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Fight week returns - Finding room for UFC 249 in the COVID-19 pandemic

Returning to a busy weekly UFC event schedule may not be smart, and it may not be safe, but it is happening.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

It’s fight week, and my fingers are twitching.

It’ll be almost two full months between UFC events, since Charles Oliveira tapped out Kevin Lee in Brasilia—back on March 14th. In the time between UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje this Saturday and that trip to Brazil, the promotion has cancelled five fight cards. An unprecidented schedule change for an organization that has been running events at what feels like a weekly clip for the last decade.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic swept America (and the rest of the world), the weeks were clockwork: prep, analysis, and then hours upon hours of live event coverage every Saturday night. All followed by post-fight reactions, editorials, news, and then the prep for that next card. Onward and onward. Getting weekends back was nice for a bit, but I won’t pretend I haven’t missed the grind.

The world’s largest MMA promotion hits Jacksonville, FL on May 9th. And, as promised, they’re doing so with an absolutely stacked fight card. A swathe of the UFC’s most notable talent all in one PPV package, with prelims live on ESPN and ESPN+. The main event - featuring Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson fighting for the interim lightweight title - practically assures that fans will walk away sated, having witnessed something both particularly violent and meaningful.

UFC 249 Khabib v Ferguson: Press Conference
Not the actual lightweight title, but an amazing facsimile.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The co-main event, featuring Henry Cejudo’s bantamweight title defense against Dominick Cruz carries an air of the absurd (Cruz is nowhere near being the division’s top contender), but also an unmistakable feeling of mystique. Cruz in his prime seems like a fighter that had all the tools to frustrate a currently streaking Cejudo. What if he can recapture even some of that magic? Just what kind of performance is he capable of? Questions are often at the heart of excitement when it comes to MMA. UFC 249 is overflowing with questions. It will be exciting.

So, with that firmly in mind, it’s fight week, I’m preparing to go back to work, and I’m looking forward to it. All this despite feeling, quite firmly, that this is no time to be bringing people into the closest possible contact. No time to be swapping blood, and sweat, and spit. No time to be sending people to the hospital to get treated for injuries that were entirely preventable.

It’s not the time. But, it’s still happening, and I’m still excited.

If I’m being perfectly honest, that dichotomy has been something of an ever-present undercurrent in my MMA fandom—and eventually my work alongside the sport. Has MMA ever really been a good idea? Beyond the often tacky exterior, it is - like all combat sports - mostly a losing proposition for athletes. The damage absorbed contrasted with the money gained all too often creates a grim equation. Follow fighting for long enough, and it becomes nearly impossible not to see the cost lurking behind every highlight.

UFC on FX: Stout v Fisher
Spencer Fisher & Sam Stout took years off one another over the course of their UFC trilogy.
Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

I still love combat sports, because that’s a peace I made a while ago. This doesn’t have to be a good idea for me to enjoy it. I don’t have to tell myself fighting is all fine and great for me to have a good time watching it and covering it. If that makes me a hypocrite, it’s the kind of hypocrisy I can embrace. It’s not like fans of true crime are big proponents of murder. This is the kind of compartmentalization that promotes a sane interaction with the world, even as it allows for systemic issues that eventually have no easy solutions.

Which gets to the other side of this coin; one that, as an editor for Bloody Elbow, I feel is deeply important. It’s always worthwhile to keep a critical eye on those things we enjoy. Simple relationships are almost always prone to sour. Making it clear that love for something is unconditional, makes it clear that there’s no need to improve or change or react to the potential for that relationship to be affected.

The coronavirus pandemic has been one of the most dramatic and wide ranging crises of the last several decades. Countries all around the world have struggled to find ways to contain, adapt, and fight off the virus and the resulting shutdown that slowing its spread has largely seemed to require. For myself, and many of our staff, when it became clear that the UFC would stop for nothing, not even a highly infectious virus, the danger of that attitude took precedent over the desire to see more fights. Even if, ultimately, those fights lie at the core of what we need to do our jobs.

Having a critical voice when it comes to MMA and the UFC (as its most powerful arm) has always been important to Bloody Elbow. Not because we don’t love watching MMA or watching fights, but as previously stated, it’s very possible that this whole thing just isn’t a very good idea. It could use some critique and consistent pushback. At a point when the safety of gatherings in any form has been deemed questionable at best, the need for a critical voice becomes that much more important.

To that end, I feel BE tried its best to present what was important. To not just let our love of fighting override any other legitimate concern. Even if, ultimately, our ability to impact anyone’s decision making has been essentially nil. If we’re going to be doing work, critique is the important work to do.

All that said, here we are. The country is opening back up. Fight week is on.

Zhang Weili Finishes 14-day Quarantine In Tianjin
Weili Zhang exiting quarantine after her March 7th win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

To the UFC’s credit, precautions are being taken. Fighters are getting tested before they fight, they’re being isolated, and it sounds like staff are being distanced to a reasonable degree. It may even be that, by next month, the UFC will look a lot more safety minded than others. The desire to shuck self-isolation and government regulation seems very likely to push people into wilful disregard for all but the most basic of COVID-19 mindfulness.

Just as they wanted to, the UFC is leading the charge to re-boot the economy. What kind of generalized chaos may follow that decision could make their aggressive push for normality look positively tame. Hopefully not. Hopefully those who are still worried, still critical of the UFC event plans, still thinking that the pandemic will only drag on longer and cost more lives, are just wrong. It would be a huge relief to have the next few months go well.

But whether or not it does, it’s time to get back to work. After all, I’ve got to prep for next week’s event.

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