UFC 261 takes place Saturday from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida and will go down in front of a sold out crowd. With the event representing the first UFC card held in front of a live crowd since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UFC president Dana White has informed fans who plan to attend that face masks will not be required.
"We had to create a bubble so that athletes wouldn't end up with COVID and all these fights falling out, but the media was being so crazy about the whole COVID thing you had to make the media feel safe," White explained in an interview with Yahoo Sports. "In Jacksonville, everything is opening up again, even Vegas is gonna be open June 1st. There's some things that are gonna be set in place, we're still gonna have a bubble for the athletes and things like that but as far as the fans, you wear a mask or do not wear a mask. It's up to you, it's your decision."
White has spent the pandemic rebelling against cautious attitudes, rarely appearing at UFC events wearing a mask and taking shots at the media for criticism of the promotion's desire to push forward in the early days of COVID-19 when information on the virus was still lacking. At one point, White and the UFC attempted to move UFC 249 from it's planned home at Barclays Center in New York to an undisclosed location, later revealed to be Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in Lemoore, California. Executives from UFC broadcast partner ESPN and parent company Disney reportedly stepped in and forced the UFC to delay the event, which would eventually take place on May 19, 2020 from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
The virus has significantly impacted multiple UFC events and fighters. A planned Gilbert Burns title opportunity was delayed in July 2020 when the challenger tested positive. Rising star Khamzat Chimaev has been forced to delay several fights as he has been in an intense battle with the virus, posting picture of blood he had coughed up and even briefly announcing a retirement.
In addition, the death of Khabib Nurmagomedov's father and trainer Abdulmanap due to COVID-related complications led to Nurmagomedov to retire after UFC 254 in October, saying he no longer would compete without his father by his side. And just last month, featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski was forced to delay his latest title defense set for UFC 260 when he tested positive and spent some time in the hospital.
The UFC announced on Tuesday stating that they, along with O2 Industries, would be providing free face masks for fans in attendance at UFC 261 and 262, though did not contradict White's statements that masks were optional.
Tickets for UFC 261 include fine print that warns that the UFC is not responsible for any fans who contract COVID-19 and that the virus could lead to permanent damage or death.