Sports will return twice. Once when you can watch a game, and once when you can high five your best friend about it.
The first part starts very soon. How long until the second returns is the main question of the next few days, weeks, and months. A crowd is the chorus, David Goldblatt, a chronicler of sports history, once wrote, “Without whom, every goal is just a ball in the back of a net.” Some sports will restart this spring and summer without a chunk of their souls—the energy of a crowd—but with most of its core functions. I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with an NFL executive who explained to me that he views stadiums filled with energetic fans as the most valuable television studios in the world. We’re about to see a lot of sports played without that value.
The soft launch in America of this deeply weird period of sports history will involve the UFC, which is holding UFC 249 this Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. It is a very good card that has been postponed since April and has moved from Brooklyn (and at one point, California, according to The New York Times), and had its main event changed, but is finally happening after a chaotic, two-month odyssey. The pay-per-view event no longer has the superfight in which Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his lightweight title against Tony Ferguson—Nurmagomedov was not permitted to leave Russia (or enter Abu Dhabi, another potential destination for the fight). The fight between the two men has now been scrapped five times since 2015 for increasingly unlikely reasons (including when Ferguson injured his knee in 2018 after tripping on a Fox TV set; Dana White blamed it on Ferguson wearing sunglasses indoors, a comment Ferguson took exception to). It was most recently scrapped for a pandemic. One shudders to think what will happen the next time they are scheduled to fight each other.
Instead of Nurmagomedov, Ferguson will fight the rousing Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight belt in an exciting, if less anticipated matchup. Imagine, for the uninitiated, if Bucks-Clippers was on the schedule and was scrapped for Bucks-Nuggets. Fireworks would still be there; the same stakes would not. Styles make fights and this main event will be violent. Ferguson has not lost since 2012; Gaethje is 21-2 and has knocked out his last three opponents in the first round. UFC star Urijah Faber told The Athletic this week that fighters who face Ferguson “get maimed like they were in a nasty car wreck.” James Vick, who fought Gaethje in 2018, dubbed him the “Homer Simpson” of mixed martial arts, a reference to an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer’s fighting career relied entirely on being able to take punch after punch before ultimately pushing his opponent over after they tired. Vick was correct about one thing—Gaethje can take a punch, but he’s not Simpson: Gaethje knocked Vick out in less than four minutes.
Gaethje said his strategy against Ferguson is to deliver an exciting win and get his nose broken in the process so that the UFC will pay to fix his nose problems. What this looks like—two elite fighters beating the crap out of each other in an empty arena—is a key window into the future, a strange era of sports that begins this weekend and will last an undetermined length of time amid a global pandemic. What happens if there’s a great punch or takedown and 17,000 people aren’t there to validate it?
It is not a stretch to say that the decisions every league makes during this time will shape the future of competitive sports, which is what makes the UFC’s past two months—and next few weeks—so interesting, but more on that later. The instance of a sports league scouring for a state to host its events—and being shut out—will probably be repeated over the next few months as leagues look for contingency plans. There are huge differences between the UFC and some other leagues. The UFC has been aggressive about being the first sport back. Hell, they may have never stopped if it had been up to president Dana White. But they are, in a strange way, a test case for other sports: The UFC has 1,200 coronavirus tests on hand, according to Sports Business Journal (the NBA, according to ESPN, will need 15,000 tests to complete the season). Each fighter and the members of their camp who are participating in UFC 249 will receive one swab test and one antibody test as well as daily temperature checks, according to ESPN MMA reporter Ariel Helwani.
Fighters like Ferguson and strawweight contender Carla Esparza posted videos of their tests. Heavyweight star Francis Ngannou, one of the best punchers in the sport, said he’d rather take a punch than take another swab test. The UFC is not a one-to-one preview of what will happen in other sports when they return—White doesn’t have to negotiate with a union, mixed martial arts is not a team sport, and there’s no need for a long-term campus like what the NBA would need in one of its proposed bubble scenarios. But the UFC does offer some glimpses of what sports will look like: Commentator Joe Rogan will not interview the winners in the octagon. Instead, the fighter will be given a headset and interviewed with social distancing guidelines in place. Sports are weird now.
