UFC Brings Back Live Sports To Las Vegas


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 30: Gilbert Burns of Brazil reacts after his victory over Tyron Woodley in their welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


UFC Brings Back Live Sports To Las Vegas Saturday Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, National Unrest

By: Alan Snel


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: (L-R) Casey Kenney secures a guillotine choke submission against Louis Smolka in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


It’s strangely quiet inside the venue. But the two combatants are throwing punches and kicks and you can plainly hear the flesh-on-flesh strikes as they move around the octagon at UFC’s Apex building. “Elbow, elbow, elbow” a coach instructs the MMA fighter. Eventually a TKO puts an end to the first of 11 bouts tonight. And then a UFC staffer sprays a disinfectant in the cage after the fight is over.

This is no downtown MMA gym. This is UFC’s polished 130,000-square-foot Apex, open not even a full year. Welcome to the first live sports event in Las Vegas during a virus pandemic that grounded sports in Las Vegas more than 2 1/2 months ago. It’s a UFC Fight Night on ESPN and ESPN+


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: A general view inside the UFC APEX prior to the UFC Fight Night event on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: Workers sanitize the Octagon between fights during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


Live sports during a pandemic in Las Vegas means a swab to the throat as COVID-19 testing, masks and social distancing are essential elements in a protocol outlined by UFC, which is bringing back live sports to Las Vegas, a hot spot for new major league teams like the three-year-old Vegas Golden Knights and just-transplanted Las Vegas Raiders. A new luxurious $150 million minor league baseball park opened in Summerlin for the Triple A Aviators just last year. The Raiders’ $1.97 billion stadium project, where at least seven construction workers have tested positive for COVID-19, is scheduled to be ready July 31. Las Vegas was Las Sports before a worldwide virus grounded sports here in Southern Nevada and across the U.S. and the planet.

UFC President Dana White’s single-mindedness to have UFC be the first sports organization to return live sports to the U.S. is propelling the MMA promotion to be at the forefront of sports fans’ schedules these days. To stage sports amid a pandemic, UFC drafted a comprehensive logistics plan for its fighters to follow and for its fight events to be staged.  Only a few days ago, Nevada’s governor and athletic commission green lighted UFC and White to move forward to hold Saturday’s fight night, featuring welterweights Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns in tonight’s main event.

“No gate. No fans,” White said. “It looked beautiful on TV.”


Dana White after the fight night


White said it’s harder for sports leagues to put on sports now because of the financial burden of staging live sports during a novel coronavirus health crisis.

“The big problem isn’t COVID-19. It’s financial. This is a massive financial burden on everyone’s company,” White said after the fight night. “It’s a huge financial burden to keep the place safe. . . I have an obligation to a lot of people, 350 people here in Las Vegas who have worked hard for me. I have fighters. They perform and they put on great fights they step in the octagon. I have an obligation to the fans. It’s just the way I’m wired. It ain’t cheap. It’s a lot more work than three months ago.”


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: (R-L) Gilbert Burns of Brazil kicks Tyron Woodley in their welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


Woodley, a former champ, looked sluggish and Burns won a unanimous decision.

Everyone wore a mask in the venue — with the exception of the octagon announcer, the fight ref and the fighters. White, who spoke Friday before reporters without a mask, watched from his office on fight night.


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: A general view inside the UFC APEX prior to the UFC Fight Night event on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: Katlyn Chookagian attempts to secure a rear choke submission against Antonina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan in their flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


But White didn’t wait for approvals in Nevada to hold a live event. Three weeks ago, White staged UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida to the delight of his friend, President Trump. The president, who had White give a speech at the Republican convention in 2016, gave a video shout-out to the UFC prez during UFC 249 May 9.



UFC President Dana Dana White


UFC agreed to LVSportsBiz.com’s request to be included among only three reporters granted permission to be inside the Apex venue to bear witness the first live sports event in Las Vegas during the pandemic crisis. UFC converted the old Scientific Games building next to the UFC headquarters off the 215 beltway in the southwest valley into the Apex. Little did UFC know at the time that the Apex would house Las Vegas’ first live sports event during a virus pandemic less than a year later.

The coaches’ instructions to their fighters during the bouts are easily heard. Once the pre-fight music ends, you can easily hear conversations. The sounds of fighters’ landing punches and kicks are distinct. The only clapping noise comes from the fighters’ camps. Even the sounds of fighters’ steps are easily heard.


