Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White said the mixed martial arts organization’s high-profile return to action over the weekend was a huge success despite the fact that there were three positive Covid-19 tests among participants.
The spectator-less UFC 249 at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, got off to a controversial start when one fighter, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, along with two of his cornermen, each tested positive for the coronavirus a day before the major fight card.
Souza was immediately pulled from his fight and removed from the hotel where hundreds of UFC employees are staying. The pay-per-view card still went ahead following discussions with the Florida State Boxing Commission.
“We administered 1,200 tests this week, on 300 people,” White said. “It’s not unexpected one person would test positive. The system works. And what’s good about this is now we know Jacare tested positive, he’s doing what he needs to do, and we’re in a position to help him if he needs it.”
Despite this initial setback, UFC’s first live event since March 14 appeared a resounding success, laying another significant marker for the return of professional sports in North America from the ongoing health crisis.
“I knew we could do this,” White added. “I knew we could figure it out. Even with all the hurdles that we had early on, this has been fun. It’s been challenging and it’s been fun. I know that sounds a little demented to say I’ve had fun going through this. It’s been challenging and I’ve enjoyed the whole game of it, if you will.”
The UFC has two more fight nights scheduled this week in Jacksonville before a planned fight card in Las Vegas on May 23.
“However it was handled this week, this was our first week,” White said. “It will only get better. And we can share what we learned here doing three events with other sports leagues who are reaching out to us and asking. A lot can be learned by what we’re doing here. Not just for professional sports but for sending people back to work and lot of other things in life.”
The event even secured the praise of US president Donald Trump, who has long called for the return of sports in the States and has held a series of telephonic meetings with sports leaders. Trump also placed White on a committee advising him on lifting Covid-19-related commercial and societal restrictions.
“I want to congratulate Dana White and the UFC,” Trump said in a pre-recorded message. “Get the sports leagues back, let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back.”
Controversially, UFC participants face the prospect of losing some or all of their purses if they criticize the organization over its Covid-19 safety measures.
A non-disparagement clause, that has been widely reported, states that “the Participant will not suggest or communicate to any person or entity” that the events “have been or will be held without appropriate health, safety or other precautions, whether relating to Covid-19 or otherwise.”
If a fighter does breach this clause, the agreement says, ‘”the Company may revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won…including, but not limited to, purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties.”
White explained to Yahoo Sports: “If a fighter says something that isn’t true – if he says we didn’t test anyone for this – that would (violate the agreement). But if he said something that was true, his opinion, then that is different.”
According to ESPN, the language used in this clause is atypical of past UFC agreements that fighters and participants sign.