Donald Trump has hailed the first major professional sports event in America after a two-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic as an “important” step – as US states start to ease lockdown restrictions.
UFC 249 began with a pre-recorded message from the US president standing outside the White House in which he congratulated the mixed martial arts organisation and its president, Dana White.
He said: “We love it. We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back.”
The fights took place without fans at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday night and were broadcast on ESPN.
It was the first of three events, with the next two planned for 13 and 16 May.
“These events will be closed to the public and will be produced with only essential personnel in attendance,” the UFC said in a statement on its website.
White added: “My team is ready to go and the fighters are excited to get back in there with these back-to-back events.”
More from Covid-19
Coronavirus: Top restaurant chef warns ‘our industry is on the verge of collapse’
Coronavirus: PM’s lockdown plan raises ‘more questions than answers’, says Labour leader
Coronavirus: Bosses say PM fails to allay confusion over face masks for workers
Coronavirus: People flying from France to the UK will not have to be quarantined
Coronavirus: New UK lockdown rules – Sky News experts give their views
Coronavirus: Full transcript of the PM’s address to the nation
However, the event did not pass without controversy after one fighter, Jacare Souza, and his two cornermen tested positive for COVID-19.
Though asymptomatic, the UFC said Souza and those affected had left the host hotel and would be remotely monitored as they self-isolate.
The showcase still went ahead with stringent coronavirus health and safety protocols in place.
Those allowed into the arena – fighters, UFC staff, trainers, referees, judges and broadcasters – underwent COVID-19 testing and social distancing measures were enforced. Some wore face masks.
The octagon cage was regularly disinfected and wiped down.
White said afterwards that Souza’s positive test showed “the system worked”.
“The whole world is weird; this whole event is weird. We live in a different world than we did two months ago, and the bottom line is the system worked,” he told the post-event news conference.
Obama describes Trump’s handling of pandemic as a ‘chaotic disaster’
“The system is that you want to find people. What you don’t want to do is say two days after the fight is that Jacare tested positive, you know. It worked – the system worked that we put in place.
“The way this went, we will just get better. We will be better by Wednesday, then better by Saturday, then after Saturday we will start to catch our stride and get this thing dialled in and figured out.
“The longer this goes, the better testing technology will get, and the faster it will get. We are going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”