Jacksonville ready for another moment in spotlight of the UFC

For the second time in less than a year, mixed martial arts event in town, this time, with fans

UFC president Dana White, center, stands between welterweights Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal during a faceoff on Thursday. Those two headline Saturday's blockbuster pay-per-view card the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. (Justin Barney, News4Jax)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s time, Jacksonville.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is back, packed with a championship card and ready for a full arena of fans on Saturday night at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

A year after the UFC came to town for a spectator-less three-night event last May, the mixed martial arts show has a blockbuster night on tap.

This time, fans are included.

And a full house of them, with the promotion calling it a sell-out that will pack the arena with 15,000 fans. Think those fight fans weren’t ready? The event sold out in minutes when tickets went on sale in late March. They’re available on the resale secondary market, with the lowest priced ticket as of Friday afternoon selling for $181.

UFC 261 has three title fights, headlined by a Kamaru Usman-Jorge Masvidal rematch for Usman’s welterweight championship. Early preliminaries begin at 5:45 p.m., preliminaries follow at 8 and the main card begins at 10 p.m. on pay-per-view.

UFC president and promoter Dana White vowed that one he was able to hold an event with fans in attendance, Florida would be a preferred destination.

UFC 249 came to Jacksonville as the first major sporting event since the start of the pandemic last May, the first of three of that promotion’s events in town that month. White said back then that the UFC would absolutely return.

And that happens on Saturday night.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was an ardent backer of White and the UFC’s return last year. DeSantis said that he appreciated White’s ability to keep focused on getting the sport back, despite the obstacles in accomplishing that.

“There’s a lot of stuff that comes flying at you, particularly from media, social media, all this stuff. And some people don’t like to handle that,” DeSantis said. “Dana White goes right into the teeth of that and says, ‘I’m going to do what’s right, I’m going to stand my ground, I’m going to hold the line.’ And I think that UFC is better for his courage.”

The fighters are just as grateful to have fans back in attendance as anyone.

“First and foremost, I just want to say, I’m glad to actually have the fans back to feel this energy from everybody,” said Kamaru Usman. “First and foremost, thanks, Dana, for making this happen.”

Now that states are beginning to open venues back up to fuller capacity crowds as coronavirus restrictions ease, the UFC is getting back into the swing of things. White said that there was hope for the promotion to be back running full-throttle, although that was contingent on what parameters states had on in-person attendance.

Florida will have hosted 16 UFC events after Saturday night, but the bulk of those were on cards like UFC Fight Night, a step below the main UFC tier. Only three of the UFC’s main draw headlining events (UFC 42, UFC 249 and UFC 261) have been held in the Sunshine State, the latter two in Jacksonville. UFC 262 (Houston) and UFC 264 (Las Vegas) have dates and venues locked in. As for other cards, White said it’s too soon to say what — or where — that will look like.

“I’m not going to do 20, 30 60% [of capacity],” White said. “If we can go to a place that we can sell out the arena, we’ll be there. If we’ve got to keep coming to Florida every weekend, we’ll do that too.”

Jacksonville’s UFC stop is with a full house, although the promotion has baked in safety guidelines, including a partnership with Health Pass by CLEAR that requires those going to the event to pass a COVID-related questionnaire before entering the venue. Masks are not required.

At Thursday’s press conference, fans were visibly excited, engaging with fighters and White on stage. Masvidal, who lost to Usman in a decision last year in a fight he took on six days’ notice, was the lone fighter to stay around after the press conference. He waited until every fan who had lined up to see him had a chance to stop by, say hello and grab a selfie with him.

Also on Saturday’s main card are strawweight champion Zhang Weili against No. 1 contender Rose Namjunas, flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko against No. 1 contender Jessica Andrade, Uriah Hall against Chris Weidman and Anthony Smith against Jim Crute.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.