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UFC 249 Editorial: Hope for the best and enjoy the fights

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Some thoughts on the UFC’s return at a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on.

MMA: UFC 216-Ferguson vs Lee Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve almost reached UFC 249 fight day.

These past two months have been one hell of a time grappling with the UFC’s dogged persistence that “the show must go on” even during the coronavirus pandemic. No major sports organization on earth other than the UFC tried to keep its schedule intact, but that fell to pieces pretty quickly.

With Florida deeming sports with a national audience as “essential,” there’s no longer a need to run around regulatory bodies when Florida’s athletic commission is ready to sanction UFC 249, along with the two Fight Night cards on May 13th and 16th. Barring something catastrophic, the UFC is back in business at a time when its parent company needs the business. Unlike the ill-fated Tachi Palace efforts last month in California, at least the UFC’s future US-based shows will be overseen by commissions and won’t circumvent stay-at-home orders (however controversial and questionable Florida’s recent decisions may be).

That isn’t to say these cards are risk-free, nor should we expect damn near anything at the moment to carry zero risk of catching COVID-19. Should a fighter test positive on any of these cards and it’s discovered after they’ve competed, that’s far more damaging to the long-term health and reputation of this sport than simply not having any shows at all. To the UFC’s credit, the plan outlined for its upcoming shows in a fairly short amount of time — even if termed “weak” by one immunologist — is far better than the reckless runaround that was the ill-fated attempt to salvage the doomed London card by moving it to some Oklahoman casino, days after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic.

There’s also the obvious political aspect at play. If this is a rousing success (e.g no fighter tests positive for COVID-19 over these next four events) then it will surely be co-opted by the Trump Administration as reason to re-open the country as a whole when that looks to be the wrong thing to do. White’s close ties with President Trump — many of the nasty replies we’ve received on social media are not coincidentally from people who self-identify as Trump supporters — may very well see the UFC used as part of his re-election platform. Nothing would be surprising at this point.

But I’m also capable of still getting hyped for fights again. Contrary to what some of you may believe, we’re all huge fight fans and it’s a privilege to cover combat sports. Shockingly, we simply can’t function in the long-term without major events, so this two-month gap with no UFC has been pretty damaging, and layoffs have sadly already commenced here at Bloody Elbow.

However, it would have been journalistically irresponsible for us to just take whatever the UFC or Dana said at face value and just move along for our own self-interest. I firmly believe this all would’ve played out differently had the UFC followed the footsteps of other major sports organizations and proactively postponed its schedule, but it obviously turned into something even more adversarial than usual.

Through this ordeal, we have a great card to look forward to on Saturday night. We miss fights just as much as you and even if there’s not universal agreement that UFC 249 should be happening, we’re obligated to provide you our usual comprehensive coverage.

From a pure fighting standpoint, Tony Ferguson is taking a massive risk by facing Justin Gaethje on short notice, but he’s Tony Ferguson so it’s befitting of the man. He has long earned an undisputed title shot, yet has never actually fought for the belt. If he loses to Gaethje, his age and the unforgiving nature of 155 lbs may see that coveted spot go away for good. As for Gaethje, I personally wrote off the idea of him ever being a serious title threat after the consecutive losses to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez. I was dead wrong, and Khabib Nurmagomedov’s absence could suddenly be Gaethje’s pathway into facing Khabib himself. Short of a four-second accidental headbutt no contest, this fight is destined to be absolutely bonkers. In lieu of fans in the arena yelling their asses off, you’ll be doing it at your home instead, much to the annoyance of your lame neighbors.

Henry Cejudo may irritate you all the way down to your bones with his cringe act, but there’s no denying that he’s an excellent fighter. Even if the Dominick Cruz fight doesn’t do much for me on the surface, the slim chance that Cruz could return from the longest layoff of his layoff-laden career (on short notice!) and win back the bantamweight title is a potentially amazing storyline in itself. Ideally, if Cejudo dominates then maybe this damn division can finally get a move on and the top contenders actually get their shots.

Then there’s the top non-title fight on the pay-per-view, heavyweight skull-smashers Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik. When the highlights package plays, Alistair Overeem ought to look away. Ngannou’s curent three-fight win streak has lasted a combined 2:22, whereas Rozenstruik went from a slew of mostly quick finishes to blasting out Overeem with a shot that had it failed to land, would’ve seen him lose a five-round decision. There are still plenty of question marks surrounding both fighters, and perhaps we’ll see them answered on Saturday. If by any chance this goes the distance, then this probably sucked. Otherwise, most will be eager to see which man succumbs to the other man’s destructive power.

Top to bottom, it’s a card that’s worth salivating over if you’re absolutely starved for caged violence, and we sure as hell know that the headliners are connoisseurs of violence. At the same time, you can still acknowledge all that surrounds this show — from Dana White’s treatment of media, to the extent of critical media coverage of a promotion whose existence financially benefits them, health and safety measures, transparency (or lack thereof), fighters’ rights, fighter pay in a pandemic, and everything else under the sun.

But as we draw closer to May 9th, I’m geared up for MMA, while simultaneously wishing nothing catastrophic occurs to anyone involved in these slew of UFC cards. As I wrote in the title, hope for the best and enjoy the fights (or don’t, if the UFC’s actions are grounds for a personal boycott). We have a whole lot of them coming our way over the next several weeks.