There are sports moments you remember forever. Saturday night felt like one of those.

After a year of moderate to no crowds, the UFC returned to Jacksonville approximately one year after returning to PPV for the first time since the pandemic began. Not a single fan was in the building for that fight card. And it was ominous.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for that feeling to become familiar. We’ve sort of grown accustomed to hearing empty arenas or piped in sound for football and baseball games over the last year. But it’s not authentic. It’s not real. It’s just not how sports were made to be consumed. 

When the UFC returned with a packed crowd that featured stars of Tim Tebow, Tom Brady and Jake Paul’s status, it was electric. UFC president Dana White said he wasn’t going to return with fans until he could do it in full force, so when Florida gave him the go-ahead to return in front of 15,000 fans, he made it happen swiftly. Three championship bouts headlined an incredible event that honestly felt surreal. 

There were so many incredible highlights, like Rose Namajunas reclaiming her title with a head kick knockout in the co-main event and Kamaru Usman putting the stamp on his rivalry with Jorge Masvidal with a clean knockout in the main event. But honestly, the highlight of the night for me might’ve been the very beginning of the prelims. Two relative unknowns even to hardcore fans, like myself, led off the event, but it didn’t matter who they were.

When the graphic first appeared for Liang Na and Ariane Carnelossi on the jumbotron, the fans that were already there for the seven-hour event roared. And it was thunderous. After the fighter introductions and the bout was officially started, the women sprinted to one another and just started letting haymakers fly. It was the perfect metaphor for fans that were there live. It was freedom. And it was awe-inspiring.

That set the tone for one of the most memorable nights in the history of combat sports, and it had me immediately thinking ahead to the return of full crowds in other sports. 

I can’t imagine what the scene is going to be like in Sulphur now that the LHSAA has increased the capacity for fan attendance for softball and baseball games to 2,800. Of course, the park will go through its sanitization process between games, but after fans are cleared out, another 2,800 fans will be welcomed for the game that follows.

I can’t appropriately explain how excited that makes me after last season was taken away from these great baseball and softball athletes. They deserve to perform in front of thousands down in Sulphur, and as the UFC showcased this past weekend, fan participation makes a world of difference.

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