A private jet, a secret location and the inside story of UFC 249

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Sayif Saud was at home in Dallas on April 6, trying to figure out logistics. His gym, Fortis MMA, was closed like many businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the head coach had two fighters -- Uriah Hall and Ryan Spann -- scheduled to compete at UFC 249 in less than two weeks.

One of the many text messages Saud fielded that day was from Billy Quinn, a friend and Fortis member. Quinn, the managing partner of Pearl Energy Investments, is an avid MMA fan. He wanted to know whether the fights, scheduled for April 18, were going to go on as planned.

Saud texted back that he was 95% sure the card would happen. But with it likely to be on the West Coast, he wasn't sure how Hall, Spann and the team would get there.

"I was like, 'Yeah, so get the plane ready because it looks like we're gonna have to go across the country,'" Saud told Quinn. "I was just joking, really. I didn't ask him for it -- I would never do that."

Quinn, though, was serious. A day later, Saud was put in touch with the pilot, and by April 8 he had a passenger list and an itinerary with the final destination of Visalia (California) Municipal Airport. From there, the UFC would send cars and take the team to Tachi Palace Casino Resort, in Lemoore, California, about 30 minutes away.

A plan was in place, one that would mitigate the risk of coronavirus exposure at commercial airports. But it never came to fruition. The UFC postponed the event nine days before it was set to occur. UFC president Dana White said execs from broadcast partner ESPN asked him to "stand down."

A private jet, a fighter moving into his gym full-time to continue training, and a plan to send COVID-19 tests to fighters and their corner people were among the many behind-the-scenes efforts by UFC officials and staff, athlete managers, coaches and fighters themselves to make UFC 249 happen. It's a story of perseverance, disappointment and caution.

And it's far from over.

On March 25, White vowed to build the "baddest card" ever for April 18. UFC 249 could no longer be held at Brooklyn's Barclays Center because New York's department of state informed the promotion that due to caution surrounding the pandemic, the event could not take place in New York. So the UFC was going to find a new location.

The main event would still be undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov defending his lightweight title against top contender Tony Ferguson, and White was adding to the lineup, including a potential heavyweight title eliminator between Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik.

Five days later, though, obstacles continued to pile up for the UFC. Nurmagomedov, who had left his American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose, California, two weeks earlier, seemed to be stuck in his native Dagestan due to travel restrictions. Nurmagomedov said during an Instragram live chat that the UFC told him the card "100 percent" would not be held in the United States, and there was a "99 percent" chance it would end up in the United Arab Emirates. So he flew to the UAE, but when he learned its borders were about to close because of the pandemic, he went home to Dagestan.

Sources told ESPN the UFC was looking to replace Nurmagomedov, who said during the Instagram chat that he heard the same thing and was not against it.

Ferguson stated April 1 on SportsCenter that he was still in and would agree to a new opponent.

"It doesn't matter who we have," Ferguson told ESPN that day. "We're gonna try to make this thing go."

Conversations were already being held between the UFC and Justin Gaethje, who was considered the front-runner.

By April 6, Ferguson vs. Gaethje was no longer just talk -- the bout was signed, according to a White tweet at 3:26 p.m. ET. Gaethje had been discussed as a potential replacement going back as early as March 28, sources said, but he said April 3 is when talks got serious.

"They called me and said 'Would you like to [fight?]'" Gaethje told ESPN on April 7. "[Gaethje's coach Trevor Wittman] was like, 'You don't take late-replacement fights.' I said 'You're right.' I slept on it, and I said, where are we at if I lose? And it was the exact same spot."

White announced the new main event in his April 6 tweet, but he wouldn't reveal the location, stating only that UFC 249 would happen somewhere on Earth. In reality, the UFC had its sights set on a venue it wanted to keep secret to avoid media and public scrutiny. It had yet to reveal the venue to even the fighters or their teams.

But it wasn't a secret for very long.

At 7:19 that night, Jeff Sherwood, the founder of Sherdog, one of the first MMA news websites, tweeted that UFC 249 and the three UFC cards after it would take place at Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore.

The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) had canceled all combat sports events until June 1, but Tachi Palace is on Native American land -- owned by the Tachi Yokut Tribe -- and sovereign, which means the UFC would not have to follow the laws of the rest of the state. Sherwood lives in Hanford, California, about a 15-minute drive from Lemoore.

