UFC 261's packed house showed us what we badly missed

·Combat columnist
·6 min read

If this were a hockey game and they picked three stars after a UFC event, Kamaru Usman, Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko all would have deserved serious consideration as the night’s No. 1 star on Saturday.

But as great as the three champions performed in winning their bouts on the main card of UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, a relative newcomer will get that honor instead.

The fans were, without any question, the stars of this show. The arena was half filled when the show began at 7 p.m. local time with a women’s fight between Ariane Carnelossi and Liang Na.

It’s probably safe to say that 90 percent of the people in attendance had no idea who either of them was or what they’d done in their career, but when they made their walks to the cage, the arena erupted.

This was the first time with fans at a UFC fight since March 7, 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down last year.

The difference was palpable. From the moment that Na rushed Carnelossi to start the fight until the second that Usman landed a pulverizing right to the chin that knocked arch-rival Jorge Masvidal out, the crowd was remarkably loud and demonstrative.

Masks were recommended, not required, and we’ll never know the impacts of that decision. Would this be a super spreader event and cause cases of the virus to spike? There is no indication of how many of the 15,259 fans had been vaccinated against the virus once, let alone twice, and more people went without masks than wore them.

UFC president Dana White went off on the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, the major paper in the UFC’s hometown, for its story noting the boilerplate language on the tickets to the event. He blasted the paper on social media and then later at the post-fight news conference.

The tensions the virus exposed in our country were on display once again in this situation.

But setting that aside, it was clear from the opening moments how much a packed building with loud, enthusiastic fans means to a fight card. They were xenophobic, to be sure. They chanted “U-S-A!” repeatedly during the Pat Sabatini-Tristan Connelly fight in support of the American Sabatini making his debut against the Canadian interloper Connelly.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 24: A general view of the Octagon with a sold out crowd of fans during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
A general view of the Octagon with a sold out crowd of fans during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

They loudly booed the popular Chinese champion as she made her walk to the cage to fight Namajunas. And when Namajunas knocked her out with a kick to the head less than 90 seconds into the fight, the decibel level was outrageous.

All of it was just a reminder of how much we’d lost to this virus. The nearly 600,000 lost lives in this country alone is unconscionable, but the pandemic also attacked our way of life. Sports is our release, almost our way of life, and without the ability to sit in the stands and watch a ballgame, cheer for your favorite at a fight or thunderously applaud when a golfer sinks a long putt, a large piece of what makes us who we are is stolen.

We lost the memories of bringing a folding chair to the Little League game and cheering on our kids, or high fiving the guy next to us when a 3-pointer goes in at the buzzer to lead our favorite NBA team to an important and dramatic win.

No sport thrives on emotion generated from the fans quite like fighting, and in that regard, a tip of the cap must be given to the hundreds of UFC fighters who have competed in sterile, cold and mostly quiet buildings these last 11 months since the fights resumed.

There were extraordinary moments, classic bouts, performances that left us slack jawed in amazement. But the athletes had to find the motivation, the energy, the impetus to push on from within. The people who make it possible for them to do what they love were missing, and they had to somehow find a way to make up for that loss.

That they did as well as they did was a tribute to them.

But Saturday showed us what we missed. As Namajunas bowed down in the center of the cage, celebrating her dramatic win, the arena rocked. The soundtrack of this fight is not anything that play-by-play man Jon Anik or analysts Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan said, but the guttural roar that went up from the crowd when the kick landed and then the ovation for Namajunas that followed.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 24: Rose Namajunas reacts after defeating Zhang Weili of China in their UFC women's strawweight championship bout during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Rose Namajunas reacts after defeating Zhang Weili in their strawweight championship bout during UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

This crowd was so geared that when YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul walked into the arena, the crowd began to chant his name along with an obscenity. It did that several times.

It created an atmosphere that had been badly missed.

The UFC did a brilliant job of creating its bubble and then constantly refining it. I attended many of the events without fans, and I always felt safe.

The irony in this one, though, was that the UFC couldn’t do much to guarantee the safety of the fans, since there is no local ordinance ordering masks to be worn.

It would be a tragedy if anyone got the virus and had serious issues as a result of attending the show.

That’s the downside of what was a remarkable night. But we’ll also never really know the truth. If there is a less transparent governor in the country than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, I haven’t heard of him or her. And so there won’t be any safety recaps coming from the state.

This night, though, shouldn’t be about the politics that have so bitterly divided us for a year. This is a night to remember, a night that reminded us how great we had things not so long ago.

With more than 200 million vaccines already delivered in this country, it seems certain that more nights like this are on the horizon.

And that’s the best news of all.

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