As people continue to adjust to the disruptions of a daily life we knew eight weeks ago before the coronavirus pandemic besieged us, a small part of the old normal will return Saturday night for mixed martial arts fans.
The UFC returns with a pay-per-view event, its first since March 7, its first night of fights since March 14 and the first major live sporting event in America since all sports went on an indefinite hiatus. Fighters will enter the octagon. Referees, too. Judges will discern to the best of their abilities which fighters inflicted the most damage in five-minute segments.
The broadcast of UFC 249 on ESPN and ESPN+, with all the traditional punching, kicking and bending of limbs in ways that go against conventional wisdom, will feel comfortable.
"We don't want to push too hard and try to create something that people are unfamiliar with," UFC executive vice president of production and operations Craig Borsari told Newsday. "I think the comfort of seeing a live sporting event and live fights and the UFC the way they've remembered it is what we're going to try to achieve.
"The hope is that if you're tuning in, you have some comfort knowing that all right, you know, we're getting back to operating and some normalcy in our life. And we can do that for a few hours by bringing them a broadcast to their home."
No fans will be allowed in the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, for the fights. Not on Saturday, and not for the UFC's other two fights in that arena next week. For Borsari, that means less cameras and microphones needed to capture that material. For viewers, it means a more visceral sound experience.
"It's easier to listen in to the corners and hear instruction both in between rounds, and during the fight," Borsari said. "All of the action, whether it's grunts, or punches that land to the body, we're going to get really crisp audio there and have the ability to translate that to the audience real time. We'll also be able to look for it in the TV truck on replays. Replays don't always have to be a visual. Audio can have a big impact on a quality replay."
Borsari said the production team for UFC 249 will number around 80, nearly half of the approximate 130 people for a typical pay-per-view event. He said the entire crew will undergo the same COVID-19 testing as the fighters and their cornerman. The protocol includes a nasal swab, antibody testing and temperature checks before anyone registers at the host hotel. There will be daily temperature checks as well.
Borsari said that each crew member will receive personal protective equipment, including N95 masks and gloves. Each person also will have their own dedicated production equipment, as opposed to past events where they could grab any headset each day.
That team is responsible for everything from lighting and audio to pre-fight interviews and content, from stage managers ushering fighters and others from place to place to handling pre- and post-show production, from the cageside cameramen and cabling team to the people who push the broadcast feed out globally.
The plan still is to deliver the quality production consumers have come to expect from a UFC event, minus the crowd shots and some ways they typically light the arena throughout the seven-hour event.
The UFC 249 announce team of play-by-play man Jon Anik and analysts Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier will sit at separate tables about 10 or 12 feet away from each other instead of being crammed into one table against the side of the octagon like usual. They will call the action from about five feet or so away from the edge of the apron, putting them around 10 feet away from the action and flying sweat in the cage. Borsari said they did explore the idea of having the announcers call the fights from a studio or somewhere else other than cageside but ultimately chose to have them on site.
"Once we felt like we had a policy and procedure in place to keep everybody healthy and safe, we decided that having them there in terms of execution is going to be a much easier execution there than doing it remotely," Borsari said.
The lack of fans presents its unique set of challenges for production — and for fighters.
But Dominick Cruz, who challenges bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo on Saturday, didn’t seem worried about it.
"I think the silence might be the weird part, realistically. But, you know, if you fight in Japan, there's a lot of people there but they don't make a lot of noise. So it could be like that," Cruz said. "Also, when you train in the gym a lot, I don't have a lot of people in the gym, especially now in the quarantine as you're training. We've all been having to train with minimal people, like four to six people max in the gym so that nobody is getting contaminated. And it's been pretty silent there. So I think it's going to resemble training in the gym."
Tony Ferguson, who faces Justin Gaethje in the main event for the interim lightweight title, drew comparison to his experiences competing in the small, made-for-TV venue on "The Ultimate Fighter."
"When I was in 'The Ultimate Fighter,' it was the exact same thing," Ferguson said. "The only people we had in the crowd was two sets of bleachers and our coaches. We had a couple cornermen and we had the commission there."
The expectations from viewers varied, though. One was a mid-week, taped and edited series airing on pay cable with no line item in your monthly bill. UFC 249 is a live pay-per-view event streaming on ESPN+ for $65.
"I believe it's going to be much more of an intimate situation, as weird as that sounds," Gaethje said of UFC 249. "The fans are going to get to hear the shots when we land our shots. They're going to hear the breathing, they're going to hear the talking from the coaches."