"I know a lot of people that work [at Tachi Palace]," Sherwood told ESPN. "People who don't even have anything to do with MMA, but they work there in other aspects. When things like that start to go down, I don't know how Dana really thought he could keep that a secret. There's no way in a small town like this."

White announced the full, new UFC 249 card -- including the addition of Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik -- on the night of April 6. He also dropped some news that went viral, landing UFC references on late-night television. White said he had secured a private island, where future UFC fights with international athletes would take place.

"I've got an island," White told ESPN. "The infrastructure is being built right now."

The UFC began reaching out to managers about getting their athletes' medical forms in. The managers were told, sources said, that anyone who had fought in the past 12 months could use their previous medicals. Everyone else would need to go to a doctor and get exams done.

Ngannou didn't know he was fighting for sure until White said it on April 6. But just in case, he had already scheduled sparring with fellow UFC heavyweight Blagoy Ivanov.

"We kept hearing he was going to be on that card, and what we were worried about was he hadn't been sparring at all," Ngannou's coach, Eric Nicksick of Xtreme Couture, said.

Nicksick said he called the promotion's travel department, but the agent wasn't able to give him a location. He and Ngannou were in Las Vegas, and if Lemoore was the site, then they wouldn't need a flight. Fighters who live and train in California were told the card would be a driveable distance, sources said, though it was not revealed where.

"I asked, 'Do we know where we're flying to?'" Nicksick said. "She said no, and I said, 'Well, if it's driving distance, I think it'd be better for me to drive.' That's when we went back and forth and said if it's at Tachi Palace, as had been reported, we'll drive. So, we planned on driving."

On April 7, The New York Times also reported that UFC 249 would take place at Tachi Palace in front of no fans, though which body would regulate and sanction the event was up in the air. CSAC released a statement saying it would "not participate" in UFC 249 and that it recommended no MMA events take place due to the pandemic. Tachi Palace doesn't have its own certified commission.

On the afternoon of April 7, UFC senior vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner began contacting MMA referees and judges, asking if they could officiate UFC 249, sources said. Ratner did not divulge the event's location, saying only that it would be on sovereign land in the United States and more information would follow. Sources said many of the officials asked were from the East Coast.

The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) said on April 8 that UFC 249 would be considered sanctioned after getting assurances about medical requirements from the UFC, which often regulates itself overseas.

"I have discussed the matter with the ABC board of directors, and officials from the UFC," ABC president Brian Dunn said. "They agreed to increase medical presence and regulate the event by international standards. The official ABC position is neutral on the matter, as we do not have jurisdiction."

USADA also issued a statement on April 8 regarding drug testing for UFC 249.

"With all consideration to athlete safety and logistical challenges, we're going to do everything in our power to conduct UFC event testing," the statement read. "Just like the referees in the Octagon, our doping control officers are an essential part of a fair fight."


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On the afternoon of April 8, Brazil's Combate reported that Rose Namajunas was out of the scheduled co-main event against Jessica Andrade. Namajunas' manager said it was due to two deaths in her family related to the coronavirus. The bout would have been a rematch from their memorable UFC 237 clash last May, when Andrade captured the belt from Namajunas. The winner of this bout could have been next for champion Zhang Weili.

Andrade had flown to Las Vegas from her native Brazil a week earlier to get ahead of travel restrictions. She wanted to fight, even if it wasn't against Namajunas. "We understood what [Namajunas] was going through, and Jessica being Jessica, she kept on training and told the UFC she would fight anyone as a replacement," Andrade's manager, Tiago Okamura, said.

Despite the loss of that fight, UFC 249 was starting to come together. The UFC's travel department set up itineraries for fighters and their teams. Many would be arriving in Fresno, California, on April 15 and then driven to Lemoore. Around 3 p.m. that day, sources said the UFC medical staff sent out an email to managers asking for addresses. The promotion would be sending COVID-19 tests to fighters and their corner people at their homes in advance, in addition to the testing that would be done on site.

"It's my job to go to the airport with the N-95 mask and be as healthy as possible, and responsible during training -- washing my hands before and after each session, showering before changing my clothes. It's a pretty crazy time."
Calvin Kattar

"It's not ideal [flying to Fresno]," Calvin Kattar said during an Instagram live chat with ESPN on April 9. The Massachusetts-based Kattar was scheduled to fight Jeremy Stephens at UFC 249. "I'd rather be driving to Brooklyn. But it's the UFC's job to get the precautionary measures in place. It's my job to go to the airport with the N-95 mask and be as healthy as possible, and responsible during training -- washing my hands before and after each session, showering before changing my clothes. It's a pretty crazy time."

