Even before they check in to the hotel, every fighter, coach, cameraman, journalist and UFC employee arriving in Jacksonville, Florida, is immediately directed to a screening station. Their temperatures are taken, and their fingers are pricked for a coronavirus antibody test.
And then comes the part that reduces even the world’s most fearsome cage fighters to squirming schoolchildren: a long swab is pushed deep into the back of their nasal cavities.
“That thing in the nose, that was the second time I did it, and it wasn’t good at all,” laughed 6-foot-4, 255-pound Francis Ngannou, who will fight fellow heavyweight title contender Jair Rozenstruik on the main card at UFC 249 on Saturday night.
“It’s too weird. I think I’d rather take a punch than take that.”
The UFC is returning to action this weekend after an involuntary eight-week pause while the coronavirus pandemic upended President Dana White’s determination to keep fighting amid a devastating public health crisis. The mixed martial arts promotion is holding three shows in eight days in a fan-free arena in Florida, where state officials were willing to allow it.
These unique conditions required the UFC to come up with unprecedented health and safety precautions. They’re collected in a 25-page document written over the past six weeks by the UFC’s executives and physicians.
With no blueprint for keeping athletes safe while they compete amid a pandemic, the UFC consulted regulatory officials and outside experts to develop its protocols. They were also helped by Jeffrey Davidson, the UFC’s chief physician, who had already dealt with COVID-19 cases in his other job as head of the emergency department at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas.
The work was done remotely, since the people in charge of figuring out a way for fighters to compete safely couldn’t work in the same room safely.
“We know we’ve got a great plan in place,” UFC chief operating office Lawrence Epstein said. “I’m sure we’ll learn something about how we can do things better or differently or more efficiently, but the key is making sure everything is proceeding as scheduled and trying to figure out whether or not there are ways we can enhance things, or become more efficient. We’ll be keeping a close eye on everything that happens, and we’ll see how things go. But so far, so good.”
The UFC stages shows around the globe each year, and the promotion has plenty of experience in dealing with each location’s unique rules, or creating new testing protocols for everything from HIV to doping.
That experience provided a framework, but the UFC still had to fill it in with details. Their guiding principles were minimization of the size of their endeavor, along with constant social distancing — except inside the cage, of course.
The UFC has trimmed the number of people involved in running an MMA show to an absolute minimum — less than half of the usual 300-plus people, according to Epstein. The promotion also required everyone involved to adhere to isolation and strict social distancing standards whenever possible for the entire week, both in the hotel and in VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Everybody working the event, even perhaps some referees, will be wearing masks and gloves. The cage floor, inevitably sprinkled with sweat and blood, is supposed to be disinfected constantly.
The broadcast crew will sit apart from each other at three different tables. Joe Rogan won’t conduct his traditional post-fight interviews in the octagon, with the fighters instead putting on a sanitized headset backstage after leaving the cage. Even people working in the broadcast trucks at the pay-per-view event will be separated by plastic barriers and social distancing practices.
After the initial testing this week, everyone was asked to isolate in their hotel rooms until the results of the nasal swab test were received. Everyone receives a temperature check each morning for their entire time in Jacksonville, and they’re required to wear masks at all times in public. The fighters practice, train and cut weight in individual workout areas within the hotel.
Even with all this diligence, the UFC realizes it’s attempting an enormously difficult task. A positive test for an asymptomatic person is quite possible, given the number of people involved in even this scaled-down show.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Epstein said. “We think we’ve put together a plan that’s really strong on the health and safety standpoints, that’s really the most important thing that we think about every day. We’re really hopeful that we’re going to be able to limit those opportunities (for infection), and if they happen, we’re going to isolate people and get them out of the overall operation so we don’t compromise anything.”
After these three shows in Jacksonville, White wants the UFC to resume competition in Las Vegas starting on May 23 at the company’s performance institute, which includes an octagon where it films various television shows. Epstein said the UFC has already opened a dialogue with Nevada’s athletic commission and the governor’s office to be ready if the state decides to allow fighting to go on.
“One of the things that’s exciting about Nevada is expanded testing and local processing of tests, which should be coming online relatively soon,” Epstein said. “So when that is in place, we’re going to be able to easily do same-day testing, and that’s going to be a great opportunity to make sure that not just the athletes, but everybody involved has not been exposed to COVID-19.”