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: Brandon Royval reacts after his submission victory over Tim Elliott in their flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


The Apex had risers with seats for Dana White’s Contender Series last summer. But here Saturday at 2:45 p.m., there is no spectator seating, just tables and chairs for athletic commission officials with medical personnel near the cage, too.

There will be none of UFC’s signature high-octane video and music intros typically seen at T-Mobile arena at UFC’s events. The MMA promotion is deploying one-third of its production staff at the fight night, which is being produced entirely in-house by UFC because Apex is a UFC property.



But wait, there’s more. White promises to include UFC’s international fighters in future UFC fight shows at exotic-sounding “Fight Island” outside the U.S.  Chatting with reporters Friday, White laughed when he cited popular images in the media of Fight Island having UFC events with tiki torches and a throne where he would sit and watch the fight festivities. UFC is already selling Fight Island T-shirts.



Today’s UFC fight night is also taking place against the backdrop of protests and demonstrations in cities across the U.S. after a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota placed his knee on a 46-year-old black man’s neck while he was in handcuffs and squeezed the final breath out of this man as three other officers watched May 25. The graphic nature of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a white officer who had pinned Floyd to the pavement has triggered thousands of Americans of all races and backgrounds to hit the streets — some of it peaceful, some of it tainted by violence.

So White is bringing back live sports back to a country not only besieged by a pandemic but also domestic unrest from New York to Minneapolis to Seattle and to even Las Vegas. UFC is an official tenant at T-Mobile Arena, a five-minute walk off the Strip where hundreds of protesters confronted Las Vegas’ Metro officers. On Saturday, Metro said there were 80 protest-related arrests and 12 injured officers on the Strip the day before.

UFC and ESPN held a memorium to Floyd during the fight event. “It was the right thing to do,” White said.


UFC President Dana White


In figuring out the fighter match-ups and pandemic logistics of putting on the fights shows, White has remained apolitical even with his close friendship with Trump. White has been known to use Twitter like the president, but the UFC prez sticks strictly to fight news with an occasional jab like this one against HBO TV show comedian John Oliver after UFC filed for the trademark for “UF-SEA” for Fight Island after Oliver suggested UF-SEA in a funny show bit.



NASCAR joined UFC in returning live sports to the U.S., but the big boys of stock car racing have no problems with social distancing at 2oo mph at gigantic car racing tracks that are so big that even high school graduations can take place at these speedway venues. Case in in point: Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosting Faith Lutheran High School’s graduation May 22.


Graduation at the Speedway. Photo credit: J. Tyge O’Donnell/LVSportsBiz.com


Let’s just say the UFC Apex is a lot smaller than a NASCAR race track. Today’s 11 fights on ESPN are being staged in a standard UFC cage, but the seats in these portable bleachers are not in place in the Apex.



UFC took over an entire Holiday Inn for Saturday’s fight event, with all fighters being tested. Each fighter will be quarantined in his or her room until results are obtained from the coronavirus test. A memo obtained by ESPN read, “This means you should not leave the Athlete Hotel or have physical contact with anyone other than the members of your camp until you have received your test result,” the memo reads, per ESPN. If the test is negative, fighters “may continue with fight week activities. … If your result is positive, you should remain in your hotel room and await further instructions from UFC’s medical team.”

The second test will then be scheduled after the official weigh-in. Again, fighters will have to isolate themselves in their hotel rooms.


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: Katlyn Chookagian attempts to secure a rear choke submission against Antonina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan in their flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)


“During this time, no athletes or cornermen will be permitted to leave the Athlete Hotel without express prior approval from the Nevada State Athletic Commission,” the memo read. “You also should not have physical contact with anyone other than the members of your camp.”

All fighters and team members will need to sign a HIPAA authorization form so the testing lab can share results with the UFC. HIPAA is the 1996 act which provides protection for personal health information.

White has already taken five coronavirus tests — he posted his fifth one on Twitter Friday.


The National Hockey League and National Basketball Association are hoping to return to action this summer, possibly in August. Both leagues are likely paying close attention to UFC’s operational logistics. Las Vegas is also in the running with 10 NHL cities to be one of two playoff hubs. Las Vegas, with its concentration of hotels near T-Mobile Arena, has the hospitality infrastructure. But does it have enough practice rinks? NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to announce the two playoff hub towns in June.

Bettman said 24 of the NHL’s 31 teams will participate in the postseason. Meanwhile, the NBA is looking at a re-start in late July with Orlando, Florida possible serving as the host city.



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