UFC 249 was a hit on almost every level Saturday night despite fans being barred from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena because of the coronavirus pandemic.
If anything, the 11 fights became more intimate without thousands of screaming people surrounding the Octagon. The straightforward nature of direct physical combat lends itself to a narrow focus on the athletes themselves. Its draw is in the one-on-one scrap for survival that connects to the basic human instincts of viewers.
We didn’t need a murmuring crowd to understand the depths of Tony Ferguson’s perseverance in his lightweight loss to Justin Gaethje. We barely required commentary (though Joe Rogan, Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik did extremely well calling fights under the circumstances). As Ferguson took blow after blow to the face, his eyes swelling shut and his blood leaking onto the mat, his ability to stay on his feet until midway through round five unlocked primal feelings perhaps intensified by the lonesome setting of his beating. His only strategy at the end was self-preservation.
It’s unclear whether other pro sports in the U.S., typically reliant on many more complexities than the UFC, could achieve the same level of emotion without packed arenas and stadiums.
The NBA in particular relies on in-game energy to play up mini-dramas throughout 48 minutes of regulation, with its fan-player dynamic an essential part of the tension that makes high-level basketball so compelling. Historic playoff memories are made iconic in part by the chaotic scenery of the sport — remove the Utah faithful standing behind the basket in the still shot of MJ’s 1998 NBA Finals winner, for example, and a different set of emotions are evoked.
Should the NBA conclude its 2019-20 campaign — far from a sure bet — it might jump straight to the postseason, where crowd emotion is crucial to the experience.
Warriors forward Draymond Green likely spoke for many pro players in reaction to New York not playing music in its arena during a throwback night in 2017 — the closest we’ve come to an empty arena NBA game in the past few years.
“That was pathetic,” Green said. “It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything. You get used used to playing the game a certain way.”
Green, who feeds off his surroundings, took part in one of the greatest NBA games of all-time in 2016 when the Cavaliers beat his Warriors at Oracle Arena in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Out of all of the Golden State dynasty playoff games I’ve attended, no atmosphere came close to that. It was an instant-classic that translated through TV screens across the country.
Without the crowd booming as he galloped with the ball in transition, does Andre Iguodala sense LeBron James shadowing him for a chase down block with under two minutes remaining in regulation by hearing the forward’s sneakers squeaking behind him? Does ABC announcer Mike Breen unleash his famous “Oh! Blocked by James!” call? Moments later, does Kyrie Irving’s off-balance dagger from the right wing have the same legendary effect with no one at Oracle to silence?
Something special would probably be lost in the exchange.
Maybe UFC 249 would have been better if it happened in front of a full house. It did not completely avoid awkward moments, after all, and its social distancing measures were inconsistent. Rogan, for example, apparently threw a fit in order to be able to conduct post-fight interviews up close.
But the event still provided a surprising level of drama and entertainment and legitimacy. Several fights, including the Ferguson-Gaethje clash, were enthralling enough to forget about the lack of fans. Entrants and viewers alike spoke positively about the experience. We’ll remember the stacked card because of the way its matchups lived up to their hype as much as for the odd broadcast dynamics.
It will be challenging for the NBA to match such a smooth transition to closed-door games. For a sport built on noise, quiet is jarring.