The event, which is set to be the first major sporting event in the United States since the COVID-19 outbreak, was the focus of much of the sporting world as they watched with interest to see how the UFC dealt with the task of putting on a fight night during these times of social distancing.
Most of the signs during fight week had been positive. The UFC’s host hotel in Jacksonville had adopted strict rules regarding access, with only approved staffers and fighter teams allowed in and out of the building.
Nasal swab tests were compulsory for everybody, fighters, teammates and media, entering the hotel, and daily temperature checks and health consultations were implemented to help minimize the risks.
Media day was held via videoconferencing, and the weigh-ins were held on a sanitized scale, with many fighters opting to wear masks. Souza also wore gloves as he weighed in. Those recording the weigh-ins were spaced out in an appropriately distanced manner behind the cameras.
The measures in place have been both considered and considerable but, in this situation, the best the UFC could hope for was to minimize risk. Eliminating it entirely was a virtual impossibility.
And the worst-case scenario, a fighter or his team testing positive, has now happened – and at the worst possible time, too.
The news of Souza’s failed test broke overnight on Friday night, leaving no time for the UFC to realistically test everybody again AND get the results back. It puts them in a tricky position, to say the least.
The risk, which the UFC had worked so hard to minimize, has now increased with the knowledge that three infected people have been in the host hotel, and in closer proximity to others than the ESPN reporting would suggest.
Stephen A. Smith’s statement that Souza had been “isolated” during fight week isn’t entirely accurate. There have been clear instances where he wasn’t, most notably the weigh-ins, then the face-offs, on Friday.
More worrying was a video, now deleted, by former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum that showed himself, Souza and a number of other fighters, including featherweight Charles Rosa, all captured on camera within touching distance of each other on Friday. Clearly, while provisions were in place to keep fighters apart, they weren’t fully socially distanced at all times.
Less is known about the movements of his two cornermen, who also tested positive.
Some will now be asking whether the event should go ahead, while others are calling for prioritized, ramped-up testing of all fighters and staff ahead of fight night.
According to the statements from Jacksonville, the fights WILL indeed go ahead, with the Florida State Athletic Commission officially clearing the event to proceed.
The problem with that is the results have taken 24 hours to come back which, given the fights are set to take place later tonight, are too late to give the UFC the chance to remove any other potentially infected fighters from the card.
Put simply, the UFC had three infected people in their hotel, who weren’t completely isolated and were, at points, in close proximity contact with at least a couple of other fighters. That puts a big question mark over the other fighters and staffers who came into contact with “Jacare” and his cornermen this week.
My belief was always that if any sporting organization was able to put on a show under conditions like these, it’s the UFC. They’ve shown their agility as an organization time after time as they’ve adapted to setbacks over the years. And they’re strong enough and well-funded enough as a business to spend the sort of money needed to put these additional measures in place.
But now, given the recent news, and the unfortunate timing of it, it seems highly unlikely that the UFC can say with any degree of confidence that the fighters stepping into the octagon on fight night are COVID-19 negative.
Unless there’s an 11th-hour decision to pull the plug on the event, it seems we’ll be getting live fights on our screens tonight. And sports fans around the world will be treated to a fight card packed with some truly outstanding matchups.
But while we’ll sit down to enjoy the fights, we’ll also do so in the knowledge that, despite the UFC’s considerable efforts, the coronavirus still made it into the UFC hotel during fight week.
That knowledge means that the shadow of COVID-19 will loom large over UFC 249 when the fights get underway later tonight.
By Simon Head