Fighters tested on arrival ahead of UFC return in Florida


(Reuters) – Fighters taking part in Saturday’s UFC 249 card in Jacksonville, Florida have been tested on arrival and many have been isolating in their rooms as the mixed martial arts promotion prepares to to get back to business in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The event was scheduled for April 18 in Brooklyn, New York, but postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. A bid to stage the card on tribal lands in California was aborted when UFC came under pressure from Disney, which owns broadcast partner ESPN.

With lockdown restrictions being lifted in some U.S. states, the stage is set for the UFC’s return at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Florida, with an interim lightweight title bout between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje topping the bill. 

The usual media-day mingle between fighters, journalists and camera crews was replaced by an online event at the hotel housing the fighters, with Ferguson appearing on the UFC webcam wearing a black face-mask as he fielded questions. 

“I don’t feel any different. Myself, I always went to and from work… I’m not paying attention to anything else besides smiling and making sure that people understand that we’re here for everybody else,” he said. 

“Obviously it’s a little bit more quiet, and obviously we don’t have any fans. The only reason everything else is like this, the only reason we’re fighting, is for the fans. Nothing else is changing – if anything else, my game is more serious.”  

Henry Cejudo, a former Olympic wrestling champion who puts his bantamweight title on the line against Dominick Cruz in Saturday’s co-main event, said he was tested within 15 minutes of arriving at his hotel.

He added that the lack of a crowd would not bother him, saying: “It doesn’t matter if there’s two people in the stands, or nobody in the stands, or two billion people in the stands, I’ve got to get the job done.”

The UFC did not respond to a Reuters request for information on health and safety procedures but Cameroonian heavyweight Francis Ngannou did not enjoy the COVID-19 nasal swab test. “I think I’d rather take a punch than take that (again),” he said.

Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris