minutes of arriving at the hotel. Other than that, the bantamweight champ described the scene as “peaceful.”
During normal UFC pay-per-view fight weeks, the hotel lobby is bustling with fans, fighters’ family members, teammates and media. There wasn’t much congregating this time around. Most people passing through wore masks. Those involved with the event were required to undergo daily medical screenings, which included temperature checks. They had to wear credentials. Anyone could leave the hotel, but they were instructed to avoid gatherings.
“It’s just more calm,” Cejudo said. “Obviously, we know we’re fighting, but it doesn’t feel like fight week. It’s deserted, which is actually kind of peaceful. There are no fans waiting for us. There’s really no one from the outside coming in.
“For me, that’s the difference, besides taking a 6-inch Q-tip up the nose.”
Test number 3. COVID19 free pic.twitter.com/mzWFkWoNC5
— danawhite (@danawhite) May 15, 2020
The diagnostic test was not very popular with several of the fighters, most of whom arrived on May 6.
“The thing in the nose is not good s—,” heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou said. “It was the second time I did it. It was not good at all. It’s too weird. I think I’d rather take a punch than take that s—.”
For Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, the hotel was just a place to get tested. He slept in his RV.
Cerrone left his ranch near Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 5 and drove 26 hours in the RV — with some breaks at truck stops. Cerrone, who was scheduled to fight Anthony Pettis, did all the wheel work. Accompanying him were coaches John Wood, Jafari Vanier and Rodrigo Donoso.
Even though Cerrone was cutting weight, the group subsisted on gas station food for the most part, including a stop at Buc-ee’s in New Braunfels, Texas, which bills itself as the world’s largest convenience store. But the store didn’t have what Cerrone was craving: boiled peanuts.
“I think we might have been in Florida by the time we finally got them,” Wood said with a laugh. “Everywhere was out of them or didn’t have them. He was all about them, but they were pretty gross. They tasted like raw potatoes or something. I didn’t see the attraction to them.”
Thursday, May 7
By now, every UFC 249 fighter had arrived in Jacksonville. The UFC set up a virtual media day for reporters who weren’t on-site. It rotated fighters into a room with a chair and a laptop on a table. The area was sanitized between interviews.
“Any other fight week you go and the mat room is full, it’s 1,000 degrees,” Chartier said. “You feel like you can’t get a workout. You feel like everybody is watching you work out. Half the time you end up working out in the hotel room and just move the beds.”
UFC Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer was doing exactly that in his room at the Hyatt Regency.
“I stayed in my room,” he said. “I took walks around the riverfront by myself, with a mask and everything else, but then I trained every day. What I would do is, the living room I had in my room, I spaced out the furniture, and I would either train myself or I have a trainer that I did some virtual training with, every single day. I didn’t even go to the gym. I didn’t have the maids come in. I got plenty of towels. I wanted to stay as safe as possible.”
Friday, May 8
All the fighters and corners were again tested for COVID-19 with nasal swabs at weigh-ins.
Souza weighed in successfully, wearing a mask and — unlike other fighters — gloves. Minutes later, he engaged in a promotional stare-down with Hall but didn’t get close to him. He then fist-bumped White and was seen on a social media video interacting with heavyweight Fabricio Werdum shortly after weigh-ins.
During the stare-downs, Kattar’s team got word that the swab test came back negative for the coach who was quarantined, and he was cleared to corner.
Souza was not as lucky.
Uriah Hall showed compassion after his #UFC249 opponent Jacare tested positive for the coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/dtWTswg7bd
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 9, 2020
That evening, the UFC announced that Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus and had been taken off premises. Souza, who told the UFC someone in his family might have been exposed to COVID-19, was out of the fight with Hall. But the event would still go on. White said “the system worked.”
“I was very sad to not be able to fight at UFC 249, but I want you to know that, as soon as I’m medically cleared, I hope to reschedule my fight with Uriah Hall so that I can put on the show that everyone expects,” Souza wrote on Instagram. “I thank my corners for the partnership, my opponent for the words of support and the UFC for all the care.”
Saturday, May 9
This was more than just a canceled fight for Hall. He had moved from Las Vegas to Dallas in November to train at Fortis MMA gym, and his lease ended the day he was scheduled to fly to Brooklyn for the April 18 card. When that was delayed, Hall moved into the gym and lived there until traveling to Florida for a fight that would be canceled.
Hall was having breakfast with his two coaches and longtime MMA photographer Cooper Neill, who had gone through quarantine with Hall while chronicling his story in Dallas.
“Cowboy came by, looked at Uriah and told him, ‘If my fight goes well, we should fight Wednesday or Saturday,'” Neill said. “Uriah looked at him like he was joking, but Cowboy said, ‘No, I’m serious. I’m weighing 181 pounds, and we can fight at middleweight [which has a 185-pound limit].’
“I know Cowboy, and he wasn’t doing this for show or anything. He wasn’t doing it to get tweets or anything like that. He was genuinely offering to fight Uriah Hall. He knew Uriah needed a fight.”
