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UFC 250 fighters find ways to train despite lockdown: ‘It should be postponed’

UFC 250 is scheduled to go down at the Ibirapuera Gymnasium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 9.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC is trying to keep the ball rolling amid a global coronavirus pandemic, but more events could be forced to change dates or locations. UFC 249 is still promised to go down April 18 at an unknown venue, but the following pay-per-view show is still set for Sao Paulo.

The most populous city in the southern hemisphere held eight UFC Fight Night events in the past, and the state has recorded 1,406 of the 3,904 coronavirus cases in Brazil as of Saturday night’s official numbers. That number would be even higher if the government was doing more testing.

Three-quarters of the deaths (86 of 117) caused by the coronavirus in Brazil happened in Sao Paulo, doubling the national death rate to an alarming 6.1 percent in the state.

According to a report from The Intercept, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency informed president Jair Bolsonaro last week they projected more than 5,500 deaths due to the coronavirus outbreak by April 6 while Bolsonaro is on record dismissing the pandemic as a “little flu” and insisting on ending lockdowns.

Sao Paulo governor Joao Doria determined a quarantine through at least April 7, closing parks and all non-essential businesses. Other cities throughout the country are imposing similar quarantine measures, forcing UFC 250 fighters to adapt their training routines for the event.

The UFC is currently monitoring the situation in Sao Paulo, as well as other cities scheduled to host future cards, and will update fans and media on the status of those events in the future, an official told MMA Fighting. Tickets haven't gone on sale yet.

Nova Uniao is now closed, forcing UFC 250 headliner Jose Aldo to train at home with his wife for his bantamweight title bout with Henry Cejudo. Amanda Nunes, who lives in Florida, also can’t train like she used to for her featherweight title defense versus Felicia Spencer after American Top Team closed its doors.

Ketlen Vieira, a teammate of Aldo in Rio de Janeiro, is also training at her mother's home in Manaus for her bout with Marion Reneau for the same card. She disagrees with most of her fellow fighters and defends that the company should postpone the event.

“How am I going to fight a super tough opponent if I’m not training, if I’m just doing some light training at home, jumping ropes and doing combinations?" said Vieira, who currently trains with her wife Giu. "That’s not the (right) training for someone who’s going to fight in the UFC, right?”

“Everything changed,” said Bethe Correia, a former 135-pound title contender who is scheduled to meet Pannie Kianzad at the Ibirapuera Gymnasium in six weeks. “Not only for athletes, but everyone in the world is pretty scared. Those who have a fight booked are trying to keep training at a high level while trying to take care of themselves and also deal with the panic of their relatives. My family is very apprehensive.”

“Not only in the UFC. I need to train at the highest level and have contact with other people. So I think it should be postponed until this situation gets better. It can’t be in Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is the state most affected by it, 90 percent of the deaths are happening there, so in my opinion we should protect ourselves. Health comes first.”

Antonio Rogerio Nogueira has a trilogy clash with Mauricio Rua booked for May 9, which happens to be his retirement bout, and is fortunate enough to own a big gym a few miles away from his house, and opens it just for him to train during the lockdown. Finding someone that was willing to go out during a pandemic wasn’t easy, though.

“I found a training partner that was brave to go train with me,” Nogueira said, “But it’s hard to stay quarantined when you have a fight booked, right? It was hard (to find a training partner) because everyone must respect the quarantine. I am (respecting it), too. Our gym is closed, but I opened for me to go there train.”

Training at home reminds “Minotouro” of his early jiu-jitsu days.

“I remember the first tournament I fought in Bahia I couldn’t affording to pay a gym fee to train,” he said. “So I waited for my brother (Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira) to get home and we trained on a mattress, asked him to teach me some positions. People are adapting now, training at home.”

UFC newcomer Carlos Felipe, who battles heavyweight Sergey Spivak in a preliminary bout, decided to leave his hometown, where he shared a house with his brother and mother, to stay in Salvador for the next few weeks. His mother works as a nurse, so he opted to leave the city and avoid the risk of infection.

“Boi” is currently isolated in an apartment and training at a local gym that opens only for athletes who currently have a fight booked, meaning him and three other people. Felipe doesn’t have his head coach Edilson Teixeira by his side since he “has a young child and an elderly mother at home and he won’t risk his family to coach.”

“Everyone has their hands tied,” Felipe said. “I’ve been trying to keep my body active and train at home the last few days, especially because it’s hard to find a training parent at times like these. People are in panic and following the guidelines, so pretty much every gym has closed. We’re doing what we can.”

Vieira is also “trying to do what we can” and train at home, but she’s realistic: sharing the Octagon with a high-level opponent without proper preparation is far from ideal.

“It’s not a training session that makes us feel prepared for a fight,” Vieira said. “I’m not prepared for a fight with this training here. It’s just to stay active, some cardio, to sweat and don’t get fat.”

Vieira was close to earning a shot at the UFC bantamweight championship after wins over Sara McMann and Cat Zingano in 2017 and 2018, but a serious knee injury kept her sidelined for 19 months. Looking to rebound from the first loss of her career, a first-round knockout to Irene Aldana in December, Vieira is weighing her options. Yet, as independent contractors, pulling the trigger and withdrawing from an MMA fight is a hard decision.