The period that starts this weekend will be long and strange. There will be surreal moments. A German soccer team is charging fans $20 to have a cardboard cutout of their likeness in the stands when the games resume later this month. ESPN’s Karl Ravech, America’s voice for baseball highlights on summer evenings, put on a broadcasting clinic by admirably killing time, from his home, well after midnight local time, during a South Korean baseball rain delay. There will be surreal ideas to restart and reinvigorate sports. Red Bull Formula 1 team boss Helmut Marko proposed a plan to get his drivers infected with the virus as soon as possible. “They are all strong, young men in good health. That way they would be prepared whenever the action starts,” he said. The rest of the staff said no and Marko’s idea was scrapped. The University of South Carolina’s athletic director theorized this week that the school could have fans in the stadium for football games while observing social distancing, which would put less than 30,000 people in a stadium that holds 80,000 under normal circumstances. If it seems like most of these decisions are being made by people who don’t know what will happen, it’s because they are. Nearly every sport has designed a bubble scenario for their sport to resume in a central location, the UFC very much included.
The root of all of these ideas is the simple truth that sports has to return in some form to avoid a financial ice age. The NFL’s salary cap could drop to unimaginable depths in 2021 due to lost revenue. The foundation of baseball will be rocked for years if players receive only the $170 million MLB owners have advanced to them to make up for the delayed start to the season. If there are no games in 2020, that’s all they are due to receive, despite otherwise being owed $4 billion in contracts. Formula 1 lost 84 percent of its quarterly revenue. England faces the “real risk of losing many famous football clubs,” particularly outside of the Premier League, according to one team chairman.
Sports won’t be normal for a very long time. We will get, instead, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning playing a two-on-two golf tournament (a phenomenal idea for an event, I may add). Or work-from-home Roger Goodell lounging in his chair in the later rounds of the NFL draft. This is not all bad—the work-from-home draft was a success—it’s just different.
All of this brings us to UFC 249 and the man who is putting it on. White has spent the past two months wrestling with the world around him to have his sport be the first to return. Somewhere on the list of entertaining isolation moments—below Tiger King and The Last Dance—was White’s April 9 message that “Fight Island is real.” Fight Island, if you’re new to this, is White’s idea for an island where there’s a steady stream of UFC fights in an COVID-19–free environment. ”Fight island is a real thing, it’s really happening. The infrastructure is being built right now on the island. … All the fights that you guys wanted to see are coming, man. They’re coming,” White said. Fight Island may be real eventually, but it doesn’t actually matter right now: The fights on the UFC 249 card are being held in Jacksonville on Saturday, as are upcoming fights scheduled for May 13 and May 16.
It is probably a little too on the nose to say the UFC has been on an island in the past two months. It staged a behind-closed-doors event in Brazil on March 14 and has been trying to put on fights ever since. UFC London was canceled less than a week before its March 21 date. On April 5, White doubled down on Twitter that UFC 249 was still happening on its originally scheduled date of April 18—White did this while responding to a fake account he believed to belong to Ariel Helwani. The original date for UFC 249 was scrapped when Disney and ESPN told White to “stand down.” (White recently said the media have been “wimps” and that he won’t let them determine how he runs his business.)
Mixed martial arts does not seem like a likely candidate to be the first major American sport back in one regard: There is no social distancing. It is impossible to fight or train 6 feet away from other combatants. Golf, for instance, or tennis, could, in theory, be played now and follow these guidelines. The UFC cannot. By every other measure, however, the UFC was always the likeliest to come back first. White spoke with the White House on March 12 and, in his retelling, was given the message to keep having events. Fighters are underpaid relative to other sports, meaning they are probably more likely to jump at the opportunity for more fights. And, well, some fighters just really like fighting. Most fighters participating in UFC 249 reported their training style did not change all that much despite the pandemic—though former heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum said he’d been doing online MMA classes along with his normal physical training. Donald Cerrone told ESPN he wanted to fight three times in one week during the pandemic and that he’ll be waiting in his RV for the chance to do so; White said no to the three-fight plan, though Cerrone will fight Saturday. The card also features stars like bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz.
It’s unclear how the next few pay-per-view events will play out. Life outside the octagon certainly plays a role. Of note: The heavyweight champion of the world, Stipe Miocic, cannot fight in the next batch of UFC fights because he is also a firefighter in Ohio and is focused on helping fight the virus.
Some sports are coming back this summer—baseball players were told to get in shape for a potential July return. Basketball is moving towards a restart not long after that, as are major European soccer leagues. It will not be the same—in fact, sports may never be the same—but lessons learned in the next few months may tangibly change how some sports are played, and the financial fallout may change how sports are administered, including how players are paid. The UFC will provide a strange view of what this will look like, starting this week. The only thing we do know, for now, is that Fight Island is real.