‘I don’t think it gets any better:’ UFC thrills sellout Jacksonville crowd, plans to return

Knockouts headline UFC 261; UFC president says event was one of the best they’ve ever had

JACKSONVILLE, FL - APRIL 25: Kamaru Usman of Nigeria punches Jorge Masvidal of the United States during the Welterweight Title bout of UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 25, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) (Alex Menendez, 2021 Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A packed crowd. Chants of Duval. Even more chants of USA. Stars and celebrities everywhere. A night that Jacksonville waited for was worth every bit of the wait.

And it’s just getting started.

Jacksonville hosted its biggest night of combat sports since 1996, and perhaps ever, on Saturday night, a sold-out crowd of 15,269 for the star-packed UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

Tim Tebow. Gardner Minshew. Tom Brady. Myles Jack. Megan Fox. Machine Gun Kelly. Even YouTuber turned boxer Jake Paul made a cameo and fired up the crowd with repeated two-finger salutes that added to a surreal atmosphere at the arena.

“I don’t think it gets any better than tonight,” said UFC president Dana White. “I mean, you couldn’t have a better night than tonight. I mean I don’t know how you guys felt but the whole night was a holy **** night. ... It was amazing. The crowd was amazing. The fights were amazing.”

The crowd saw one championship change hands with a head kick by Rose Namajunas that ended a 21-fight winning streak by Zhang Weili. They saw Chris Weidman’s leg snap in a grotesque break just 17 seconds into his fight against Uriah Hall.

And they saw the main event end with a fighter who never gets knocked out (Jorge Masvidal) flattened and knocked unconscious in the second round by welterweight champ Kamaru Usman.

Fast. Furious. What a night.

The cherry on top this time — fans.

Enough of them to fill the arena for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic began.

And they were ready.

Not since UFC 248 on March 7, 2020 in Las Vegas had the promotion held a full-capacity event.

“I couldn’t wait. I spent a lot of money for these tickets, so I definitely wanted to come here,” said Woody Lee, who made the trip from Atlanta. “It’s amazing.”

It was only fitting that the first one back came in Jacksonville.

The town served as host last year in UFC 249 last year, a milestone in itself. That was the first live sporting event held since the pandemic started and Jacksonville was glad to host, even without fans.

When the COVID-19 restrictions eased around the state and allowing venues to wipe away capacity restrictions, the UFC came calling. Masks were optional and not many in the crowd donned them. Tickets came with a COVID-19 waiver attached to them. Health officials spoke in advance of the associated health risks and urged safety precautions.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that he spoke with White during the pandemic and said that when it was safe to do it, the promotion needed to make sure that its first event with a full crowd was held in Florida.

It was. And, boy, was it ever a night. White said that the UFC would be back to Jacksonville and expand its efforts in a state not known for landing marquee UFC fights.

“Absolutely. What we want to do now is move all over Florida and, you know, do a lot of different cities in Florida to repay the governor of the state for everything they’ve done for us,” White said. “This town was booming this weekend. And that was how I wanted to pay Jacksonville back for what they did for me a year ago to help me run my business.”

The crowd was dotted with A- and B-listers. Buccaneers quarterback Brady was octagon-side, sitting next to teammates Mike Evans and Blaine Gabbert. Tebow and his wife, Demi-Leigh, were front and center. The main card was electric, fast-paced and filled with highlights, including a gruesome injury to middleweight Weidman.

Just seconds into the fight, Weidman whipped a leg kick that Hall checked. Weidman’s leg snapped in two as it connected with Hall’s and he crumbled to the mat. It was reminiscent of a scene from Weidman’s win over Anderson Silva in 2013 at UFC 168. He checked a kick of Silva’s, and Spider’s leg broke in two.

“I feel so bad for him,” Hall said. “I hope he’s OK. It’s the sucky part of this sport. It’s a hurt business.”

JACKSONVILLE, FL - APRIL 24: Chris Weidman of the United States leaves the fight on a stretcher after breaking his leg on a kick attempt to Uriah Hall of Jamaica during UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

In other main card action, Anthony Smith beat Jim Crute by TKO on a doctor’s stoppage after the first round. Smith delivered a kick that all but deadened Crute’s leg late in the first round. He struggled to stand up in his corner at the end of the round and the doctor wouldn’t let it continue.

Valentina Shevchenko dominated Jessica Andrade from open to close, taking the bout to the ground and using her strength to bully Andrade. The fight was stopped 3:19 into the second round as Shevchenko landed punch after punch to Andrade’s face.

Namajunas won the strawweight championship with a devastating knockout of Weili, ending Weili’s 21-match winning streak. Namajunas drilled Weili with a left kick to the head that put the champion on her back, then jumped on and landed two strikes to the head before the official jumped in.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - APRIL 24: Rose Namajunas of the United States punches Zhang Weili of China during the Women's Strawweight Title bout of UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

And Usman put his rivalry with Masvidal to rest. knocking him out in the second round with a devastating right hand that caught the Miami-raised fighter flush on the jaw and sent him crashing to the canvas. Usman landed several other strikes that turned out the lights for Masvidal.

The night was no doubt the biggest for area fight fans since Roy Jones Jr. pulled off an unusual and history-making day in 1996, playing in a basketball game for the Jacksonville Barracudas of the United States Basketball League that afternoon and then fighting Eric Lucas for the super middleweight championship that night.

Jones’ daily double was international news and brought quite a bit of attention to Jacksonville. But the spectacle of the UFC and the headliners that it brought to town was a different feel.

White, who teed off on his hometown paper in Las Vegas after an article in the Las Vegas Review Journal discouraged the full attendance limit in Jacksonville, said he had no issues whether people wanted to wear a face covering or not.

“If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. And when I saw people wearing masks, I didn’t say anything to people wearing masks. People that weren’t wearing masks, nobody said anything to people that weren’t wearing masks,” he said.

“Everybody’s just doing their thing. You know what, people seem like they’re a lot happier down here in Florida than they are in some of these other ******* states, you know what I mean? Everybody’s doing their thing down here and living their life. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

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.