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How COVID-19 forced UFC fighters Tristan Connelly, Cole Smith, to return to Canada

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Tristan Connelly
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After making a spectacular UFC debut, Tristan Connelly had a perfect plan to avoid a sophomore slump.

Scheduled to fight top lightweight prospect Alex da Silva at UFC Portland on April 11, Connelly made it a point to head down to Las Vegas to work with the city’s best gyms and top facilities.

Xtreme Couture, 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, the UFC Performance Institute. In the two weeks that Connelly was in Vegas, he’d toured the training meccas and was primed to build on a winning performance against Michel Pereira this past September.

Then came the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the British Columbia native’s plans came to a screeching halt.

Even before Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak officially ordered the shutdown of non-essential businesses in the state, public institutions across the country shut down in response to the spread of COVID-19, including the gyms where Connelly worked. First came Xtreme Couture, and then 10th Planet. Then this past Monday, the UFC PI announced restrictions to training before closing its doors completely.

Later that day, Connelly and teammate Cole Smith decided they had no choice but to fly back to Vancouver. As it turned out, the move was in accordance with a directive from Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who implored citizens abroad to come home.

“Our families already wanted us to come home,” Connelly told MMA Fighting. “But we were trying to hold out and see. They understood this was a potential big opportunity to stay. I don’t think they would have called me back per se, but then I would have been—I could probably always get back into Canada, but there might not be any flights in a couple of weeks. I might have to try and rent a car, if I even can rent a car. I’d have to figure out how to drive back, (and) it could be a lot more of a hassle.”

Connelly and Smith expected to be in Vegas until March 27, and then they would return home to finish Connelly’s fight preparation before heading to Oregon. But the coronavirus situation rapidly escalated to the point where even a resolute Dana White was forced to postpone a trio of upcoming events, including UFC Portland.

There was talk of moving these events to the UFC Apex. If that had happened, Connelly was so eager to fight he told his manager he would jump on the UFC London card that was briefly located to Las Vegas before it was postponed.

“Are we going to risk going home on the 27th and then maybe we can’t come back to fight in Vegas, or are we just going to stay here until April 12 and then see what happens?” Smith said. “We decided that that was the plan. We were going to tough it out, (and) Tristan was going to do absolutely anything he possibly could to make sure he was fighting. If that meant staying in Vegas for a couple extra months, if it meant him not coming home, if he had to take a fight at 170, he was even asking if he could fight on the Columbus card just to make sure he could get a fight. He didn’t care what he had to do.

“You’ve got to respect Tristan, he was there to fight. He wanted to be the only Canadian on the card. He loved the idea that it was just us out there, (and) they wouldn’t be able to get any other Canadians, or anyone else for that matter, just Americans. … But obviously, we were out there for a few more days, and they just canceled the whole thing and scrapped it, so we just came home the day after that.”

Smith had barely been in Vegas for one week when he and Connelly realized they had no choice but to leave. He too was open to hopping onto a UFC Apex card on short-notice, eager to bounce back from a split decision loss in his previous fight against Miles Johns.

Concerns about the coronavirus were secondary to the two Canadians, especially Connelly, who believed to the very last second that his fight was happening.

“As irresponsible as it sounds, we didn’t give a s*it about that,” Smith said of their response to the Prime Minister’s recall. “We were gonna do whatever it took. Tristan’s words were, ‘If I have 0.1 percent chance of fighting, I’m staying.’ And me as a cornerman I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m staying too,’ because I’m not gonna let him stay here by himself.

“We heard that, and we just kind of said it is what it is, we’re gonna tough it out anyways. If we have a fight, we’re gonna fight and we’re gonna deal with the consequences. I think the next day or something news came out that Nevada, everyone just said we’re not doing it at all, the fights are over. Then we just said we have no reason to be out here anymore, and we came home as soon as we could.”

“Midway through the day, [UFC PI staff were] like, ‘Yeah, we’re closing for the next two weeks,’” Connelly added. “And that’s when we found out the card’s postponed. So there was still hope Monday morning, but Monday afternoon it was all gone.”

At the airport, the fighters were surprised at how normal the situation seemed. Other than a few TSA agents calling to see if anyone was experiencing coronavirus symptoms – according to Smith, some people didn’t even bother responding and just walked by – the trip was mostly uneventful. Upon landing in Vancouver, they were given a piece of paper with some general guidelines and advised to self-isolate because of their recent travel.

Neither Connelly nor Smith are experiencing any symptoms. But that doesn’t mean the virus hasn’t affected their lives. Connelly’s and his wife Jen are expecting a child in June, which means Jen is currently having to stay with her parents to minimize the risk of exposure. Smith laments the fact he’s had to temporarily close up shop with his gym in Squamish, British Columbia, after a recent surge in business. He has no idea how the ongoing crisis will affect prior plans to move into a place with his girlfriend in a few months.

For what it’s worth, Connelly hopes his matchup with da Silva stays intact. Otherwise, all he and Smith and every other fighter can do is play the waiting game.

“I live a pretty cheap lifestyle,” Connelly said. “All I do is train and teach. I have my gym here, so after the two weeks I’ll be able to go back there and at least do training by myself there. I can do one-on-one lessons with people, that kind of stuff. I’ll be fine in that regard if I need to make money. I just want to make sure I stay ready for when anything happens. I get a feeling that if this thing is drawn out, the UFC will be able to do closed events if they want to. I think it’s all just happening very quickly right now. But if this becomes more of a long-term stint in isolation, no big group events for the rest of the year, which it very well could be, then I think they will be able to do smaller events, and I’ll end up fighting on those.

“What I believe is going to happen is that they won’t cancel the events – (they’ll) postpone them, so hopefully they’ll find a way in the coming months to be able to do lots of closed events. So I’m gonna just stay positive and stay hopeful.”