DR. DONALD MUZZI sat in his Sarasota, Florida, home April 25 on a phone call with Dr. Jeffrey Davidson, the UFC's chief physician. Over the course of more than 90 minutes, Davidson went over the health and safety precautions the promotion planned for UFC 249, the pay-per-view card Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida.
As they discussed plans for COVID-19 testing, medical screenings and social distancing in a closed arena, Muzzi -- who is the president of the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) -- became convinced that a mixed martial arts card could be put on in a reasonably safe manner.
"In today's world, it's as safe as possible," said Muzzi, who will be the chief ringside physician for the Florida State Boxing Commission at UFC 249. "We're living in a new normal. ... We can do closed events, limiting the amount of people. Those that are working will be practicing social distancing."
He took a different stance five weeks earlier when he said he would advise against holding the event. The shift reflects how quickly the challenges and responses have evolved as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic. UFC president Dana White has called this the toughest undertaking in the promotion's 27-year history. The MMA card will be one of the first major sporting events in the United States since mid-March -- and it could potentially be a model for other leagues and promotions to follow.
THE UFC ATTEMPTED to put together an event at Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California, on April 18 before White said he was asked to "stand down" by execs of broadcast partner ESPN. That card would have been on Native American land, which is sovereign and exempt from California's COVID-19 guidelines. The UFC would have had to regulate itself; Tachi Palace does not have its own athletic commission.
Saturday's show at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena is different. Florida's state government and the city of Jacksonville are fully on board. Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared professional sports an essential business. WWE, a pro wrestling promotion, already has run several live shows out of Orlando, including WrestleMania, which filmed without fans in March at the company's empty training facility and aired in April.
"I wanted the wrestling to be filmed in Orlando," DeSantis said at a news conference on April 29. "I'd like [WWE] to do WrestleMania [in Florida in the future]. They were gonna do WrestleMania in April -- that was hundreds of millions of dollars. I want to keep that good relationship. I want them to invest in Florida.
"We got UFC to come to Jacksonville. Again, there's not gonna be any fans. But I think that's gonna be a good event for people."
UFC 249 will be the promotion's first event since an empty-arena show in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 14. Six subsequent shows were canceled due to the coronavirus. The UFC has scheduled two more empty-arena shows in Jacksonville after UFC 249, on May 13 and May 16. Those cards were announced on Friday and will be headlined by Anthony Smith vs. Glover Teixeira on the 13th and Walt Harris vs. Alistair Overeem on the 16th.
THERE IS MAJOR significance attached to several of the fights at UFC 249. In the main event, Tony Ferguson will fight Justin Gaethje for the UFC interim lightweight title. The winner will be in line for a title shot against Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was scratched from this event because of what he described as pandemic-related travel restrictions. Henry Cejudo will defend his bantamweight title against former champion Dominick Cruz in the co-main event. And in a potential heavyweight title eliminator, Francis Ngannou will take on Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
White told fighters during several video meetings earlier this month that they didn't have to fight during the pandemic if they didn't want to. Amanda Nunes pulled out of her featherweight title defense against Felicia Spencer because she said the restrictions associated with the pandemic prevented her from having a full training camp. But unlike many other sports, if fighters don't compete, they don't get paid.
The athletes competing at UFC 249 are continuing to train despite less-than-ideal conditions. Middleweight Uriah Hall moved into Fortis MMA gym in Dallas, sleeping on an air mattress. Women's strawweight veteran Michelle Waterson has only one sparring partner -- her husband, Josh Gomez. He has been her main sparring partner in the past, but with JacksonWink MMA gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, closed, he's her only training partner. Gaethje has flown training partners, such as UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, into Colorado despite stay-at-home orders. Gaethje says fighting someone as dangerous as Ferguson requires legitimate preparation.
And the challenges aren't confined to training.
Sam Alvey's wife, McKey Sullivan, has been in his corner for every one of his 47 professional MMA fights since 2008. Sullivan won't be making the trip to Jacksonville from their California home. The couple has a nearly 1-year-old foster daughter. Travel for her is restricted even when there isn't a pandemic, but now, it's impossible.
"McKey has been one of my training partners this whole camp," said Alvey, who will fight Ryan Spann at UFC 249. "She's a brown belt in jiu-jitsu. She is very much part of my team -- not just moral support at all."
THERE WILL BE several restrictions and a whole new set of protocols in Jacksonville. In an email sent to teams last week, the UFC cautioned that "things will be different from our typical fight week."
Most fighters will arrive by plane Tuesday or Wednesday, except for those who live close enough to drive. Normally, fighters arrive Tuesday and have media obligations from then until Thursday evening. That won't be the case this week.
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone will be riding in his RV from his ranch near Albuquerque. He plans to arrive in time for weigh-ins on Friday.
"I'm rolling in just in time to weigh in and go in to fight," he said. "I'm staying in the RV, I don't care. I already told the UFC."
When fighters and their corner people get to the hotel, they will go through mandatory medical screenings and tests, according to the UFC's email. Most teams expect the fighters and corners to be tested for COVID-19, as indicated in an email the UFC Performance Institute sent to the athletes. Sources confirmed to ESPN that the UFC will administer both the diagnostic swab coronavirus test as well as the antibody test.
Once the fighters and corner people go through the medical checkpoint, they will meet with UFC staff members, who will inform them of procedures for the rest of the week. The fighters and corners will be given credentials to be worn at all times in the hotel. Sources said they will be asked to not mingle in large groups and to try to self-isolate within reason until their COVID-19 test results come back.
Per the email, every day a fighter and team member is on hotel property, he or she will be "required to return for additional medical screening." That will include temperature checks and questions about potential coronavirus symptoms, sources said.
The host hotel is no longer taking reservations for this week.
Teams have been told they will be given individual workout rooms in which to train and cut weight during the week. Per the email, the rooms will be equipped with mats, mat sanitizer and a personal sauna "to assist in weight cutting." The hotel's room service will be open 24 hours, and there is a market on-site, the email said.
Trifecta, the UFC's meal-prep sponsor, will provide food to fighters who want it. Meals will be dropped in front of the fighters' hotel room doors at scheduled times. The UFC Performance Institute will have staff on site to help with nutrition, weight cuts and physical therapy. The physical therapy will be available only for "performance-related matters" and only for fighters on the card, per the UFC email. Thorne, the UFC's third-party supplement company, will have products on hand as well.
At the hotel, according to the UFC email, housekeepers will be equipped with hospital-grade sanitizer and personal protective equipment.
Official weigh-ins will take place Friday morning as usual, but Muzzi said the UFC has told him fighters might have scheduled times to hit the scale to limit the number of people in the room at the same time.
Having scheduled times for weigh-ins was the plan for the canceled Tachi show too.
According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the UFC's anti-doping partner, it will be on-site in Jacksonville administering drug tests like it would during any event.
"As we've stated, testing at UFC events is an essential part of a fair fight," USADA director of communications Adam Woullard said. "We will have doping control officers at UFC 249, and will do everything in our power to conduct testing at future events, of course taking appropriate precautions to protect the health and safety of everyone involved."
Sources said several state athletic commissions are working on plans to test athletes for COVID-19 when MMA and boxing start up again in earnest. On April 6, the Association of Ringside Physicians advised that all events be postponed. But on Saturday, the organization released a new statement that it is more agreeable with cards going on with precautions in place.
"Although it is impossible to eliminate all risk of COVID-19, precautions can be made to reduce the risk of viral transmission," the statement read. "Many athletic commissions, organizations and promotions are developing new guidelines to limit exposure to all involved at events, including athletes, their teams, commission personnel and support staff."
ON MARCH 21, Combat Night MMA ran an empty-arena show at the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall in Jacksonville under Florida State Boxing Commission regulations and sanctioning. It was an outlier early in the pandemic, the only MMA event held in the United States that weekend.
