MIAMI: The Ultimate Fighting Championship Saturday became the first major American sporting event held since the US coronavirus outbreak, with President Donald Trump congratulating the promoter.
The controversial card put the UFC in the spotlight like never before, but did not go off without a hitch after middleweight Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza was dropped when he and two of his cornermen tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday.
The main event saw Justin Gaethje dominate Tony Ferguson with a fifth-round technical knockout victory in the lightweight division. Gaethje finished his opponent off three minutes and 39 seconds into the fifth to earn the interim lightweight crown.
"It worked out great," said promoter Dana White. "I am happy with the way it went tonight."
In a pre-recorded video shown during the undercard fights, Trump -- who in November attended a UFC card -- congratulated White for the sport's return.
"Get the sports leagues back, let's play," the president said. "You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back."
The fights were staged in an empty 15,000-seat VyStar Veterans Memorial arena in Jacksonville, Florida, after earlier attempts to hold it in New York and California failed due to pandemic restrictions on live sporting events.
The global outbreak has largely shut down the American economy, but Florida authorities have deemed professional sports -- including mixed martial arts -- essential businesses.
White downplayed the negative impact of Souza's positive test and insisted it showed they were on top of things.
"Obviously the system that we set up works. We found out he was positive and all the other tests were negative," he said.
"We have two more fights this week. We will do over 1,100 tests."
He has also announced cards for Wednesday and next Saturday in Jacksonville -- despite stating he expects to see more positive coronavirus tests this week.
"When you are testing that much I am sure we are going to find somebody else who is positive," White told ESPN.
- Step towards normalcy -
With the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer all suspended -- along with the US PGA Tour and LPGA -- White is touting the return of UFC as a step toward normalcy and a boon for sports-starved fans.
Post-fight interviews on Saturday were conducted inside the ring without masks. Outside the Octagon many personnel -- but not all -- were wearing some protective equipment.
"I wanted to look them in the eye. I didn't want it to be some impersonal thing where he is 100 feet away from me," said Joe Rogan, interviewing inside the ring.
Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer wore a mask cage-side, removing it for introductions and results while inside the ring.
Gaethje pummelled Ferguson from the opening bell, swelling both his eyes and cutting him on the cheek. Referee Herb Dean stopped the fight after Gaethje landed a solid left that wobbled Ferguson.
Both main event fighters made weight on Friday at a weigh-in where media members and most UFC staff were kept at a distance, those closer to the fighters wore masks and the scale was sanitized.