The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is getting set to hold a full capacity event this weekend, marking the first time since COVID-19 placed restraints on the promotion’s schedule last year.
While the UFC has weathered the global pandemic, setting a precedent by not cutting back on its events and thinking outside the box to find creative ways to broadcast fights without putting its athletes or fans in danger, the promotion eyes a return to form after the virus put a hold on live audiences in 2020.
Here’s a breakdown of the upcoming event, and what to expect leading up to UFC 261.
Never to be outdone, the UFC came out swinging in announcing its return to full capacity crowds.
In a video posted on Twitter on March 15, UFC President Dana White dropped the huge bombshell, saying the upcoming card would take place on April 24 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville Florida. The event, unlike other sporting venues, will feature a packed house — with over 15,000 fans scheduled to attend.
“What’s up everybody, UFC president Dana White here. And I have been waiting a year for this day, to tell you – we are back,” White said in a video. “UFC 261 on April 24th will be in Jacksonville, Florida with a full house of fans. Full capacity at the Five Star Veterans Memorial Arena. And you know I’m bringing an incredible card.
“This is a stacked card in front of 15,000 UFC fans,” White exclaimed. “Ladies a gentleman, we are back!”
— danawhite (@danawhite) March 16, 2021
Following White’s announcement, MMA aficionados voiced that support for the promotion setting a standard that other sports may soon adopt. UFC fanatics wanting to see the fans repopulate the stands reinforced initial opinions on the move to allow in-person viewing, opening their wallets when tickets for the event went on sale on March 16. Tickets for UFC 261 sold out in minutes, becoming one of the fastest sell-outs in UFC history.
While several sports continue to limit fans, the UFC will be the first major sports organization to see fans return without placing a limit on attendees. The news is not surprising given the promotion’s perseverance through the pandemic. The UFC was the first major sport to hold an event during the outbreak in May of last year. Many of its prior fights were held in isolated locations with reduced fans, such as the UFC Apex in Las Vegas or Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
A lot of heavy lifting took place to merge an unrestricted live audience with a massive UFC card.
First and foremost, Governor Ron DeSantis‘ leadership during the mass pandemic opened the doors for both the UFC and fight fans across the country. While DeSantis has his share of detractors, his methodical approach to the coronavirus served as a direct catalyst and promoted good business that continues to pay dividends for the Sunshine State.
For those unaware, during this time last year, UFC 249 was scheduled to take place on April 18 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York but was postponed shortly after due to the pandemic. The event was eventually rescheduled, with Florida hosting the event on May 9 and DeSantis giving the UFC the greenlight to conduct the fights safely behind closed doors.
DeSantis’ willingness to roll out the red carpet for the UFC caught the eye of White, who saw Florida as a potential playground to allow UFC fighters and fight fans to return to the eight-sided arena.
The UFC will once again call on the Governor to set a precedent and host the first packed sporting event since the virus swept through the United States. DeSantis is aided by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry in bringing this event to fruition.
Fight fans couldn’t have asked for a better card, with three title fights taking place at UFC 261.
While the undercard has a plethora of up-and-coming talent, the main card is chock-full of notable names to make any MMA fan lick their chops. UFC veteran Anthony Smith (34-16) kicks off the PPV in a fight against Jimmy Crute (12-1), the #13 ranked light heavyweight. That fight is followed by dangerous striker Uriah Hall (17-9) who will look to continue his three-fight win streak against former UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman (15-5).
The real meat of the card, however, lies in the final three bouts of the night. The trio of fights will feature a UFC title on the line, as three champions will step inside the octagon to defend their belts.
Valentina Shevchenko (20-3), the current Women’s Flyweight Champion, will face off against former strawweight champ Jessica Andrade (21-8). Following that five-round fight, Women’s Strawweight Champion Weili Zhang (21-1) will defend her title against former champ Rose Namajunas (10-4). And in a surprising main event, fans will see a rematch from last July when Kamaru Usman (18-1) puts his middleweight belt on the line against BMF champion and Florida’s own Jorge Masvidal (35-14).
Finally leaving their “bubble” at the UFC Apex center, White has voiced his excitement to bring his product back to a live audience. With the state not placing restrictions on Floridians, White has been presented with a golden opportunity to revitalize the UFC as much of the country eyes the light at the end of the COVID tunnel.
But despite Florida ranking 23rd in cases per 100,000 and 28th in deaths per 100,000, many news outlets across the state remain up in arms, calling the lack of COVID-19 guidelines “reckless.” White, however, downplayed media attention surrounding the event on Tuesday, noting that all employees will still be tested and that fans will have the final say in whether or not to wear masks.
“In Jacksonville, everything is opening up again. Even in Vegas, it’s going to be open June 1st, but 100% open in July,” White said. “There’s still going to be some things that are set in place. We’re still going to have a bubble for the athletes, and things like that. But as far as the fans, you can wear a mask, or you can not wear a mask. It’s up to you. It’s your decision.”
Jacksonville’s mask mandate, which had been in place since June of last year, was lifted the same day tickets went on sale for UFC 261. Mayor Curry opted to end the city’s mandate.
UFC has, however, decided to implement protocols ahead of the PPV, announcing a partnership to help combat the virus and provide a safe atmosphere for everyone involved. Specifically, the promotion will now be working with CLEAR and their Health Pass technology. The tool can be utilized by fans, and after registering, they will be securely linked to a database, providing a confidential COVID-related health questionnaire.
All ticket holders will be required to enter their information into the database in advance
On Thursday, DeSantis, along with Curry, will attend a press conference for UFC 261 in Jacksonville at 4 p.m. Both officials will be present alongside White and the six fighters competing in title fights at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. The presser will stream live on Twitch, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and UFC.com.
“Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry will be a part of Thursday’s UFC 261 press conference in Jacksonville, the promotion announced. 4 pm et. They’ll join the 6 fighters competing in the title fights and Dana White, said ESPN and MMA journalist Ariel Helwani on Twitter.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry will be a part of Thursday’s UFC 261 press conference in Jacksonville, the promotion announced. 4 pm et.
They’ll join the 6 fighters competing in the title fights and Dana White.
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) April 21, 2021
On Friday, the UFC will hold their official weigh-ins at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena at 4 p.m. All weigh-ins will stream live on the platforms listed above.
On Saturday, UFC 261 will kickoff, with the early preliminary card set to begin at 5:45 p.m. The prelims will follow at 8 p.m., and the main card will kickoff at 10 p.m.
Speaking with The Capitolist, Curry confirmed that he will be attending UFC 261. We reached out to the Governor’s office to see if DeSantis would also be on hand but did not receive an answer.
If you want to know how to watch UFC 261, you can watch fight night on PPV through ESPN Plus.