Thirty minutes before the first exchange of punches at Combat Night, Mitchell Chamale got a call from the mayor’s office. Somebody hadn’t passed along the message there would be a professional MMA show on March 21. The fire marshal was on his way.
Almost as soon as those words hit, said fire marshal walked into the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall in Jacksonville, Fla., where a small cage had been set up for an 11-fight card regulated by the Florida State Boxing Commission. Chamale muttered an expletive.
“Don’t let this be how it happens,” he thought. “I hope he’s cool.”
Two weeks earlier, the commission had called Chamale to tell him regulations were tightening amid the coronavirus pandemic, and he might not be able to sell tickets. That he could live with. A bantamweight with a 7-2 record, he considered himself as much a fighter as a promoter. He wanted to give fighters a platform to perform, and he’d already resolved to pay out $15,000 in purses, show or no show. But with less than one hour to the first bell, he thought he was in the clear.
The mayor’s office was just one of a long line of regulators – including the state athletic commission, Jacksonville fire chief, Jacksonville chief of police and even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office – that Chamale said had given him the green light. He figured only the mayor’s office and fire marshal could give him last-minute problems. The latter had already expressed skepticism the promotion could limit personnel to under 250, the maximum number of people allowed in one place at the time.
“Anyone in a position of power is used to having all the loose ends tied and planning for all the possible outcomes,” he told MMA Fighting. “And in this situation, there is no planning. There’s hoping that someone in government doesn’t decide they want to be a dick.”
Chamale took a deep breath and walked over to the fire marshal. As it turned out, he had another ally on his hands.
“He was a big fan of MMA,” the promoter said. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m just here to make sure you don’t go over 50.’”
When May 9 rolls around, UFC President Dana White has promised an even smaller number of people when UFC 249 takes place at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. As the state of Florida begins to relax restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic, the industry leader is planting its flag in Jacksonville for a series of events. Chamale believes his regional promotion played a part.
“I know they were talking about Tampa,” he said. “A couple of my buddies are actually fighting on the card and had contracts that said Tampa, and the commission kind of pushed them over to Jacksonville because it’s like, ‘We know the local government in Jacksonville let Combat Night do it,’ and that was at the height of the COVID scare.”
Via White, the UFC has promised to make the Florida shows safe for all involved. Critics have debated whether that’s actually possible at this time. When the fights happen, though, there’s no doubt more resources will be available than when Chamale ran his event.
The regional promoter’s strategy for satisfying regulators in March was to follow CDC guidelines as rigidly as possible. He said he lowered the maximum of people allowed in one room to 50 before the agency recommended it and slashed event staff to make sure no one other than the most essential personnel were working the show.
The venue’s layout also helped, as there were three separate buildings from which to stage fighters. Chamale and his team put main card fighters in one and preliminary-card fighters in another. Social distancing was used between camps. As the card got underway, fighters were shuttled from one building to the next before making their way to the venue. They fought, got one last medical check, and were finally ushered out.
Cageside, Chamale pushed commission officials, referees and judges back 10 feet from the fence. Everyone on the production side did double and triple duty.
“At one point, I was holding the camera,” he said.
A few times, he had to kick people out of the main venue for lingering to watch fights. The fire marshal ticked off a counter as people entered and left the building. Even with all the reductions, Chamale said they were always hovering between 45 and 50 people.
Before and during the event, Chamale said he did triple the number of temperature checks mandated by the FSBC. No one who attended had a fever, according to a statement given to MMA Fighting by the commission.
As for the most definitive measure of safety, Chamale said he wasn’t able to acquire coronavirus tests in time for the event. Instead, he sent them packing with instructions to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“Even though we felt like it was common sense, we wanted to make sure everyone knew, ‘Hey, don’t hang out with your grandmother after this,’” he said.
After two weeks, Chamale said none of the fighters contracted the virus. But until those results came in, he did a lot of worrying.
“Trust me, for 14 days, I was on edge,” he said.
Successful as the show was under the unusual constraints, which included two canceled venues, Chamale said he lost $30,000 making it happen. He still plans to put on more events in the coming year, but estimates they’ll all be money-losers until next year. For other regional promoters, he expects an equally tough road.
“I see a lot of people trying to do shows at the end of May, and people aren’t going to be OK with going out in public by the end of May,” he said. “I’m telling you first hand, any regional show, our pay-per-view buys were still horrible.”
White estimates the Florida events will be very expensive when all the additional safety measures are factored in. He recently told Yahoo! Sports it might be “a very long time” before fans can watch an event live. But he’s willing to bear the costs to get his people back to work.
In response to a question about the protocols in place for the UFC events next month, the commission responded with a prepared statement: “The FSBC will employ social distancing wherever possible as recommended by the CDC, state and local officials in addition to existing health, safety and sanitation protocols.”
Chamale said the only call he got for advice in pandemic promoting was from the commission. He didn’t hear from anyone at the UFC, but Gov. DeSantis’ office has a copy of his plan for running a show with social distancing; he sent it the Sunday prior to the event, when he was having nightmares every night about everything that could go wrong.
“I think they’ve already got all the advice they need,” Chamale said of the UFC. “To be honest, the only reason I’d be excited for the UFC to reach out is I’ve been talking to them about a Fight Pass deal for 18 months now. Once this happened, it pumped the brakes on everything.”
Chamale could certainly use an extra infusion of capital to keep his local show running. The same goes for local fighters, many of whom worked in the restaurant industry before the pandemic hit. The UFC has obligations to meet, as well, with broadcast partner ESPN. Everyone has a vested interest in moving forward, but he said the UFC is best positioned to do so.
“I think they can take the right measurements to make sure limited contact happens,” he said. “If we can, there’s no way they can’t.”