Amid most sporting events in the United States being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is a mixed martial arts promotion forging ahead.
Combat Night MMA will hold a card Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida, one that remains fully sanctioned and regulated by the state. It is believed to be the only MMA event that will be held in the country this weekend.
“The event in Jacksonville is still scheduled for Saturday night and is licensed and regulated by the Florida State Boxing Commission,” Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) spokesperson Patrick Fargason wrote in a statement to ESPN. “Any decision to cancel the event will be left to the local officials.”
The UFC has postponed its next three events, with the plan to still go ahead with the UFC 249 pay-per-view card April 18 at a yet-to-be-determined location. Bellator, the country’s second-biggest promotion, canceled its event last weekend and doesn’t have another scheduled until May 9. States such as California and Nevada have scrapped combat sports until at least March 25.
Combat Night, though, will still press forward Saturday night. Steven Kelliher, who runs the combat sports data site Tapology’s fight center, said Combat Night is the only confirmed MMA card running this weekend and one of only five confirmed MMA events carrying on worldwide over the next few days.
On a regular weekend, Kelliher said, there are an average of more than 100 mixed martial arts cards in the world every weekend.
Mitchell Chamale, the promoter of Combat Night, said it was important for him to still run the event, because the athletes on the card wanted to fight and wanted to get paid. As long as the state commission would allow for a card, Chamale said he wanted to keep it on as scheduled. There will be no fans in attendance.
“The fighters are getting to fight and getting their paychecks to pay their rent and have groceries,” Chamale told ESPN. “… These fighters have been done dirty by promoters so many times in the past.”
The most high-profile MMA name in attendance Saturday in Jacksonville will probably be UFC light heavyweight contender Dominick Reyes, who came incredibly close to knocking off champion Jon Jones last month in the main event of UFC 247. Reyes will be cornering his teammate Nick Roehrick, a 205-pound prospect who was in Reyes’ corner for the Jones fight.
Reyes said he flew out of California, where he lives, on Thursday before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide stay-at-home order. He said he was unsure what the flight situation would be like Sunday when he was supposed to go home, but made it a priority to be by Roehrick’s side this weekend. “I have a very small team, a very close team,” Reyes said. “If someone goes to war, we’re all there.”
The budding UFC star said he does have some concern about being there, potentially exposing himself to getting sick.
“A little bit,” Reyes said. “With my status, everybody wants to come up with me and touch me. But I’m not really super concerned about it, just a little bit. I can’t be as friendly as I’d like to be. I’m not dapping people up or anything.”
Chamale said to run the event, the commission required certain health and safety precautions. All fighters had their temperatures taken Friday at weigh-ins. Anyone entering the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall will have their temperature taken, as well as be asked if they have been in contact with anyone who has coronavirus, anyone who has symptoms or has been recently in any of the COVID-19 hot zones.
As far as asymptomatic people who might be contagious, Chamale said that was somewhat of a worry. But he was trusting in the ringside physicians sent by the commission to cover the bout.
“There is a little bit of concern there,” Chamale said. “That’s why all the health screenings are there and everything is in place. At the same time, there’s gonna be two people touching one another and they’re both young, hungry individuals. Athletic individuals. … I don’t take it lightly that [asymptomatic people being contagious] is a possibility, but I’ve looked into it extensively and I don’t think it’s a risk here.”
In addition to that, no more than 50 people will be in the venue at any given time, per guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Chamale said the event would not have a ring card girl and the workers who set up the cage would have to leave the venue before the show starts. If need be, Chamale said he would even step outside himself.
“At the end of the day, what we really have to have is three judges, a referee, two fighters and coaches in each corner,” he said. “And a camera, but we could always fix those up and point them at the right space and get out.”
Combat Night MMA will be available to watch via a pay-per-view stream from the promotion’s website.
All proceeds from sales will go to the Josh Samman MMA Foundation. Samman was a UFC fighter who died during the peak of his career in 2016 due to a drug overdose. He was the co-owner of Combat Night with Chamale. The foundation is a nonprofit that helps young potential fighters achieve their MMA dreams.
Chamale said he invested $40,000 in this event and would undoubtedly lose money, but he was comfortable with that as long as the fighters get paid and Samman’s foundation was taken care of, especially given the current climate.
“I don’t really care about profit,” Chamale said. “I don’t really care about turning and making some money on this. What I really care about is making it happen and with everything happening if I’m taking profit from it, I just don’t like how that looks. I want this entire event to just be about the MMA community.”
Chamale had to scramble a bit Friday. Not longer after weigh-ins were completed, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order to close all gyms in the state due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Combat Night on Saturday was moved to the 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Jacksonville gym when Chamale learned fans would not be allowed in attendance. But with the new directive from the state, the card will be back at Shrine Auditorium as it was initially planned.
Even with everything going on around them, Reyes said Roehrick has remained focused.
“He’s ready to go,” Reyes said. “We’re fighters. As long as we get to go and fight, we’ll be alright.”