Over 15,000 fans packed into the sold-out VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida on April 24. The entertainment that Saturday night was UFC 261, a highly touted mixed martial arts event that was the first indoor live sport in the United States to have a full-capacity crowd since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
The action certainly delivered — every main card bout ended in an exciting finish. Champions Kamaru Usman and Valentina Shevchenko put on dominant performances in their respective fights. Meanwhile, a new strawweight champion was crowned, as Rose Namajunas took the title from Weili Zhang with a stunning head kick knockout.
The notoriously rowdy MMA fans were out in full force, thunderously cheering and chanting from the first preliminary fight to the last bout of the evening. Tom Brady and several Super Bowl-winning teammates were in attendance. So was social media star Jake Paul, who periodically flicked the middle finger to fans that dared boo him. Cameras frequently panned around to the rambunctious crowd, which was tightly packed, rarely masked and constantly screaming.
UFC President Dana White had repeatedly stated that the UFC would be the first sport back with a full crowd, and that his company would prove that sports can return safely. But only time will tell how safe UFC 261 actually was.
“It’s concerning that they did this,” said Phillip Funk, associate professor of immunology and biology at DePaul University. Funk explained how the indoor nature of the event made UFC 261 a potential hotbed for new Covid-19 infections.
“All of the data that has been coming out of the CDC really indicates that indoors, just by nature of the air currents being more confined, that it’s a more significant risk [than outdoor events],” Funk said.
The CDC recently released new mask guidelines, indicating that fully vaccinated people may not have to wear masks outdoors. It is still recommended that masks are always worn indoors, regardless of vaccination status. But at UFC 261, masks were not required at all for fans.
Funk wasn’t sure how helpful masks would have been at an event of this magnitude, anyway, considering its indoor nature and lack of social distancing.
“We know masks help — that’s been shown again and again and again,” he said. “But in that big an environment where that many people are crowded together, it’s hard to say how much of a difference it would make, but it would make some.”
Both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry made appearances at UFC 261’s press conference, where they proudly flaunted the event’s size and minimalistic preventative health measures.
“Welcome to Florida,” DeSantis said to attendees. “You guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom.”
The handling of UFC 261 was certainly controversial, but the UFC and White himself are no strangers to scrutiny. Several media outlets criticized the company for holding a full-capacity event without mask mandates during the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic. Adam Hill of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote an article detailing the public health risks.
“Go f— yourself,” White replied on Instagram in reference to the article.
Despite the very legitimate concerns about UFC 261 from medical experts and those in the media, many of the mixed martial arts athletes are unbothered by the risks. UFC featherweight Edson Barboza said he was excited when he learned fans would be returning to arenas.
“It’s very exciting, especially for myself,” Barboza told The DePaulia. “I’m a striker, so it’s different when you have the whole crowd there.”
Barboza will fight at UFC 262 on May 15, which will also be a full-capacity event in Houston, Texas. He admitted that he needed to prepare himself mentally to get ready to fight in front of a crowd again.
“When I heard, I was like, ‘Okay, I need to be ready for that,’ because my last two fights, they were in front of no fans,” he said.
Fighters at UFC 261 in Jacksonville had to leave the arena after their fights and go back to their hotel for Covid-19 precautions, according to the broadcast. Barboza said he was unsure if that will be the case for his event in May.
As states begin to loosen their Covid-19 restrictions, full-capacity crowds could start to become more common. The WWE is having serious discussions about full live gates in the near future following UFC 261. Events like these won’t be coming to Chicago anytime soon, though.
“Illinois is currently in Phase 4 and not yet into the Bridge to Phase 5,” Melaney Arnold of the Illinois Department of Public Health wrote in an email. Phase 5 is what would be needed for full capacity indoor events.
“We have recently been seeing an increasing trend for new hospital admissions and patients hospitalized with Covid-19,” Arnold wrote. “Until the trend stabilizes or decreases, we will not be able to move to the Bridge Phase.”
Chicago did loosen its Phase 4 restrictions on Thursday, allowing festivals and limited events at the United Center. City officials are still requiring masks and social distancing at these events, however.