UFC 249 delivers a welcome distraction from pandemic-afflicted world

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

UFC 249 ended like we thought it would — spectacularly. It was an incredible show filled with exciting fights, unexpected moments and all of the things that make mixed martial arts so great.

Getting to the starting line, though, was a problem, and that has nothing to do with when the card was originally scheduled for April 18.

When news broke on Friday that middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen had tested positive for COVID-19, it was like a kick to the gut.

Without any other information and knowing only that Souza had the coronavirus and was out of his hotly anticipated fight with Uriah Hall, it felt like this horrible year was going to continue to take its vengeance out on us.

Surely, it seemed, the UFC 249 fight card would not go on. 

We’re used to that by now — five UFC events were postponed prior to Saturday because of the COVID-19 pandemic — but on paper, this was one of the great cards the UFC had ever assembled and it appeared that it might be slipping through our grasp.

There were those who, justifiably, wondered if we should have ever gotten to this point. Coronavirus cases around the country are continuing to pop up and at this stage, there is no way to guarantee someone isn’t going to catch it no matter how much testing is done.

But people are beginning to break their governors’ stay-at-home orders because we’re going stir crazy, and there have been no live sports to keep us company.

As Anthony Smith, the light heavyweight contender who headlines Wednesday’s show against Glover Teixeira told Yahoo Sports, “You can only watch the replay of the 1995 National Championship game so many times.”

He’s right. And finally, the UFC brought live sports back. 

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 09: (L-R) Opponents Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje face off prior to their UFC interim lightweight championship fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

As if they knew they were on a platform they’d never had before, these fighters poured their hearts out in the cage and in the process, provided a salve on a gaping wound that we needed desperately.

“I know where we are right now,” said Justin Gaethje, who performed brilliantly and with previously unseen restraint in a fifth-round stoppage victory over Tony Ferguson that was never even close that gave him the interim lightweight belt. “I know where people’s minds are. I know how anxiety and depression, those are very, very strong things that can overcome anybody. I just want to inspire.

“I think I inspired some people to do better tomorrow than they did today. That’s all I do every day. That’s all I try to do. I’m not perfect.”

But this event was the perfect antidote for what ails us. For seven hours of the entire card or three hours of the main card or however long you watched, it was a break in the everyday grind.

Turn on the news and all you see is the death toll and the number of jobless claims and conflict and division. This fight card, no matter what you thought of it going in, no matter whether you were even an MMA fan, was a break from the tedium life has become.

It began on the undercard. Vicente Luque and Niko Price went to war in a rematch that would have been Fight of the Night on many shows. Calvin Kattar delivered an elbow to Jeremy Stephens’ chin that had to sound like Mike Trout teeing up a hanging curve when it connected. Francis Ngannou did what only Francis Ngannou can do, putting Jairzinho Rozenstruik to sleep within 20 seconds with a blistering left hook.

Henry Cejudo defended his bantamweight championship with a remarkable performance, becoming the first man to stop the legendary Dominick Cruz. Then, Cejudo stunned everyone by announcing his retirement.

Walking to the cage, he flung his hat into the empty arena like he’d done so many times in front of a crazed and packed crowd. He did it just to continue the ritual, to make things seem normal.

He wants to move on to a more normal life. He grew up largely without a father in very impoverished conditions in Los Angeles to become a hugely successful athlete. He won an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling in 2008, then became one of only four UFC fighters to hold titles in two weight classes simultaneously.

He’s been a prisoner of the grind that locks elite athletes in, and wants to live that normal life with our families that we all seek.

“It’s more the freedom,” Cejudo said of his reason for walking away at just 33. “You’ve followed my story since the Olympics. I haven’t stopped since. Give a brother a break, man. But I did want to leave on top. It’s a Cinderella story.”

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 09: Henry Cejudo announces his retirement in the Octagon after his victory over Dominick Cruz in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

All of that would have been taken away had Souza’s positive test caused the UFC to cancel Saturday’s show.

White was adamant that we needed to move on and find a way to live while still battling the coronavirus.

Saturday’s was the first of three shows the UFC scheduled at VyStar. The next is Wednesday and the finale will be on May 16.

White, in a brief post-fight telephone conversation with Yahoo Sports, said things will continue to get better.

“We’ll improve,” he said. “We’ll be better on Wednesday than we were tonight and we’ll be better next Saturday than we are on Wednesday. I thought the card was [expletive] awesome. I say it all the time but we do all the bells and whistles and these guys deliver and man did they deliver tonight. It was [expletive] awesome.”

Awesome it was.

And, more importantly, desperately needed. We can go back to watching the death toll monotonously rising on Sunday.

For a few hours on a Saturday, though, Justin Gaethje, Henry Cejudo and all of the UFC staff and fighters who took part made UFC 249 the perfect antidote for what ails this nation.

More UFC 249 coverage from Yahoo Sports: