Florida’s ‘oasis of freedom’ hosts UFC 261 in a monumental moment after COVID-19 shutdowns
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – “Welcome to Florida. You guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom.”
That was the closing line from Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he made his introductory statement to fans and viewers at home during Thursday’s UFC 261 pre-fight news conference, where a large group of spectators filled into the stands to see the fighters from Saturday’s three title bouts at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena answer questions from the media.
UFC president Dana White has been pushing back against the COVID-19 pandemic since it hit the United States hard in March 2020. He insisted he would be the first to put on live events and promised to be the first to put on a maximum capacity fight card inside a closed-roof venue.
His vision comes to reality Saturday when roughly 15,000 seats are set to be filled in Jacksonville for UFC 261, which streams on ESPN+ pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN and ESPN+. The promotion has said all appropriate safety measures will be taken, but White has already been quoted this week saying masks will be optional for those in the crowd.
If it seems questionable and risky, it’s happening regardless. White said being a trailblazer once again ranks high on his list of career accomplishments.
“When this whole COVID thing started, I told you we would be first. I told you we would get through this,” White told reporters, including MMA Junkie, at the UFC 261 pre-fight press conference. “But to do that, we had to have a place to go. Florida was the leader in getting things open – bringing back sports. These guys have been very good to us and we couldn’t have gotten it done without the state.
“It’s funny, because there’s been a lot of monumental moments in my career – and this is one of them. Saturday night’s a big night, not only for all the fighters up here and for the UFC and the sport, but I think for sports in general. We showed in the beginning of the pandemic that this could be done safely and this could be done the right way, and now we’re going to show that we can do it in closed venues and it can be done safely.”
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DeSantis said he stands firmly behind White’s efforts. Florida allowed the UFC to put on empty arena events early in the pandemic, with UFC 249 and two subsequent UFC Fight Night events in May 2020 being the start of it all. White said he felt obligated to come back to the state in order to “repay” DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, and they’re grateful for it.
“This is going to be the first full-throttle sporting event since COVID hit, indoor, anywhere in the United States,” DeSantis said. “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.”
Although the UFC 261 press conference only featured a sliver of the number of fans who will be in attendance on fight night, the energy in the building was undeniable. Jorge Masvidal, who challenges Kamaru Usman for the welterweight belt in the UFC 261 main event, has laid roots in Miami and proudly reps the state of Florida any chance he gets.
The crowd was on Masvidal’s side at the press conference. He was frantically cheered at every turn, while Usman received a heavy set of boos.
Masvidal was already feeling the energy, and he said it’s going to help him thrive inside the octagon.
“You can hear it yourself and see it yourself,” Masvidal said. “These guys want violence, and let me tell you: They don’t cheer for me because I’m so good looking or the food that I eat or nothing. They cheer for me because I give everybody their hard-earned money. I come in here to perform and give the violence that they crave. That’s the reason I have all these behind me. I fight for them.”
Usman (18-1 MMA, 13-0 UFC), though, who beat Masvidal (35-14 MMA, 12-7 UFC) by unanimous decision in their first meeting at UFC 251 in July 2020, said he has no problem being the bad guy. He feeds off the energy regardless, but reminded Masvidal there’s only one man in the octagon.
“They can’t fight for you,” Usman said. “I’m not surprised (by the reaction). I like it. I’m just glad to have the fans back. I like it whether they boo, whether they cheer. Look at the (Colby) Covington fight. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a professional, so I go in and do my job each and every time.”
Masvidal said he doesn’t need anyone to do his dirty work for him, however, and promised to create a different result in front of his fans.
“I don’t need them to fight for me,” Masvidal said. “I’m going to whoop your ass all by myself.”
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