It was the greatest UFC fight ever heard. Justin Gaethje landed 136 punches and kicks, and of those, approximately 136 were bombs. Not one thwack or thud was drowned out by fans.
Gaethje broke down an unbreakable man at UFC 249. Tony Ferguson took around two dozen knockout blows and didn’t fall — not even when referee Herb Dean mercifully stepped in at 3 minutes, 39 seconds of the fifth round after Ferguson staggered against the cage and Gaethje moved in for what might have been the kill or might have been still another impossible survival.
That all of this played out in an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, somehow did not detract from the moment. We heard every shot land. We heard coaches trying to get a little extra out of two battered fighters, one more so than the other. We heard the television broadcasters being fans, with “Oooohs!” and “Aaaaahs!” standing in for technical analysis, because that’s all there was to be said.
And then Gaethje said what he had to say. After having his hand raised and being presented with an interim UFC lightweight championship belt, he tossed the shiny strap to the side and told interviewer Joe Rogan, “I’ll wait for the real one.”
Gaethje vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov for “the real one” is going to be something to see. And, potentially, to hear.
What we heard Saturday night was perhaps the greatest unintended benefit of the unique circumstances around the return of the UFC.
UFC 249 was built for a big splash. A no-retreat, all-improvisation main event. A title fight co-main event featuring the comeback of an all-time great. A clash of heavyweight KO crushers. And of course, a “Cowboy.”
But Dana White & Co. took the show on the road for an even more essential mission: to restore normalcy. Saturday night, after all, is fight night — even if that had not been the case for the past seven Saturdays, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
This was a return of something bigger than the UFC. For the past two months, major sports in the United States have been shut down. White insisted all along that the UFC would be back in business before anyone else, and he was true to his word. But it wasn’t easy. UFC 249 was to originally take place April 18 in New York, then had to be moved across the country to Native American land in California. After that was canceled, the event found a home in Jacksonville three weeks later. The UFC had to develop a safety protocol, including closing the arena to fans, limiting personnel and testing everyone for COVID-19. It was complicated, made even more so by the announcement of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza’s positive test result on Friday.
Little of what ultimately went down had the look — or sound — of normal. The broadcasters were not at their usual table right at cageside. Instead, Rogan, Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik were seated apart, though you couldn’t tell from listening to the broadcast. Fighters didn’t wear masks, but their cornermen did. So did the athletic commission officials and UFC personnel, though referees inside the cage did not. Outside the cage, some refs did, some didn’t. Bruce Buffer wore one cageside but entered the cage to bellow his introductions sans mask. He gave fighters elbow bumps rather than fist bumps.
Still, the presence of Buffer and Rogan inside the cage — and Octagon girl Brittney Palmer walking around the apron holding up round cards — lent some familiarity to the event, even though the 15,000 empty seats gave the building the “quiet, please” atmosphere of a library.
We heard everything.
Perhaps the most unexpected sound of all came right before the main event. Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo had just knocked out a legend, two-time former champ Dominick Cruz. And when he stood next to Rogan for his interview, Cejudo had more than the fight on his mind.
“Joe, I’m happy with my career,” said the champ. “I’ve done enough in the sport. I want to walk away. I want to enjoy myself. I’m 33 years old. … Since I was 11 years old, I sacrificed my whole life to get where I’m at today. I’m not going to let nobody take that from me. So I’m retiring tonight, Joe.”
There was no crowd to give Cejudo a sendoff ovation as he exited the cage. He hasn’t always been received warmly by fans, but after handing Cruz his first career knockout, Cejudo deserved some noise.
All night long, the sounds of the event produced fun revelations. Did you know that a punch to the face and a punch to the body sound way different? You could close your eyes for a few seconds, listen to the thwacks and the thuds, and have a pretty good idea of what was landing where.
Ahead of his fight against Ryan Spann, Sam Alvey heads to the Octagon and pretends to high-five fans who aren’t there.
If you happened to close your eyes at the start of the Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik heavyweight fight, the crack of thunder you heard was the scariest sound in mixed martial arts. Ngannou’s 20-second KO was a sight to behold, too.
We heard fighters breathing, sometimes not even so heavily. We heard coaches coaching, and occasionally heard their fighters respond with a “Yes, sir.”
We even heard the broadcasters coaching, though that was not their intention. Some fighters confessed that they could hear commentary from cageside that proved useful in their bouts. Among them was Greg Hardy, who in a postfight interview in the Octagon attributed a midfight adjustment — checking low leg kicks — to what he heard from Cormier’s TV analysis.
“Thank God for not having a crowd,” said Hardy, who won a decision over heavyweight Yorgan De Castro. “Shoutout to DC. I heard him tell me I needed to figure out how to check [kicks], so I started trying to check them. Game changer.”
Will the UFC move the announcers for Wednesday’s and next Saturday’s shows in the same empty, hushed arena?
There are adjustments to be made. And before this run of events can be deemed a full success, all of the fighters, cornermen, officials and promotion personnel must return home safe and healthy, without spreading the virus. But the UFC is back. Sports are back.