UFC: Safe shows dur­ing pan­demic

Re­turn­ing to ac­tion af­ter a long, in­vol­un­tary eight-week pause.

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Greg Beacham

Even be­fore they check into the ho­tel, ev­ery fighter, coach, cam­era­man, jour­nal­ist and UFC em­ployee ar­riv­ing in Jack­sonville 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 eightweek 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 be­cause 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. The UFC’s 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

“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.” —UFC chief op­er­at­ing of­fice Lawrence Ep­stein

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 post­fight 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 May 23 at the com­pany’s per­for­mance in­sti­tute, which in­cludes an oc­tagon where it films var­i­ous tele­vi­sion shows.

Ep­stein said the UFC al­ready has 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.”

CHRIS CARL­SON/AP

Henry Cejudo, left, kicks Demetri­ous John­son dur­ing their UFC fly­weight ti­tle bout at UFC 227 in Los An­ge­les. Cejudo is sched­uled to fight Do­minick Cruz at UFC 249 in Jack­sonville on Satur­day.

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