Harv currently writes for Abstract Sports, the Sports History Network, and the magazine Gridiron Greats. Harv wrote the published book "Pro Football's Most Passionate Fans" and as a professional writer has had articles published in an array of sports publications.
UFC 249 Head-Scratchers
While COVID-19 has halted sports activity around the world, it failed to stop the UFC from staging an event this past weekend in my city of residence, Jacksonville, Florida.
UFC 249 went down at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena albeit in front of only key mixed martial arts personnel, managers, coaches, and some media as well as the UFC broadcast team and Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer.
The card consisted of 11 fights with several fights having been canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. One, in particular, was a proposed fight between Uriah Hall and Jacare Souza because Souza reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.
When the dust cleared and the card completed, it left behind a new interim lightweight champion, a bantamweight champion who won, retained his belt, and quickly retired from the sport, and several other situations and events that raised some question marks.
With that said, here are my UFC 249 “head-scratchers.”
- First and most importantly, if you watched UFC 249 then like me, you must have found it very weird and strange to have fights taking place without any fans and the ability to hear a pin drop in the arena. It was more like watching “The Ultimate Fighter” of which that show is staged in front of no fans just key personnel. Every word from all those involved in the Octagon could be heard.
- The most obvious effect of COVID-19 is the wearing of masks. In March Dr. Fauci who has been for the most part the spokesperson about COVID-19 was interviewed on 60 Minutes and when asked about masks said this: “People should not be walking around with masks. There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” So on his advice, why are people still wearing them? With that thought in mind, at UFC 249 last Saturday, inside the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, you could see coaches, media, and the pay-per-view announcers wearing masks (initially). Obviously, once the fights began, Daniel Cormier and his crew removed their masks so they could call the fights.
HOLD THE PHONE! What’s the point of coming to the arena with a mask and wearing it inside if you are only going to remove it anyway? Then think about this, while the men and women competing were battling it out, WITHOUT a mask, if there was a threat of COVID-19 weren’t they exposing themselves to any possibility of catching this or anything else by not sporting a mask?
To drill home my point further, here you had guys like Tony Ferguson bleeding all over himself and his opponent Justin Gaethje. What better way to exchange a disease, infection, or illness than to have someone else’s blood splattering on your skin?
Then you had Cormier and fellow broadcaster John Anik and Joe Rogan sitting tables apart. Except for the canceled Souza/Hall fight, the faceoffs still took place with fighters very close to each other. The social distancing and wearing of masks all the while fighters making physical contact, bleeding, and hugging post-fight just appeared senseless and silly in my opinion.
- The card was being hyped to be a great card but in the end, I believe for the most part it was a stinker. Without fans the excitement factor just isn’t there. The fighters did not seem as excited either. But what made me laugh and scratch my head in wonder was having Bruce Buffer there announcing the fights and the winners just as he would have had there been tens of thousands of fans in attendance. What was the point? Who was listening except for those at home who might have been watching and the few key personnel in the arena? It seemed and came off as really lame.
- Normally at a UFC event you see 3-4 Octagon girls waiting to make their walk in between rounds to show the audience what round is forthcoming. Last Saturday there was just ONE at the fights she being Brittney Palmer. While I oppose the use of card girls in MMA, here was Palmer sitting by herself WITHOUT A MASK!
- As the early preliminaries featured two fights that both went the distance and were relatively unexciting, the preliminary card was no better with three decisions in four fights only Vincente Luque getting a stoppage and that because Niko Price was too cut up to continue. But of the three fighters who did lose before the main card, perhaps they should contemplate retirement. Michelle Waterson lost to Carla Esparza and has lost two in a row after winning three straight but has lost four of her last seven.
Fabricio Werdum lost again this time to Aleksei Oleinik, his second loss in a row and fourth of his last seven as well. Then there was Donald Cerrone accused by yours truly of taking a dive against Conor McGregor earlier this year making us wonder why he didn’t fight against McGregor the way he did facing Anthony Pettis who he lost a decision to at UFC 249. The “Cowboy” fought valiantly but was obviously outgunned and not as skilled as Pettis. The loss to Pettis is Cerrone’s fourth straight and he only won four of his last 12 fights. RETIRE already.
- Once the main card began, former NFL player Greg Hardy kicked it off against an undefeated Yorgan de Castro and Hardy entered the Octagon looking bored and like he wanted to sleep. The bout was not exciting and lacked firepower which resulted in a unanimous decision victory for Hardy.
The next four fights had finishes that made statements about upsets, controversy, and fighters who need to retire or flat out did.
- Jeremy Stephens got knocked out again this time at the hands of Calvin Kattar. Stephens is hardly the terrorizing fighter once thought to be. He has dropped two straight bouts and four of his last five. Go back a little further and his record over the last 10 fights is a poor 3-6 with one no contest because of an eye poke (that didn’t happen) but in the rematch with Yair Rodriguez Stephens lost the decision.
Undefeated Jairzinho Rozenstruik called out heavyweight Francis Ngannou after his big win last year knocking out Alistair Overreem but he was nowhere near ready for Ngannou getting blasted out at UFC 249 in 20 seconds.
- Then came the controversy. Dominick Cruz wanted to win back his bantamweight title belt but would have to take it from Henry Cejudo. The champion happened to knock down Cruz in the second round and then landed about 11 unanswered punches at which Cruz tried to rise from the canvas but it was too late and the fight was stopped. TKO for Cejudo who abruptly retired. To embarrass himself further, following the fight, Cruz told the media that referee Keith Peterson “smelled like alcohol and cigarettes.” Perhaps it was an early stoppage but Cruz should know as a seasoned veteran you simply can’t sit on the canvas in MMA and not defend yourself or make an immediate attempt to rise after a knockdown to avoid any chance of an early stoppage.
- Finally there was the main event, the interim lightweight championship of the world that was originally supposed to pair a long-awaited fight between reigning champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. But Khabib indicated he was being held in Russia due to COVID-19. Justin Gaethje finally got his shot at a title, albeit only interim and he made the most of it. Gaethje destroyed Tony Ferguson’s title hopes as well and beat him up at UFC 249. Now we have to wait and see if a Gaethje/Nurmagomedov unification bout can be held.
My final thoughts following UFC 249 are this…while the UFC was able to stage an event despite the lockdowns and restrictions caused by COVID-19, they proved to me anyway that sports whether it be amateur or professional will simply not work without any fans in attendance. It failed miserably on all fronts and if the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB think they are going to play in empty stadiums and arenas think again. Football has fans flocking to stadium parking lots hours before games just to tailgate. Take that away and keep up this social distancing and there can be no football either professionally or on the collegiate level.
Baseball has already been put aside for nearly two months so their season is already in jeopardy of ever being played at all. The NBA is getting ready to pack it in until next season and the NHL will probably follow suit. Yet, the UFC forges on with two more cards this week in Jacksonville. The cards lack the firepower and notoriety that UFC 249 offered so it will come as no surprise if no one pays attention or tunes in.
What COVID-19 has done is not just altered the world’s lifestyles and brought us the “new normal” but it has destroyed sports and has left lasting effects in my opinion that will alter the way fans watch and attend sporting events if they ever do in fact return. In Korea they are playing baseball with fans sitting distances apart to practice social distancing all while wearing masks and that simply is NOT baseball. I for one will not be watching the UFC events this week.