That night, in the first UFC fight since the closed-arena card in Brazil on March 14, Ryan Spann beat Sam Alvey by split decision. Afterward, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan surprisingly got into the Octagon and interviewed Spann. The UFC had said there wouldn’t be postfight interviews in the Octagon to preserve social distancing. Spann’s coach, Sayif Saud, was glad Rogan went ahead with it anyway.
“He was giving Ryan love,” said Saud, who runs Fortis MMA. “Ryan got his moment. We were the first team in the first sport to win since the pandemic. That will always be us.”
Fighters were brought to the venue about 90 minutes before their bouts, which is different than during a typical event when teams arrive about 2½ to 3 hours before the fight. The UFC wanted to prevent as much mixing as possible. The locker room areas were sanitized before new teams entered. About four to six teams were inside the venue at a given time.
“Everything was smooth,” Chartier said. “They had a plan, and they executed it.”
Gaethje won the main event to set up a title unification bout with Nurmagomedov. It was the biggest win of Gaethje’s career, set against the backdrop of empty seats and masked personnel cageside.
“The walkout was definitely the biggest difference for me personally,” Marcus Gaethje said. “I tell everybody, there’s no feeling that can match the walkout with the crowd there. That’s a feeling you can’t copy in any situation. So, doing it without the fans, it was kind of like, ‘OK, this is cool … uhhh, it’s not the same.’ It almost felt like it was choreographed, like it was a practice run before the fights start, a walk-through for the broadcast.
“When you’re walking out with a crowd, you see the faces, there are hands trying to high-five you, you get that shot of adrenaline. … When we walked in, it was just flat. I don’t even know how to explain it.”
The dynamic extended beyond the fighters and their corners.
“I would hear different coaches call out different plays using their coded language, and I’d be able to see what the fighter did,” said Neill, who was positioned between a judge and one of the corners. “And the next time they called it out, I would have an idea of what their fighter was about to do, which was very interesting. It was like I was given the play 5 to 6 seconds in advance.
“I want to say it was Cejudo’s corner that called for ‘noodle,’ and it was a low leg kick. So whenever I would hear them call out ‘noodle’ again, I would zoom out to make sure I was getting a full-body shot and the leg kick would be in the frame. So that changed the way I approached it.”
Tuesday, May 12
Hall wasn’t the only one who experienced the disappointment of a canceled fight.
Marvin Vettori had been scheduled to fight March 21 in London. He flew there from California only to have the card canceled. He returned to California hoping to compete a few days later in a relocated event. That card also was scrapped. Vettori spent 22 hours in the air over two days for nothing.
The native of Italy was rebooked against Karl Roberson for May 13, but bad luck struck again. Roberson missed weight on May 12 by 1½ pounds. He became ill due to a bad weight cut later that night and had to be hospitalized.
By the following morning, Vettori found out from his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, that the bout was off and Vettori had made another trip in vain.
“F—ing nightmare again, man,” Vettori said.
Tempers and frustrations flared at the hotel the morning of May 13. Vettori said he approached Roberson and his coaches and asked what happened. Roberson initially seemed contrite, Vettori said, so he was about to walk away.
According to Vettori, Roberson then said he heard Vettori say during an interview that Roberson was scared to fight him. Vettori doubled down: “I said, ‘Hell yeah, I think that.'”
Vettori thought Roberson was readying to fight and launched into a profane verbal attack. Roberson’s coach, Brian Wright, wrote on Instagram that Vettori “ambushed us in the hotel lobby to make a scene and pretend he is a tough guy.”
The two were separated by UFC security.
“I just lost it over there,” Vettori said. “I was a little bit upset for how I reacted.
“Not too much with [the reaction to Roberson], but for the security. The security guys from the UFC, they’re the best.”
Two days later, Vettori weighed in for the second time in four days, this time as an alternate for the May 16 card. But no one needed an opponent, and he again was without a foe.
Now Vettori is in California, hoping to be added to a UFC card next month.
“There must be a nice end to this whole sad, f—ing period,” Vettori said. “There must be a positive end. I have to come out on top. Not just against my next opponent. I have to come out on top of this situation. It became personal.”
Wednesday, May 13
The return of the UFC helped ignite the busiest weekend for bettors and bookmakers since mid-March, and featherweight Brian Kelleher played a role in a certain bet paying off for the boss’ friend.
Kelleher knocked out Hunter Azure with a beautiful left hook in the second round of his fight.
Afterward, White pulled him aside. Azure won the first round, and Kelleher became a huge underdog on live betting sites going into the second.
“His friend placed a bet on me — a big bet,” Kelleher said. “And right after the bet, I knocked this guy out. He didn’t tell me how much, but I was like, ‘Dana, can I get a little percentage of that or what?'”
That didn’t quite work out, but Kelleher earned a $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus.
