UFC 249 won’t look quite like the typical fight card put on by the promotion.
In addition to no fans being present at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday, there will be other changes noticeable to the viewers at home, according to UFC executive vice president of operation and production Craig Borsari. The new protocols have been put in place as precautionary measures as part of the UFC’s plan to mitigate the risk of running a sporting event during the coronavirus pandemic.
Borsari told ESPN on Tuesday that members of the broadcast team will be sitting at separate tables away from one another, that post-fight interviews will not take place in the Octagon and that all crew members will wear personal protective equipment, including N95 masks and gloves. Sources told ESPN that officials are also working out details about disinfecting the cage between fights.
“A lot of the work we’re doing will be taking place behind the camera,” Borsari said. “Some of it will take place on camera. But we’ll try to create the UFC product that we’ve done for years and years now and bring that to people in their homes so they can have a bit of an escape here for at least a few hours.”
The broadcast team will be made up of play-by-play announcer Jon Anik and color commentators Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier. On a normal UFC show, Rogan would interview the winner of most fights inside the Octagon at the conclusion of the bout. On Saturday, the winning fighter will be guided to an isolated area outside the cage and given a sanitized headset, and Rogan will interview him or her from his cageside location.
The presentation of each fight will be slightly different because there will be no fans. Borsari said there will be more of an emphasis on hearing the fighters’ coaches and corners advise them from outside the cage, as well as the sounds of punches and kicks landing.
“For fight fans, I think some of them maybe even prefer being able to hear corner audio a little clearer because you’re not combating that with 20,000 people screaming,” Borsari said. “Hearing some of that instruction for a true, avid fight fan can be really interesting. It can offer some insights you wouldn’t typically get. We’ll look for the opportunity to leverage that when we can.”
Behind the scenes, there will be plenty of changes as well. The number of people on the production crew has been reduced by about 50, from a normal group of about 130 to somewhere in the 80s, Borsari said. The number of personnel in the production truck will be limited with the use of mobile units, and those who remain in the truck will be separated by plastic partitions. Social distancing will be practiced in the arena area by staff and media members, of which fewer than 20 will be present.
As reported by ESPN on Monday, everyone involved in the event staying at the host hotel will be tested for COVID-19 before they check in. Most fighters and their corners are expected to check in Wednesday. Borsari said the COVID-19 swab testing results will be back within 24 hours, and people will be asked to self-isolate within reason until those results return. There will also be antibody testing administered to determine if anyone previously had the coronavirus. Individual medical screening, including taking temperatures, will be done every day while those involved in the event remain at the hotel.
Borsari said the UFC has obtained enough COVID-19 tests to test everyone for UFC 249 and the other Jacksonville fight cards on May 13 and May 16. He said the availability of testing has increased “across the country” over the past few weeks, and it was not hard for the UFC to obtain tests.
“We were in a position where it wasn’t difficult for us to procure the right amount of tests to keep everybody safe,” Borsari said. “We also have Dr. [Jeffrey] Davidson, who is kind of overseeing exactly how they’ll be administered and the protocols to get results and clear people to get a clean bill of health to continue to work.”
Fighters and their teams will have individual workout rooms at the hotel, with mats, mat sanitizer and personal saunas for weight cutting, according to a UFC email sent to athletes. The housekeeping staff will be equipped with hospital-grade sanitizer, the email said.
At the official weigh-ins Friday morning, the social-distancing practices required in the arena the following night will be implemented, Borsari said. The UFC operations team will work with fight camps on when each fighter will be coming to the scale, between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. local time.
“So we don’t have a big backlog of fighters all coming in at the same time and having dozens of people in a small, confined area,” Borsari said.
Borsari said the UFC will continue to work with the Florida State Boxing Commission and local officials over the course of three fight cards in eight days. Protocols will remain fluid, and things could change from card to card, depending on what works and what does not.
“We feel like we put together an incredibly thorough plan to really look after the health and safety of not just the athletes and their team members but the entire production crew and operations crew and the officials that are part of the event and will be there on event night,” Borsari said. “We’re confident about it.”
He said the process, which includes a 25-page plan sent to the commission this week, has been a “pretty massive undertaking.”
“A big reason behind that is because this hasn’t been done,” Borsari said. “There’s no road map. There’s no blueprint on how to do this and how to do this the right way. We are figuring it out as we go and taking on challenges and things that pop up in real time, making decisions in real time. My phone battery seems to die before 1 p.m. local time every single day because we’re just rolling from one call to the next and conference calls and Zoom calls, you name it.”