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The UFC Returns – The Strange Hollowness of Empty Stadiums

The UFC Returns – The Strange Hollowness of Empty Stadiums


The UFC is back in business.

While other major sporting codes languish on the sidelines, renegade CEO Dana White has found a way to restart his fighting machine. With two successful events completed since the COVID lockdown put the world under house arrest, some interesting discussion points have emerged. 

Humans are herd animals. We feel safest when surrounded by our own kind. This is especially true during the act of spectating. Emotions are infectious, and one of the reasons we still flock to movie theatres and live events is to participate in the collective mood. Comedies are funnier when everyone else is laughing. Goals are more exciting when 50,000 fans stand in unison to roar their approval. Empty is an ugly word. An empty box produces no excitement. An empty restaurant struggles to attract customers. An empty room is devoid of character. An empty stadium has an eerie feel. 

The empty stadium effect produced some unexpected twists during the first UFC events. During any fight, a group of coaches and cornermen will shout instructions to their fighter. Messages will be strategic in nature. “He’s getting tired. Push him back against the cage. Kick high, his hands are dropping,” and so on. Some instructions are often coded so opposing coaches are unable to react to the suggested actions. In a packed stadium a fighter struggles to hear these communiques above the din of the crowd, but great combatants can incorporate the sideline wisdom into their arsenal in real time.

In an empty stadium, you can hear a commentator cough. Effective sideline coaching often becomes the difference between winning and losing. Every single word is heard by everyone. In several bouts during UFC 249, the analysis of expert commentator Daniel Cormier was put to use by fighters who went on to win their bouts. The most significant change occurred when heavyweight Greg Hardy began to block the vicious leg kicks of Yorgan De Castro, as advised by Cormier, which proved a turning point in the fight.

Another impact of the empty stadium is the sound that emerges from the fight itself. The noise of blows hitting their target adds a whole new dimension to the experience. Spectators can hear the wind being knocked out of a fighter’s lungs, the smack of leather on jaw when an effective jab finds its target, and the exertions of a failed takedown attempt. This was most evident in the UFC 249 Main Event, a barnstorming contest that saw Justin Gaethje put on a striking masterclass against number 1 ranked contender, Tony Ferguson. Gaethje’s left hook landed with thudding regularity throughout the contest, and the spectator could almost feel its devastating power. 

While adding elements to a fight night, an empty stadium does detract somewhat from the viewing experience. Without crowd excitement, fights can feel like training drills, like sparring sessions. This is true across all sports. It can feel like one is watching a warm up, as opposed to a real contest. A spectacular goal is scored and the silence remains unbroken. Did it really occur? Was the final kick as exciting as it first appeared? Was the goal disallowed for some reason? 

By staging events while the rest of the sporting world remains mired in hibernation, the UFC will undoubtedly expand its market share. Right now it is competing against Korean table tennis and marble racing as the other live sport that can be gambled on. It will be sure to make hay while the sun shines. 

Empty stadiums appear to be the way of the future, as the sporting world adapts to mandated physical isolation and public pandemic paranoia. 

Jackson Byrne – Editor at A Man’s Guide

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