Contact is necessary for an MMA fighter to get an adequate training camp. In exchange for that, fighters and trainers put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19.
The damage COVID-19 has inflicted on the MMA world has been huge. Infections around fighters and their coaches have run rampant, causing numerous fights to get cancelled every week. In UFC, the top promotion in the sport, 49 fighters have tested positive for the virus.
While MMA events have testing and protocol that has flagged COVID-19-positive talent down before fight night, the number of positive tests they catch are alarming. UFC’s recent December 19th event, for example, saw five fights affected by a positive test.
It’s not the events themselves that are breeding infections within the sport. Instead it is the weeks leading up to fights where fighters are participating in contact training and living outside of a bubble format.
As fighters train out in the open world, their number of positive infections are similar to what other sports leagues have looked like when leaving a bubble format. Similarly, collegiate sports, the NFL and most recently, the NBA, have seen COVID-19 infections and contact tracing that have taken athletes out of events and even postponed games.
Although some gyms have put in place protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19, some consider training for MMA and the art forms inside it means physical contact is necessary.
“We’ve tried different things. I taught Jiu-Jitsu classes on a chair. I was doing hard passes on it,” said Dean Burley, an amateur MMA fighter who instructs Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu self defense classes in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
Burley figured teaching classes online, and with chairs, or even paired with one other partner wouldn’t be good enough for people. “You need a grappling partner, you need to feel different bodies,” he said.
The danger that MMA athletes have put themselves in has been reflected on high-level cards, where often numerous bouts depart a lineup due to COVID-19.
““[I] Tried to stay as safe as possible during fightcamp but with mma training there’s virtually no social distancing,” said UFC fighter Angela Hill back in December following a positive COVID-19 test that removed her from a pay-per-view event. Hill was one of the dozens of fighters to get removed from a UFC card following an infection.
The risks to people who test positive are not fully known at the moment. While the virus reports a high recovery rate, especially among younger demographics, the long-term effects of the virus are still being uncovered.
Months after testing positive for COVID-19, UFC bantamweight Cody Garbrandt revealed he had been dealing with some of the reported long-term effects of contracting the virus. In a now-deleted Instagram Story post, Garbrandt reported having blood clots, pneumonia and “mental fog.” The CDC considers “brain fog” as “difficulty with thinking and concentration.
Part of what makes COVID-19 so tough to handle for gyms is its subtlety. People can carry and transmit COVID-19 to others while not showing symptoms.
“Transmission happens silently … we’re looking at a virus that transmits very well before illness; if there is any illness [in that person],” said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba with a Ph.D in biochemistry.
The safest solution possible would be an expensive one for gyms and fighters alike. To create the best possible environment gyms would have to create a bubble for all fighters and trainers; keeping them in a singular location for their entire camp.
“If community transmission is rising and you don’t have the ability to sequester your staff and your athletes away from others in the community, what do you do?” said Dr. Kindrachuk.
Dr. Kindrachuk, who has spent his career studying biochemistry, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the bubble format adapted by some sports earlier in the year. His concern, however, is the risk involved as leagues shift away from that structure.
“It becomes a question of how long can a team sustain doing that?” said Dr. Kindrachuk.
As MMA continues to operate, it’s hard to tell if it has been doing so in a sustainable manner. While events have continued, and will continue, the athletes and other personnel involved have been infected by a virus in the process. No deaths have been recorded in MMA due to COVID-19. However, the risk of that happening remains possible as fighters continue to train outside of a bubble format.