Malki Kawa of First Round Management, which represents Rozenstruik and Greg Hardy, who were both scheduled to fight on the card, said his biggest concern was making sure everyone at UFC 249 would be tested for COVID-19.

"For me, the most important thing and the first question I asked was, 'What exactly are you going to do to make sure the fighters are safe?'" Kawa said. "And they laid out a whole list of things that was going to happen from the minute they got there, to weigh-in, before they fought, after they fought. Here's the way I see it: I think everybody should be tested."

Hall and Spann were taking travel arrangements into their own hands, but there was a snafu for them, too. Hall's boxing coach, Clayton Hires, lives in Las Vegas, and the UFC was having trouble getting him a direct flight to the event, Hall said. Hires is 64 years old, and Hall was concerned about him having to go to a commercial airport during the pandemic, especially with the added nuisance of a layover.

Hires is like a father figure to Hall. Just a week earlier, they had a heart-to-heart that got Hall re-energized to fight perennial middleweight contender Jacare Souza at UFC 249. Hall was mentally drained by the starts and stops the UFC has had since the beginning of the pandemic, and he was ready to withdraw from the bout. Hires told him that a life and career go by very quickly, and there's usually only one chance to seize the moment.

"He's my team, man," Hall said. "I don't leave my team behind."

At first, Hall offered to fly to Las Vegas and go with Hires to Lemoore. Instead, Saud asked if there was a way the private jet could stop in Vegas, pick up Hires and then continue on to Lemoore. It could be done, the pilot told him.

So it was set. The team would leave Dallas Love Field at 8 a.m. April 16 and land at 9:26 a.m. at Henderson Executive Airport near Las Vegas to pick up Hires. The plane would then go on to its final destination, landing at Visalia Municipal Airport at 10:58 a.m.

Saud and Hall were working out the details via text message in the afternoon on April 9. Two hours later, at about 5 p.m., U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a statement asking the UFC and the Tachi Yokut tribe to delay UFC 249.

Less than an hour after that, White said in an interview with ESPN, the event was officially off. He thanked the Tachi Palace, which he said would be rewarded with a card in the future.

Saud called Hall with the news.

"I was like, 'No f---ing way -- we just spoke about this,'" Hall said. "We literally just planned to pick up Clayton and everything."

"I'm just staying ready, and as a professional I think that's what we can do."
Uriah Hall

Ferguson found out the card was canceled during a phone interview with Southern California News Group deputy sports editor Brian Martin. At 6:08 p.m., Martin got a push notification on his phone with White's announcement. Ferguson was in the middle of answering a question. When he was finished, Martin broke the news to him.

"It was really awkward," Martin recalled. "I said, 'Tony, I don't know how to tell you this, and I'm sorry I'm the one to tell you this, but I'm getting alerts on my phone that Dana White is saying UFC 249 is canceled.' And the first word out of his mouth was 'f---,' then I think another 'f---' and 'oh wow.' And then a nine-second pause. Then I think he said 's---,' there was a pause and then he said, 'Oh well, I'm still gonna train.'

"So, he had this moment where it was awful -- awful news. He's dealing with the shock and the emotions of it, and he found a way to keep calm and maintain composure while coping with all of that. ... He had so much class and so much grace while obviously trying to maintain a balance."

Maintaining a balance has been a challenge for all fighters during these unprecedented times. The balance includes trying to train when being told to stay at home, isolated.

On April 6, Hall moved full-time into the Fortis MMA gym, bringing with him an inflatable mattress and his immediate possessions. Hall has been training in Dallas -- he lives in Las Vegas -- since November, living out of Airbnb rentals. He wanted to make a change a week before heading to the fight location, adding an element of discomfort to the mix.

Hall said he will call the facility home for at least the rest of the month. He was planning to train until the UFC provided some clarity about the future of UFC 249.

That news came Tuesday when White announced May 9 as the date for the new card, which includes Hall vs. Souza.

The location, of course, remained a secret.

"I told Dana, 'I'm more than prepared for this battle, so hopefully you have this island,'" Hall said. "He kind of responded, 'Yep.' I'm just staying ready, and as a professional I think that's what we can do. I have limited access, but I'm a warrior, man. I make it work."