Waterson, Cerrone drop decisions on UFC comeback card

Carla Esparza, right, lands a punch on Michelle Waterson during a UFC 249 mixed martial arts bout, Saturday, May 9, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The judges were not kind to the New Mexico contingent Saturday night on UFC 249.

First, Albuquerque strawweight Michelle Waterson lost to Californian Carla Esparza by split decision.

Later, Edgewood welterweight Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone lost by close but unanimous decision to Milwaukee’s Anthony Pettis.

Cerrone (36-15), one of the UFC’s most popular and respected fighters, scored the only two takedowns in his fight against Pettis (23-10). But all three judges scored the fight 29-28 for Pettis, favoring him in standup.

Cerrone appeared stunned by a Pettis right hand at the end of the first round but landed a flush head kick in the third. Cerrone fought off the effects of an unintentional eye poke in the third as well.

Donald Cerrone, center left, and Anthony Pettis fight. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Cerrone now has lost four fights in a row for the first time in his career. The fight was a rematch of a January 2013 fight, won by Pettis via first-round TKO.

Waterson’s takedown defense generally was excellent against Esparza, a wrestler by preference. But Esparza’s one successful takedown, in the final 45 seconds of the first round, might have cost Waterson the fight.

Both fighters were cautious, rarely closing with each other until Esparza picked up the pace in the third and final round.

Waterson’s record is 17-8. Esparza, the UFC’s original strawweight champion, improved to 16-6.

The judges’ scores were 30-27 and 29-28 for Esparza, 30-27 for Waterson — curious, since the first two rounds could have been scored for either fighter and Esparza appeared to have won the third round decisively.

The card was contested without fans in attendance due to coronavirus precautions. UFC 249 was the first major sporting event to take place since the global pandemic shut down much of the country eight weeks ago.

It was originally scheduled for April 18 in New York, but was postponed in hopes of helping slow the spread of COVID-19.

The mixed martial arts behemoth is holding three shows in eight days in Jacksonville, where state officials deemed professional sports with a national audience exempt from a stay-at-home order as long as “the location is closed to the general public.”

The UFC came up with a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, procedures that led to Jacaré Souza testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday. His middleweight bout against Uriah Hall was canceled late Friday. Souza’s two cornermen also tested as positive, the UFC said in a statement.

“All three men have left the host hotel and will be self-isolating off premises, where UFC’s medical team will monitor their conditions remotely and will provide assistance with any necessary treatment,” the UFC said.

The positive results surely increased the focus on the event. Every other sport is watching closely to see how it plays out. White previously said Trump wants the event to serve as a blueprint for the return of live sports.

White didn’t want to postpone any fights. He tried to host the event on tribal land in California and still hopes to create a “Fight Island” for future cards.

He settled for Jacksonville for at least a week — with no fans and social-distancing rules in place.

Judges and broadcasters were separated. Fighters, trainers, referees, judges, UFC staff and even outside media had to undergo COVID-19 testing to get inside Veterans Memorial Arena.

But not everyone followed the rules. White mingled and bumped fists with nearly every fighter during official weigh-ins held inside a hotel ballroom Friday.

Souza arrived wearing gloves and a mask while he awaited his test results. But he had alerted UFC officials that a family member in Orlando, where he was testing, might have tested positive for the coronavirus. His opponent, Hall, wore a mask and kept his distance. White stood between them without a mask.

Many of those in attendance Saturday wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate. Referees, ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring girl were unmasked.

The cage floor was disinfected between bouts, and the padded parts of the octagon were wiped down between rounds.

Without fans, sounds that usually would be muted or completely drowned out filled the empty arena. Every kick, punch, grunt and step inside the octagon echoed. Commentators and camera clicks could be heard across the way. Coaching tips and exchanges were prevalent, often R-rated and even comical at times.

“I don’t like people anyway,” said Ryan “Superman” Spann (18-5), who extended his winning streak to eight fights by beating veteran Sam Alvey (33-14) in a split decision. “It’s fine. It was nothing. The world is my audience.”