JACKSONVILLE — A sold-out crowd of 15,259 UFC fans packed the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday for the pay-per-view card that marked the first full capacity indoor sporting event in the United States since Covid-19 hit the country hard in March 2020.
Although vaccination rates are rising, there were fair questions about whether this was being done too soon. UFC president Dana White, however, was adamant on making it happen despite any resistance from critics. He felt there wasn’t enough risk involved to hold him back.
Every fan who entered the venue was required to fill out a questionnaire through a downloadable app created by CLEAR — a secure identity platform whose apps expedite security screening and ticketing at airports and events — and answer questions about potential coronavirus symptoms before being approved to sit in their seat. In addition, each person had to sign a liability waiver that, in the scenario in which exposure to the virus did occur, the UFC would not be held accountable for any health consequences.
Those types of waivers are becoming increasingly commonplace as the world continues to open up, and in White’s estimation, the precautions created a “safe” environment.
“I think just the whole getting through Covid, doing it safely, being the first one to come back and then doing this tonight with a full, indoor crowd (is a big milestone),” White told Rolling Stone at the UFC 261 post-fight press conference. “We Covid-tested this whole week with the athletes and us (staff members and media), I Covid-tested all week and everybody was good and we did it again. It’s time to get back to normal. I know a lot of you guys in the media don’t feel exactly the way I do about a lot of things, but you can’t deny it felt pretty fucking good to be in Florida this week and be normal.”
The overwhelming majority of states are not yet willing to lend their support behind the UFC under these circumstances, but Florida was. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis allowed the UFC to put on three empty arena events early in the pandemic in May 2020, then opened the doors for UFC 261 nearly a year later.
Although controversial figures, DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry aligned with White’s mentality, and clearly wanted to convey the message that Florida’s a location where the anxieties that exist elsewhere isn’t present.
“Welcome to Florida: You guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom,” DeSantis told fans at a press conference prior to UFC 261. “This is going to be the first full-throttle sporting event since Covid hit, indoor, anywhere in the United States. I think it’s fitting. We wanted to be safe, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes at you from media, from social media, all this stuff. Some people don’t like to handle that. Dana White goes right into the teeth of that.”
There was nary an empty seat in the house on Saturday. Of the more than 15,000 fans to attend UFC 261, upward of 50 percent of ticket buyers came in from out of state, according to what a UFC official told Rolling Stone.
Nothing like the roar of a crowd 🗣
— UFC (@ufc) April 25, 2021
The building was buzzing from the first fight of the night, and due to the loose state laws, each spectator was given a choice about whether they wanted to wear a mask or face covering. Many people took up that option by not wearing one, and from multiple thorough scans of the audience by this reporter, it would be generous to say 25 percent wore a face covering.
Kyle LaMonica, who drove to UFC 261 from his residence in Orlando, Fla., was one of the people who did wear a mask.
“Personally I feel like, even though I am vaccinated fully, I still want to wear one just because it never hurts to be a little extra safe,” LaMonica said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry, I think. We live in a country where we are allowed to make that decision to do what we want to do. I feel like I’m not hurting anyone by wearing a mask, and I’m definitely not hurting myself by wearing a mask. So it’s always better to be a little bit safer.”
That wasn’t the case for Boston’s Bobby Carey, who flew down from his city to attend his first live UFC event. He said he had no beef with anyone who made a decision to mask up, but he exercised his right to not do it.
“I think it should just be an option,” Carey said. “If you want to, then go ahead. If you don’t, then that’s fine, too. It should just be an option at this point. We’ve been dealing with this situation for over a year now and kind of proven that the masks don’t do too much, from my point of view, and if you don’t want to do it then that should be fine, as well.”
From witnessing the nearly seven-hour fight card from inside the venue, there didn’t seem to be any conflict between those who did wear a mask and those who didn’t. Everyone was there to enjoy the show, which ended up being one of the most memorable events in UFC history.
All three championship bouts ending in scintillating stoppages, with welterweight champ Kamaru Usman knocking out rival Jorge Masvidal in the main event, Rose Namajunas knocking out Zhang Weili in the first round to regain the strawweight title in the co-main event, and women’s flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko recording another dominant women’s flyweight title defense against Jessica Andrade in the featured bout. In addition, one of the most gruesome injuries of all time took place in the final non-title contest of the night, with former champion Chris Weidman suffering a compound fracture to his leg off a kick just 17 seconds into his bout with Uriah Hall.
Everyone who watched the show in person is sure to not forget what they witnessed, and it felt like a special night.
What will the fallout of it be, though? Only time can tell, but the natural concern is about a possible super-spreader scenario, with the virus finding its way inside the arena and being shared with multiple — or potentially thousands — of individuals who would then bring it with them back to various spots around the country.
It remains to be seen if that’s what happened Saturday night, but White didn’t express much worry due to his faith in the execution of what was, like it or not, a historic evening in Jacksonville.
A look at the crowd at #UFC261
It's the first event the UFC has held with a capacity crowd since before the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, with 15,000 fans. pic.twitter.com/pWmg1K6XCk
— ESPN (@espn) April 25, 2021
“If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask — if you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask,” White said. “When I saw people wearing masks, I didn’t say anything to people wearing masks. When people saw people that weren’t wearing masks, nobody said anything to people that weren’t wearing masks. Everybody is just doing their thing. You know what? People seem like they’re a lot happier down here in Florida than they are in some of these other fucking states.
“Everybody is doing their thing down here and living their life, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So it felt good to be here, it felt good to have the mayor, the governor, and all these people working with us to put on a safe event and for people to come out here and have fun. It was awesome. It literally couldn’t have been any better. We couldn’t have done this any better or planned this any better than we did.”