“As soon as I caught him and he fell back, I could hear [commentators Jon Anik and Paul Felder] go, ‘Ohh!'” Kelleher said. “You know when they yell. I heard that crystal clear. It was like, oh man, they know I got him. He’s done right now.”
The sounds in and around the cage were a steady thread through the three cards. UFC strawweight Carla Esparza and heavyweight Greg Hardy both said they heard commentator — and former two-division champion — Daniel Cormier on the call and adjusted their methods because of it.
On the May 13 card, Ricky Simon flexed when he heard the commentators say how big he was compared to opponent Ray Borg.
“It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Anik said. “I stopped worrying about [fighters hearing me] pretty quickly, because when there is a seminal blow or a punch, you have to punctuate it on the commentary, so it didn’t affect the way I actually called the end of fights.”
After Simon got the win over Borg, coaches Colin Oyama and Fabiano Scherner went to the top of the arena to find out what it would look and sound like. They watched the co-main event between Ovince Saint Preux and Ben Rothwell.
“You could hear the echoes of the punches and the kicks,” Oyama said. “Even when they hit the fence, you can hear that. It was definitely loud.”
In the main event, referee Jason Herzog had to block out, among other things, the sounds of the commentators, not an uncommon practice for officials. While Glover Teixeira was raining down punches on Anthony Smith, Felder and Cormier were talking about how the fight should be stopped.
“In that particular fight, I honestly don’t remember hearing people yell anything like, ‘Stop the fight,'” Herzog said. “If that happened, I didn’t hear it. … To be a good official, you need to be in the present moment entirely. You need to be focused on what’s happening like the competitors are focused on what’s happening.”
Social media buzzed after the fight with criticism of Herzog and Smith’s corner for not stopping the bout earlier. Herzog later took to Twitter to issue a general declaration that he is to blame for what happens in the Octagon while he is officiating. Smith later said he respected Herzog and would not have wanted his corner to stop the fight.
Friday, May 15
Urijah Faber stepped on the scale and weighed in at 153.5 pounds. Few at the time knew what was going on. The UFC Hall of Famer wasn’t scheduled to compete.
The morning after his 41st birthday, Faber cut about eight pounds to get under 155 just in case he was needed to fight Marlon Vera. Faber’s Team Alpha Male protégé Song Yadong, a Chinese prospect, was having visa issues, and the UFC was unsure if he would be eligible to fight. At one point, there was talk that Song could fly to Cancun and then come back to Jacksonville to clear customs.
It wasn’t necessary. Song was cleared Friday morning, but only after Faber cut the weight and hit the scale.
“It was all a false alarm,” Faber told Ariel Helwani on ESPN Radio. “I’ve gotta give credit to the UFC. It’s been a tough, tough road to get this stuff going in Florida. On top of that, this isn’t the only issue. They’re dealing with all sorts of freakin’ issues all over the place. … I can appreciate it, and I was ready to scrap. It would have been like an old-school, no-notice fight.”
Saturday, May 16
After a defeat at the hands of Alistair Overeem, Walt Harris gives an emotional speech in which he thanks all his fans and vows to come back a better fighter.
Mark Coleman went backstage. He was upset because his pupil, Matt Brown, had been knocked out during the prelims by Miguel Baeza. While Brown was getting looked at by the doctor, UFC reporter Megan Olivi approached Coleman for an interview.
Coleman was confused. His guy lost. What did they want to interview him about? Olivi said she’d go over the questions with him and told Coleman to sit down near a TV.
There was no interview. On the screen came the announcement that Kevin Randleman, Coleman’s longtime training partner and friend, would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame this year. Randleman died in 2016, and since then Coleman had lobbied for him to be given that distinction. Both men are former UFC heavyweight champions. Coleman already is in the Hall of Fame.
When he realized what he was seeing, Coleman broke down in tears.
“I was really confused, and it took me probably, I don’t know, 30 seconds before I realized, wow,” Coleman said. “I was just overwhelmed with emotion. Big time. Bittersweet. I was happy as I could be, but I was real emotional. I’m not afraid to say I cried. Yes, I cried. So many emotions going through me. Because he is my brother.”
Emotions also surrounded the main event. Walt Harris was fighting for the first time since his 19-year-old stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, was killed late last year. Harris nearly beat Alistair Overeem in the first round, but Overeem fought back for a second-round TKO.
With Harris still on his hands and knees, Overeem knelt beside him to offer consolation.
An emotional Harris thanked the UFC for the opportunity.
Ariel Helwani outlines why UFC would like to hold its next events in Las Vegas.
“You ain’t seen the last of ‘The Big Ticket,'” Harris said. “I’m gonna go home, heal emotionally and physically, and come back better than ever.”
As for the UFC, there was plenty of optimism for pursuing a regular schedule using these new protocols beginning May 30.
“I’m happy to have it behind me,” White said at the postfight news conference. “I wanted this week to be over. And it was successful in every way it could be successful. I feel great about it.”
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