Dubai: Love him or loathe him, UFC boss Dana White is bringing back big-time sporting entertainment to a world that has been in hiding ever since the deadly coronavirus spread its lethal tentacles.
March 15 was the day when the UFC — which has propelled mixed martial arts to one of the biggest sports on the planet — hosted its last fight night in Brazil before it fell victim to the worldwide lockdown on sporting activities.
But UFC has roared back with a bang.
Having been resurrected from the dead, UFC 249 will come to life at 6.15pm local time in Florida (2.15am UAE time) with the first of 12 mouth-watering contests that will culminate in the marquee event, featuring the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked lightweight (155lb) fighters in the world, Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje.
Described as a battle of the ages, the two Americans will battle for the world interim title, with the winner likely to face Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov for the crown, later this year.
But first thing’s first.
UFC 249 features a 12-fight card made in heaven, or perhaps in this case hell, pitting together some of the baddest male and female fighters on the planet.
Destroyers such as Dominick ‘The Dominator’ Cruz (22 wins, 2 defeats), who returns from a lengthy absence to challenge pound-for-pound king Henry Cejudo (15-2) in the co-main event.
The event will be held at an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, falling in line with straight safety guidelines laid down the authorities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Looking ahead to a fight that he took at short notice after Khabib Nurmagomedov was ruled out due to travel restrictions, knockout artist Justin Gaethje said: “You don’t very often get a chance to fight for a world title on the biggest stage in the world, much less during a pandemic when there are fewer sports going on and you’re going to be the only one on TV. It is going to be the perfect storm.
“To fight someone like Tony, I have to prepare mentally. You don’t just walk in and be mentally ready. My life does not exist after May 9 right now.
“Win or lose, I am focused on putting in maximum effort. That’s all that matters now.”
Ferguson, who is riding a 12-fight winning streak, insists he has only focused on his preparation and is not getting distracted by anything else.
“I am not worried about anything else besides my game and certainly not about what anyone else is going to do,” said the 26-year-old Ferguson, who is of Mexican heritage.
“My preparation in the off-season was good, we are fine tuning It now. I did a good warm-up lasting a couple of hours when I got to Jacksonville. I ran six miles yesterday. I can’t wait for the show.
“Justin’s a great opponent, that’s why we are the main event. We are where we belong. Both of us are focused on going in there and doing what we do.”
The fight between Cejudo, the reigning UFC bantamweight champ, and Cruz, a former two-time UFC bantamweight champion, is an absolute cracker.
“I respect Dominick, but I think the difference between me and everyone else is I don’t ever fight everybody the same,” said Cejudo. “I am someone who makes adjustments and you guys can see that during the fight.
Cruz admits that returning to the ring after a long layoff might worry most fighters, but he’s more than ready for it.
“Everybody says ring rust exists and it actually doesn’t,” said Zruz. “It is all in your head. I enjoy training, it is like a livelihood for me. Every athlete on this card is putting themselves in a vulnerable position where they can be beaten or win. All this comes together to create a lot of fire and I am excited for it.”
With no fans inside the arena the fighters believe the experience for spectators tuning in worldwide will be more “intimate”.
“The fans are going to get to hear when we land our shots, they are going to hear the breathing, they are going to hear the talking from the coaches,” said Gaethje.
Ferguson added: “This is really awesome. Right now, there is no Olympics, no Wimbledon, no soccer, no hockey. This is what we bring to the table. We are going to bring the best of live sport. I am proud to be a part of this.”
UFC 249 CARD
Tony Ferguson vs Justin Gaethje — interim lightweight title
Henry Cejudo vs Dominic Cruz — bantamweight title
Francis Ngannou vs Jairzinho Rozenstruik — heavyweight
Jeremy Stephens vs Calvin Kattar — featherweight
Greg Hardy vs Yorgan de Castro — heavyweight
Donald Cerrone vs Anthony Pettis — welterweight
Alexei Oleinik vs Fabricio Werdum — heavyweight
Carla Esparza vs Michelle Waterson — strawweight
Uriah Hall vs Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza — middleweight
Early Prelim Card
Vicente Luque vs Niko Price — welterweight
Bryce Mitchell vs Charles Rosa — featherweight
Ryan Spann vs Sam Alvey — Light heavyweight
How to watch
Ferguson vs Gaethje is live on UFC Arabia in the Mena region.
Main Card: 7am UAE time (Sunday) on UFC Arabia
Prelims: 5am (Sunday) on UFC Arabia
Early Prelims: 3am (Sunday) on UFC Arabia
Headquarters: Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
CEO: Dana White
Owners: Endeavor, Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, MSD Capital (via Zuffa, LLC)
UFC is the world’s premier mixed martial arts organisation with more than 318 million fans and 102 million social media followers.
The organisation produces more than 40 live events annually in some of the most prestigious arenas around the world, while broadcasting to nearly one billion TV households across more than 175 countries.
UFC’s athlete roster features the world’s best MMA athletes representing more than 65 countries.
The organisation’s digital offerings include UFC Fight Pass, one of the world’s leading streaming services for combat sports.
UFC was acquired in 2016 by global entertainment, sports and content company Endeavor, along with strategic investors Silver Lake Partners and KKR. UFC is headquartered in Las Vegas, Nevada.