BRASILIA, Brazil — The UFC staged a full fight card in an empty arena Saturday night in Brazil’s capital city, sticking to its plan to keep fighting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Charles Oliveira stopped lightweight Kevin Lee with a guillotine choke in the third round of the main event in the UFC’s first show since many other sports organizations around the world postponed and cancelled competitions.
The world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion held 12 bouts in Brasilia with only the fighters, their camps, the television production crew and a few dozen essential personnel inside Nilson Nelson Gymnasium.
“It was a bit weird not having any fans inside the arena,” said Bea Malecki, a Swedish bantamweight who won a decision over Veronica Macedo in the show’s opening bout. “But I was able to hear everything my coaches were saying, and it was good. Sometimes it is so loud out there. It was a crazy week. We didn’t know if the fight was going to happen or not, but we stuck to the plan. It was really emotional.”
The UFC has not cancelled any events in the wake of the pandemic, going against the plans of nearly all major sports leagues and organizations. UFC President Dana White has claimed the sports world is “panicking” with its cancellations, and he remains determined to stage four more shows over the next five weekends.
But White announced Saturday night that all four shows must take place at new, currently undetermined venues — including UFC 249, the promotion’s next pay-per-view event headlined by lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov fighting top contender Tony Ferguson.
“We’re not stopping,” White said on ESPN, his promotion’s broadcast partner. “We will keep finding a way to put on the fights. I’m in the fight business. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and this stuff happens to me every weekend — obviously not at this level.”
The UFC had scheduled a show with fans inside London’s O2 Arena on March 21. The U.S. government’s new travel restrictions regarding the United Kingdom have forced the UFC to move the show, White said.
The London show is likely to be held in the U.S., but Europe-based fighters are unlikely to be able to compete on the card. White’s matchmakers are putting together a new undercard for the show, which is slated to be headlined by American welterweight Tyron Woodley against Britain’s Leon Edwards.
The UFC also intended to hold fan-free shows in Las Vegas on March 28 and April 11, but White said the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s decision to suspend any combat sports competition in the state until March 25 have made it impossible to stick with that plan. He intends to find new homes for those shows, which were initially scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, and for Portland, Oregon.
The UFC broadcast from Brasilia included constant promotion of the UFC 249 would be headlined by lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson in a matchup that has been booked four previous times, but cancelled each time due to injuries or other circumstances.
“Unless there’s a total shutdown of the country where people can’t leave their houses and things like that, these fights will happen,” White said. “We will find venues and we will figure this out. The only thing that’s going to stop us is a complete government shutdown where people are confined to their homes.”
The show in Brasilia was likely a boon for ESPN, as it filled a yawning void of live sports during what’s usually one of the busiest weeks of the international sporting calendar. The fights were initially scheduled to be aired in the U.S. on the ESPN+ subscription service, but instead filled nearly six hours on ESPN.
Oliveira (29-8) ended the show by finishing Lee (18-6), a former lightweight title contender who missed weight for the bout. Oliveira has won seven straight fights by stoppage, and the Brazilian veteran’s celebratory screams echoed through the empty arena after his UFC-record 14th submission victory.
“We spent the whole week not knowing if this was going to happen,” Oliveira said. “I came to make history again, this time without anyone cheering. Of course I wanted everyone to be there, but I’m sure that an audience that didn’t know me yet had the opportunity to meet me today.”
In the show’s penultimate bout, Gilbert Burns knocked out Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist Demian Maia, who hadn’t lost by stoppage in 25 fights since August 2009 at UFC 102. The 42-year-old Maia (28-10), a UFC stalwart since 2007, had won his last three bouts in a late-career surge before was stopped by Burns (18-3), a fellow Brazilian who has won five straight fights.
The absence of fans led to a unique atmosphere. The UFC still played its fighters’ walk-in music as they walked to the cage, and ring announcer Joe Martinez declaimed the fighters’ names with no fans in attendance to hear it. After conducting an in-cage interview, UFC broadcaster Michael Bisping instinctively exhorted the absent crowd to “Make some noise!”
The absence of crowd energy perhaps played a role in the card’s first nine fights all going to decisions. Brazil’s Jussier Formiga lost a narrow unanimous decision to Mexican lightweight Brandon Moreno in the type of close bout that might have been influenced by thousands of fans cheering for the home fighter.
Another touted Brazilian also lost: light heavyweight Johnny Walker dropped a one-sided decision to Ukraine’s Nikita Krylov for his second straight defeat since a nine-fight winning streak that had moved him into contention for a title shot at Jon Jones.
Lightweight contender Renato Moicano got the card’s first stoppage victory nearly 4 1/2 hours into the show, finishing Damir Hadzovic in 44 seconds with a rear naked choke.
“I’m very frustrated because today I fought in my hometown, and I don’t see nobody,” Moicano said. “I didn’t see familiar faces. I didn’t see my family over here. I don’t know what to say.”
The atmosphere outside the arena was equally strange. The UFC had already erected signage and cordoned off gathering areas normally placed outside venues for fans, but the areas sat unused and empty.