Donald Trump: US President congratulates UFC fight - 'Get sport leagues back'

Justin Gaethje stunned heavily-favoured Tony Ferguson (26-4) in the finale

Sunday 10 May 2020 13:01, UK

Justin Gaethje won the interim lightweight title at UFC 249 1:21
Justin Gaethje wants to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov next after beating Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 and also hinted at a possible fight against Conor McGregor.

Donald Trump called to "get sport back" as the UFC became the first major sporting event to resume since the coronavirus shut down much of the USA for nearly two months.

UFC 249, held behind closed doors in Jacksonville, Florida, ushered in a new look for sports amid several safety precautions.

Five hours after President Trump congratulated UFC for restarting the sports world, Justin Gaethje stunned heavily favoured Tony Ferguson (26-4) in the finale.

Gaethje earned a TKO in the fifth and final round of the headliner that was deemed an interim lightweight title bout.

Gaethje beat favourite Tony Ferguson
Image: Gaethje beat favourite Tony Ferguson

It essentially gives Gaethje (22-2) the right to fight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov next. Nurmagomedov was unable to fight this weekend because of travel restrictions.

Trump had recorded a video message which was played during ESPN's broadcast of the undercard.

"I want to congratulate (UFC President) Dana White and the UFC," Trump said. "They're going to have a big match. We love it. We think it's important. Get the sports leagues back. Let's play. Do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back."

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Stacked card for UFC 249

Henry Cejudo defended his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz and then announced his retirement in the middle of the octagon.

Heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou pummelled another opponent, former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy won for the sixth time in eight fights and former welterweight champion and fan favourite Donald Cowboy Cerrone lost his fourth straight.

UFC boss: 'The system worked'

UFC 249 was originally scheduled for April 18 in New York, but was postponed in hopes of helping slow the spread of COVID-19.

The mixed martial arts behemoth will hold three shows in eight days in Jacksonville, where state officials deemed professional sports with a national audience exempt from a stay-at-home order as long as the location is closed to the public.

The UFC came up with a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, procedures that led to Jacare Souza testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday. His middleweight bout against Uriah Hall was cancelled that night. Souza's two corner men also tested as positive, the UFC said.

All three men left the host hotel to self-isolate elsewhere, where UFC's medical team will monitor their conditions remotely and provide assistance with necessary treatments.

We're going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.
UFC president Dana White

"The whole word is weird right now. Everything is weird. This event is weird," White said. "It's different. We live in a different world than we did two months ago. The bottom line is the system worked. What you don't want to do is two days after the fight say, 'Awe, Jacare tested positive'. So it worked. The system worked that we put in place.

"We're very, very good at what we do. We'll just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology is going to get and the faster it's going to get. We're going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely."

White did not want to postpone any fights. He tried to host the event on tribal land in California and still hopes to create a Fight Island for future cards.

He settled for Jacksonville for at least a week, without fans and with social-distancing rules in place.

Masks? Tests? What safety measures were in place?

Judges and broadcasters worked from separate tables. Fighters, trainers, referees, judges, UFC staff and even outside media had to undergo COVID-19 testing to get inside Veterans Memorial Arena.

Many of those in attendance on Saturday wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate. Referees, ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring girl were unmasked. Play-by-play commentator Joe Rogan, who initially was supposed to interview winners remotely, ended up doing them inside the octagon.

The cage floor was disinfected between bouts, and the padded parts of the octagon were wiped down between rounds.

Without fans, though, sounds that usually would be muted or completely drowned out filled the desolate arena. Fighters said it affected their bouts. Hardy and Carla Esparza said they altered their approach after hearing commentators during early rounds.

"It's hard to assess without the crowd," Anthony Pettis said after beating Cerrone in a wild welterweight fight. "When I land stuff, I hear the crowd and know it was a good one. This time, there was no crowd. I saw his head pop, but there was nothing behind it, so it's hard to tell."