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Sports returns to calendar Saturday night as UFC showcase lands in town

Mayor Curry hopes event showcases Jacksonville to the world, ignites partnership with MMA franchise

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – All eyes of the sporting world will be on Jacksonville this weekend, and for something other than football.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship will hold its UFC 249 card at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday night, the first of three events put on by the promotion in Jacksonville this month. The UFC will also hold May 13 and 16 events in town, too.

No fans are permitted to attend the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic and safety precautions, but it is no doubt the biggest combat sports event hosted in the area since boxer Roy Jones Jr. defended his IBF super middleweight title against Eric Lucas on June 15, 1996.

Could this first stop wind up as the first of many? Mayor Lenny Curry hopes so. UFC president Dana White thinks so. And no doubt, so does a local audience of fight fans who have previously only seen smaller combat sports events take place in town.

White told News4Jax on Tuesday afternoon that the area would in fact serve as host again.

“One hundred percent,” White said. “They’ve been so good to us there that when the world gets back to whatever normal is going to be, we will come back and put on a great event for them.”

A UFC event in town would be a major storyline under non-pandemic circumstances, but the fact that it is the first major sporting event to be held as the country tries to move forward from the coronavirus amplifies the magnitude of it.

Mayor Lenny Curry said that Jacksonville is “honored” to play a part in the return of sports to the calendar.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our City and the first worldwide sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic,” Curry said. “We are honored that the UFC chose Jacksonville and we hope this is the beginning of a strong partnership that not only leads to future UFC matches, but also shows the world that our city is a great host for events of this size and caliber.”

The UFC is the preeminent organization in mixed martial arts. When the franchise was sold in 2016, it fetched a staggering $4 billion, a testament to how big of business that industry had become.

The Los Angeles Dodgers held the previous record for the most valuable sports franchise to be sold, fetching $2.1 billion in 2012.

In 2001, the UFC was purchased by casino operators and brothers, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta for $2 million.

That’s million, with an M.

UFC’s White has since said that the franchise is now worth $7 billion.

Any time a promotion with the visibility of the UFC comes to town, that’s huge news. And that holds true with Jacksonville, which would love to elbow its way in to a mixed martial arts pipeline in Florida that has not made its way north of Orlando.

White said that state and local officials have made the UFC’s push to be the first sport back on the stage a positive experience.

“The governor, the mayor, the state athletic commission, all of those guys, have been amazing in working with us instead of fighting against us,” White said. “When you work with us, we can figure out ways together to make it safe and put on a great event, and they’ve been amazing as far as that’s concerned.”

Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje are in the main event on Saturday night, a battle for the interim lightweight title. Fighters have said that they are glad to be able to bring live sports again to the fans. The card is being televised on ESPN+ pay per view.