“Many people don’t know that we only get paid when we fight,” Vieira said. “Coronavirus or not, if we get hurt, you only get paid if you fight, so that’s very hard. I was coming off an injury that kept me out for almost two years, and now I came back with a fight and was preparing to fight at least three times this year but this happened. It affects not only athletes, everybody in the world is in a tough situation.”

Staying positive

Unable to lift weights with gyms closed, Felipe is running up and down the stairs of his apartment building to stay in shape. Since he was originally booked to make his debut on March 28, but had his fight cancelled due to visa issues, Boi believes he’ll be in perfect conditions come May.

“You do all that not knowing if there will be a fight or not,” he said. “We have to be ready in case there’s a fight, no one wants to know if you were quarantined or not. You have to find a way and be ready. For example, I’m scheduled to fight at UFC Sao Paulo on May 9… That might not happen, but let’s say it does happen, I have to be ready.”

The situation is the same for fellow Brazilian heavyweight Augusto Sakai, who looks to go 4-0 in the Octagon against Blagoy Ivanov. Sakai tries to stay away from the news and work out at home and run in the streets of Curitiba in case UFC 250 really goes as planned, but admits “it’s hard to stay focused.”

“The situation in Sao Paulo is ugly, it’s hard to know which the decision they will make,” Sakai said. “I hope for the best, that the event happen with fans in the arena. I’m staying positive. We’ll see what happens the next few weeks. It’s hard to stay focused with all the news and everything that’s going on in the world, but I’m trying to stay positive and not let bad news take over my head.”

“We have to train MMA, and training jiu-jitsu and grappling are quite complicated because there’s a lot of contact,” Bethe Correia said. “We get really scared. And then you go home and your family gets worried. Many people don’t want to train so we’re doing what we can. Gyms are closed, we improvise the best we can, but we’re fighters and we want to fight, we want to train.”

With gyms closed and many teammates “scared” to find other ways to meet and train, Correia said “we can’t stop, us fighters want to win above all.”

“I can’t say if the UFC will keep that date or change it, if the government of Sao Paulo will allow the event to happen or not. I’m dealing with so many problems I try not to think about it right now. My fight is booked, so I’m training. Unfortunately, we can’t quarantine the way the government wants because my job is to train, and you can’t train by yourself. … I leave the rest in God’s hands to find the cure of this disease, and I’m sure the UFC will find the best solution for the athletes.”

Taking the risk for a check

Fighters only get paid when they enter the Octagon to compete, and that’s what’s driving most of them right now. Correia feels “fortunate enough for being in a promotion like the UFC” because her paycheck is larger than those competing in the regional scene, but feels bad for those who “keep training during a pandemic to fight for a small promotion and get paid a small purse.”

Felipe and Sakai admit they would opt to stay home instead of traveling for a fight during a global pandemic if they had the option to take at least a percentage of their purse, but that’s not a possibility.

“It’s complicated, it’s an upsetting situation,” Felipe said. “We have to stay home until this crisis is over, but there’s not much we can do, especially us fighters. It’s our livelihood. We only make money when we fight.

“If that option was available, I would definitely stay home and not go out for anything, but I don’t have that option. We have to deal with the options that are given to us and they are very restrictive, so we have to find a way with what we got.”

Vieira would not think twice if given that choice.

“There will always be fights, but our health comes first,” she said. “If I catch a disease and die, there’s another athlete taking my spot the next day, right? I have to be careful. People are not taking this seriously, and it is a serious problem. I wouldn’t risk it, and I’m not risking it. I’m doing what I can at home, especially because there’s not much space at my mother’s house, so we get by the way we can.”

“Minotouro” estimates Team Nogueira franchise owners to lose $25,000 per month that the gym is forced to keep its doors closed, and is unleashing a series of videos to keep thousands to students active while on self-quarantine. Team Nogueira currently has 16 gyms around the world, including the United States and Dubai, and every single one is closed at the moment.

Nogueira believes that “training is also a way to get rid of this stress and not think about (the pandemic), this concern of not knowing what will happen tomorrow” while not being 100 percent sure how UFC 250 will go down.

“I think we have to wait,” said Nogueira, whose twin brother Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a former UFC and PRIDE heavyweight champion, works as an ambassador for the promotion in Brazil.

“The UFC is not just another company, they are in this business for more than 20 years and are now part of one of the biggest groups in the world (Endeavor), so they know how to deal with this type of situation. … We have to be happy with whatever they decide because it’s for our own good as athletes. They won’t screw up.

“If they have to cancel it, and I have to stay three more months without making money, I’ll have to be happy regardless. If I have to fight, too, I’ll have to be ready for it.”

Sakai hopes the event happens on May 9 as he hasn’t entered the eight-sided cage since September, when he stopped Marcin Tybura in less than a minute. Hopping on a plane during a pandemic doesn’t sound like the best idea to him, but money is needed.

“I’m hungry for a fight, but also for the money,” Sakai said. “Everybody needs money, everybody has bills to pay. Bills keep coming even though everyone’s quarantine [laughs], so I hope to fight. I know that’s out of our control, it out of anyone’s control, and if we have to postpone the fight, no problem. We’ll make ends meet.

“If the UFC offered fighters part of their purse to stay home, I would definitely take better care of myself. I can’t say because it hasn’t happened, but I don’t think I would stop training, but I would stay active inside my house and follow the quarantine. It would be great, but since that’s not the case…”

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