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UFC returns after seven-week sporting shut-down

US President Donald Trump applauds as Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White addresses a rally in February 2020. UFC 249 will be held without spectators in Florida on Saturday, a first since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in the US
US President Donald Trump applauds as Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White addresses a rally in February 2020. UFC 249 will be held without spectators in Florida on Saturday, a first since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in the US JIM WATSON AFP/File
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Miami (AFP)

Ultimate Fighting Championship chief Dana White's determination to drag the mixed martial arts series out of coronavirus quarantine culminates Saturday in UFC 249.

White's controversial plans to stage a fight card in April on an Indian tribal reservation in California were thwarted.

But he got the green light in Florida to hold bouts without spectators and will televise UFC 249 from Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jacksonville, headlined by an interim lightweight title bout between Tony Ferguson and Juston Gaethje.

Both 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.

Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo and former champ Dominick Cruz both made weight for their title bout as well.

With the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer all on hold -- along with the US PGA Tour and LPGA -- White touts the return of UFC as a step toward normalcy and a boon for sport-starved fans.

And he says that's a step US President Donald Trump was backing in a conference call with US sports league leaders back in April.

"The president's take on it was we have to get live sports back first," White told the Los Angeles Times. "Show everybody how to do it safely. Give people who have to stay home some entertainment so they're not bouncing off the walls. From there, we can figure out how we get people back to work and how we get kids back to schools.

"I'm going first. ... hopefully after I do this, other leagues will start looking and say, 'Yeah, we can do this.'"

White thought he would escape California state lockdown measures when he planned an event for April 18 on Indian casino land, but that plan eventually folded when Walt Disney Co, owner of UFC broadcaster ESPN, stepped in and asked him to postpone.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis opened the door when he gave "essential services" status to employees at pro sports and media productions with a national audience.

And White, who has also announced cards for May 13 and 16 in Jacksonville, insists the production won't put anyone at risk.

"Listen, we have families, too," White told CNN Sport. "I have a family; I don't want to hurt my family. I don't want to die.

"This isn't just some crazy, this is a well thought-out plan. We've had very, very smart people, doctors and people that have been involved with the UFC for a very long time working on this thing non-stop since it started. We believe that we have this thing in a place where it can be as safe as it can possibly be."

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