Combat Night, a regional Florida promotion, was able to pull off the event with input from the city. Everyone who entered the building had their temperatures checked and social distancing was practiced, with no more than 50 people allowed in the venue at any given time. That became the archetype for future events, according to Jacksonville chief administrative officer Brian Hughes. AEW, another pro wrestling promotion, also ran events in the city at Daily's Place in March without issue.
Combat Night and AEW were the gateway to Jacksonville being open to the UFC, Hughes said. AEW will air a live television show at Daily's Place less than a mile away from VyStar on Wednesday.
"We had experience where organizations had come through the state or directly to us with sensible plans," Hughes said. "If they demonstrate plans that are both scientifically and medically sound and ones that reflect the entire production to be well taken care of, then we're open to hearing it."
Hughes said the UFC approached Jacksonville with a health-and-safety plan that "made a lot of sense." In addition to COVID-19 testing for those involved, Hughes said the UFC will pay to have the arena sterilized between the three scheduled fight cards.
"Part of what gave us comfort was a plan they outlined related to testing those they're bringing to Jacksonville related to COVID-19," Hughes said. "Based on what we've been briefed, it is clear that they're going to test for COVID and they'll have a couple of different segments of testing throughout the week."
One of the issues that differentiates combat sports from other athletic contests is the frequency with which athletes are transported to local hospitals. During the coronavirus pandemic, protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed has been at the forefront of the national response. Hughes said the city's hospitals are ready for an MMA event.
"We prepared additional hospital beds," Hughes said. "The irony is we actually have more hospital capacity today than before we started with the COVID stuff."
JON ANIK, THE UFC's lead play-by-play man, will make the nearly five-hour drive from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, to Jacksonville. Anik said he'll work UFC 249 and the May 13 show before driving home, leaving play-by-play duties to Brendan Fitzgerald for May 16. Anik said he plans on mostly self-quarantining away from his wife and children when he gets back.
"I won't hug them," Anik said. "It's a little bit of a tricky navigation to have an infant and explain why you can't come near them. I'll be at least masked around them for a few days."
Anik is expected to be joined on commentary by former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and longtime color man Joe Rogan. Cormier told ESPN that it has been proposed that the three men will sit away from each other, rather than at the same table as usual. Anik said he's unsure what the procedure will be for postfight interviews in the Octagon given potential social-distancing issues.
"I really feel like from a broadcast standpoint they've had a lot of time to figure out the best way to do it to minimize contact between us and the athletes and each other," Anik said. "I think they'll go to great lengths to make everyone feel comfortable and feel safe."
Obviously, in an MMA fight there's no way to keep the fighters apart or the referees away from the fighters. Muzzi said having the referees wear a mask and eye protection has been discussed. As far as the rest of the arena area, Muzzi said there will be fewer people around the cage, all 2 meters apart. Sources said the UFC might require everyone around the Octagon to wear a face mask.
Camps have been told that fighters will be allowed to have only their licensed corners with them in the arena. Muzzi said the UFC has broached the idea of disinfecting the cage between fights, though that has not yet officially been decided, sources said.
Also being discussed, Muzzi said, is keeping a limited amount of media cageside separate from one another. The UFC already has set up a virtual media day for Wednesday and virtual postfight interviews in which media members can ask questions from home.
The full preparations for the event in-arena will take place Tuesday or Wednesday, Muzzi said. Muzzi and most of the referees and judges will remain in Jacksonville for the May 13 and May 16 cards, sources said. The new batch of fighters is expected to arrive Sunday. And the implementation of protocols could change, too.
"This is always going to be a work in progress," Muzzi said. "And it's going to continue to be that way. When this event is over, we're going to step back and see what we've learned. This is gonna continue to evolve. It's like a fight -- we have to bob and weave. We have to adjust to the opponent, which in this case is the virus."