Column: UFC carried on in wake of positive COVID-19 tests. Will other leagues?

Justin Gaethje, left, hits Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 on May 9, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Justin Gaethje, left, defeated Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. The event took place hours after a fighter and two of his cornermen tested positive for COVID-19.
(Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was on a conference call Friday with representatives of the league players’ association, discussing restarting the season. His stance about one issue was clear.

If the NBA were going to resume play, it would commit to staying on course even in the face of a positive COVID-19 test, or, depending on the circumstances, even a few of them.

He didn’t know at the time that the leader of another major sports enterprise was already dealing with similar circumstances.


A UFC fighter and two of his cornermen tested positive ahead of Saturday’s pay-per-view event in Jacksonville, Fla. Hours later, when the situation became known publicly, many people assumed the show would not go on. After all, the NBA immediately shut down in March when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first of its players to test positive.

A zero-tolerance policy is understandable, then and now, but what Silver and UFC President Dana White came to realize is there is also likely no realistic pathway for the return of major sports competition if that is the benchmark.

Dana White is staging UFC 249 on Saturday night in Florida. It will be the first live major professional sports event in the U.S. in nearly two months.

May 7, 2020

Even if leagues create a “bubble,” as the UFC did this past week in Jacksonville when it took over a hotel, tested everyone upon check-in and held all events at an adjacent arena, there is a good chance someone will test positive, especially when some people are asymptomatic, as Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and his cornermen were.

Without a vaccine, the question isn’t whether someone will test positive, it’s what is the plan when someone does.

It’s something Silver has reportedly addressed with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and an issue Silver spoke with players reps about Friday: Quite simply, resuming the season will not work if it has to be postponed indefinitely again when a player or staff member tests positive. If and when that happens, the player or staff member would be removed, quarantined offsite and tested before he could possibly return.

UFC 249 was scheduled to be a 12-fight card featuring 24 fighters and their respective cornermen. Had it been an NBA playoff game with two 12-man rosters plus coaching staffs, Souza and his cornermen would be the equivalent of a benchwarmer and two advance scouts testing positive.

Would the NBA remove those individuals and continue the series, or would it shut down?

The answer for the NBA, much like it was for the UFC, seems easy under those circumstances. The bigger question is: What would happen if the positive tests belonged to LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo?

The Lakers' LeBron James drives on the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard on Dec. 25, 2019, at Staples Center.
The Lakers’ LeBron James drives on the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard on Christmas Day at Staples Center.
(Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

UFC 249 was able to continue because no one on the pay-per-view card tested positive, but what would have happened if champions Tony Ferguson and Henry Cejudo had COVID-19? It’s hard to imagine the event would have continued.

There are so many questions teams and leagues have never before been forced to answer as they try to navigate the difficult road back.

What is an acceptable number of positive tests for leagues to continue playing? Is it the number of positive tests that matters as much as who tests positive?

White said the way the UFC reacted — removing the men from the host hotel and caring for them offsite while preparations continued — could provide a blueprint for sports leagues looking to return.

The NBA continues to review its options for resuming play, and that includes some form of finishing the regular season ahead of the playoffs.

April 30, 2020

That he feels that way is no surprise. It was his call to continue. The UFC is scheduled to hold other fight cards in Jacksonville on Wednesday and Saturday. White said he never expected that the more than 1,100 tests the company planned to administer over 10 days would all be negative. “Somebody is going to come back positive,” he said.


“The system we put in place worked,” he said. “The way this week went will just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology is going to get and the faster it will get.”

For White and the UFC, that’s enough.

Whether it is for other sports will be determined sometime soon.