MMA in rare spotlight moment as sporting world turns to UFC 249

In a normal time, meaning any time other than during a pandemic, there are a few days that stand out for how difficult they are for sports fans.

The day after the Major League Baseball All-Star game in July is one. It’s one of the few days of the year in which there are no live sports, but at least in those cases, there are sports to talk about.

We’ve had to live that reality in the U.S. for the better part of two months as the sports world was ground to a halt by the coronavirus.

We missed March Madness, which is annually one of the biggest events of the year. We’ll never get that back, and we’ll always wonder whether Dayton could have given us one of the great stories of the year by winning the men’s national title.

We might still lose the grandeur and pageantry of Major League Baseball’s Opening day, and the most exciting two minutes in sports, the Kentucky Derby. One of the great stories of 2019 was Tiger Woods’ dramatic victory at The Masters. It, like so many other events, was postponed.

Sports are entertainment. Sports are fun. Sports are a needed distraction during the worst of times, when it seems like things are falling apart around us. For at least two hours, we can sit in front of the TV and briefly forget about the pile of bills and the job hunt and the search for a pack of toilet paper and become engrossed in our favorite team or athlete’s fortunes.

That finally changes on Saturday, when the UFC returns with a star-studded card from Jacksonville, Florida.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 08: UFC president Dana White interacts with media members during the UFC 249 official weigh-in on May 08, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
UFC president Dana White interacts with media members during the UFC 249 official weigh-in on Friday in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

If you question how important sports are in our society, consider this: Despite unemployment at its highest levels since the Great Depression more than 70 years ago, UFC president Dana White said pre-event sales of the UFC 249 pay-per-view are higher than anything he’s seen in the last few years — other than Conor McGregor fights.

According to White, pre-buys through Thursday were more than double UFC 244, 245, 247 and 248 in Canada and Australia, and trending much higher than average in the U.S.

“Unbelievable pacing for buys,” White told Yahoo Sports.

That comes at a time when 33.3 million people have filed jobless claims since COVID-19 hit the U.S. full force in March. There have been extraordinarily long lines at food banks because people can’t afford food.

Yet, sales of a $64.95 fight card on pay-per-view are at considerable levels. If that doesn’t speak to the immense power of sports in our society, nothing will.

This probably wouldn’t have been the same had the UFC gone ahead with its show on April 18 as it had originally planned. The event on tribal grounds in California was opposed vehemently by many California politicians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

But it’s a much different feeling this time around. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry welcomed the UFC. The Florida Athletic Commission will regulate it. It has a sense of legitimacy that was absent in California.

White and his team put together a deep card that, on paper at least, ranks among the best the company has ever staged.

It figures that the preliminaries on ESPN, which begin at 6 p.m. ET, will get enormous ratings, many of them from people who haven’t watched mixed martial arts before. The UFC’s creative team is exceptional and tells a story as well as anyone. Expect that story to resonate during the broadcast.

The UFC has had to postpone five events since it staged a card on March 14 in Brasilia, Brazil, with no fans. Its lost ticket revenue alone is in the tens of millions of dollars. It had already sold $5.5 million worth of tickets for UFC 249 when it was originally slated for Brooklyn.

It has also rented an island that it is working on to use for international fights. It’s spent much to acquire COVID-19 tests. It’s purchased treadmills and saunas for fighters to use in their rooms instead of going to a gym.

The UFC’s parent company, Endeavor, announced on Thursday it would lay off or furlough 20 percent of its workforce. But White has been adamant that not one UFC employee would be laid off or furloughed, and he’s been true to his word.

Employees were also given a choice of working the event, and though most who were asked opted to do so, those who chose to stay at home will not face punishment or retribution.

White and his executive staff have been working long hours for months, trying to get this event together.

“This hasn’t been cheap, believe me,” White said.

They have the sports stage in a sports-crazed country to themselves on Saturday. They are offering one of the best cards they’ve ever put together with a main event between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje that figures to be wild.

This could turn out to be the biggest single night of growth since the seminal night in 2005 following the first “The Ultimate Fighter” finale in Las Vegas. That night, executives from the UFC and Spike TV met in an alleyway between the Thomas & Mack Center and the Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus to hammer out a new TV deal.

There have been many high points since, including the heavyweight championship fight standing as their debut on network television on Fox in 2011 and the debut on ESPN in 2019.

If things go as it seems they will on Saturday, this event during a global crisis may be looked back upon as the one that made the UFC forever known as one of the Big Four on the professional sports landscape in America.

More UFC 249 coverage from Yahoo Sports: