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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, offered a glimpse of what MMA is likely to look like for a while without fans in attendance. The UFC had already staged one empty-arena show thus far, but that was just a television event in Brazil, and it’s not uncommon to see early prelims in front of exceedingly few people. By contrast, UFC 249 was packed with important fights.
There was Justin Gaethje’s scintillating destruction of Tony Ferguson—a career-best performance that makes it likely that his next fight will come in the biggest MMA event of the year. Francis Ngannou handed Jairzinho Rozenstruik his first professional loss with an explosive finish that further cements his status as the scariest knockout artist in the sport. Henry Cejudo scored one more marquee victory in what has rapidly developed into a clear-cut hall-of-fame career, while Dominick Cruz handled defeat in a highly disappointing and unbecoming fashion.
To see these greatly significant fights take place in front of no fans making no noise was unprecedented. Sports fans in general and MMA fans in particular are going to have to recalibrate what they expect from sports for now, and UFC 249 showed us some of the positives and the negatives. By and large, it was encouraging to see how the event came off, but there were also some drawbacks to the new setup.
One concern about the lack of fans was that it would take some of the excitement out of action fights. That proved to be unfounded. Sure, it would have been nice to hear the explosion when Ferguson dropped Gaethje at the end of the second round and then the roar when the fighters started back up in the third, where “The Highlight” began to impose his will again. However, the intensity of hearing so clearly the shots land added a unique dramatic element to the fight.
Watching a fight from cageside has always provided an additional dimension to the sport, more so than is the case with sports like baseball or hockey. The sounds of the blows landed alter one’s perception of the fight; that’s one of the reasons judges and ringside journalists sometimes view certain fights differently than home viewers. Fans at home are granted that access with the new arena and microphone setup.
In the case of Gaethje-Ferguson, the fight very well might have been more exciting without fans. It was one-sided most of the way, but there was a drama to how hard Gaethje was hitting Ferguson as “El Cucuy” just kept coming. The power of every punch and kick came through. The same excitement was generated by the audible ground struggle between Bryce Mitchell and Charles Rosa. The drama of entertaining fights is likely to continue to translate well even without fans—something that didn’t seem entirely clear going into UFC 249.
The lack of fans also puts the UFC commentators front and center, a positive given the talented collection of announcers the company has put together. Joe Rogan, Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik seemed in their element at UFC 249. Their commentary was more audible without the roar of the crowd, something the fighters acknowledged after bouts. Rogan’s post-fight interviews felt more personal with fewer people involved and fighters reacting to Cormier involved him, as well. The announcers connect the audience to the action, and in MMA, the announcers are going to be much closer to that action.
If there is one aspect of the sport that may suffer the most without fans, it’s the explosive finish. The pop from the crowd after a quick knockout feeds the energy of a celebrating fighter. Without that audience, the focus is much more on concern for the downed opponent. Unlike an intense longer fight where the struggle speaks for itself, a quick finish is bolstered much more by the energetic reaction to the quick sequence of events. That was the case with Ngannou and Rozenstruik. If there was an audience, Ngannou likely would have celebrated while the crowd roared. Without that noise, it felt inappropriate for Ngannou to hold an elaborate celebration, and instead, he quickly turned his attention to making sure Rozenstruik was OK.
A spectacular knockout is one of the most exciting parts of MMA. If they feel flatter, particularly for a main event that only lasts a minute or two, it could diminish their impact and take something away. Whether that becomes the case will be more evident with time, but Ngannou-Rozenstruik may have provided a tease of what’s to come on that front.
Hopefully with time to strategize, companies like the UFC, Bellator MMA and One Championship will find novel means to take advantage of the different ways they can present their shows without an audience. Fight Island is likely to be the prime example of that experimentation. If we don’t get that much in the way of innovation, UFC 249 still suggested our viewing experience will change. If those changes on balance aren’t markedly better or worse, that’s probably a net positive.