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UFC bantamweight Brian Kelleher ponders whether ‘Fight Island’ is right for him

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The plane ride home from UFC 246 wasn’t a fun one for Brian Kelleher.

Packed in a tube with other travelers, tens of thousands of feet above sea level, Kelleher started to feel sick. By the time he’d settled at home in Selden, N.Y., he had a cough and a 103-degree fever.

”I’m thinking maybe I had (coronavirus) before they named it,” Kelleher told “The A-Side.”

He never found out officially. But as bad as that timing was, it turned out to be one of the better ones for a UFC fighter. Kelleher won his fight, submitting Ode Osbourne via first-round guillotine choke, and snapped a two-fight skid. He even picked up a $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus.

That left him with nice padding when the promotion’s entire schedule ground to a halt two months later as the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic and life changed for millions of people around the world.

For many UFC fighters, especially the ones who were scheduled to compete on ill-fated cards, that meant weeks of uncertainty as the promotion tried to proceed as usual. In the case of UFC 249, there was only one week until showtime until the plug was pulled by request of the promotion’s broadcast partner, ESPN, at the reported request of California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

”I honestly thought it was going to go down with the way things were going about a week ago with the way (UFC President) Dana (white) was acting,” Kelleher said. “He seemed confident. You can’t tell with him. I feel for the fighters that were on that card that were cutting weight, in that process where they were getting ready to fight someone, and then they’ve got to deal with, when am I going to fight now?”

Kelleher is trying to figure that out right now, but the answer is less pressing. He’d of course like to compete and make money, but he’s also cognizant of the issues that kind of commitment presents at a time like this.

”It’s been a stressful time, I can’t lie,” he said. “We’re trying to stay in shape and try to figure out when will I fight next. Should I try to stay ready in case this ‘Fight Island’ comes about? It’s a really confusing time, so it’s hard to know what’s coming ahead.”

After announcing the indefinite postponement of the April 18 pay-per-view and subsequent events, White offered a carrot to adrift fighters by promising to follow through on an audacious plan to promote events on a private international island. He said participants could fly to the island one month prior to train in virtual isolation before stepping into the cage. He did not say what would happen after that.

Would Kelleher bite if he got called to the island?

”Fighting is such a selfish sport,” he said. “We’re used to being selfish with this. But at this moment, you’ve got to take yourself back and look at the big picture.

”With me, I’ve got my parents here, and I think that’s my main focus. It would be selfish for me to go into the gym and get some training partners together and really prepare for a fight and take the risk of me getting sick, which I might be asymptomatic and not feel a thing, but then I pass it on to my parents, and then you’ve got to deal with the guilt of what happens if you get someone else sick? That’s my main fear.”

But at the same time, he doesn’t outright dismiss the idea.

”At one point, I look at it as this is my job – you’re going to tell me I can’t go to work,” he said. “But then the other side, I’m like, I fought in January. I’m OK, money wise. I have a lot of money saved. But some people aren’t. They’re desperate to fight for money to feed their kids. How are you going to tell them, don’t fight?”

In the end, Kelleher’s position might be decided simply by where he landed on the UFC’s 2020 schedule. He said he could hold off until the end of the year and survive financially. Whether he’d want to is another matter. The U.S. is less than one month into a quarantine that’s testing the patience of everyone, to say nothing of professional fighters who are trained to run in the red. Right now, he’s in his parent’s house and getting to work on his Netflix queue. Give him a minute to figure things out.