UFC 249: How 18 fighters prepared to fight during a pandemic

Cejudo on preparing for UFC 249 during the coronavirus pandemic (1:46)

Henry Cejudo explains if his preparations for his UFC 249 fight against Dominick Cruz are different from other fights due to his shoulder surgery and the coronavirus pandemic. Order UFC 249 here on ESPN+ espn.com/ppv. (1:46)

Dan Lambert sits at the front desk of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, waiting for law enforcement to walk through its doors. Although it's not open to the public, the MMA gym has its share of activity as fighters prepare for their upcoming bouts.

"I probably get it three to four times a week," Lambert says regarding his recent interactions with police. "I have to walk them inside and tell them what's going on and explain why we're in compliance with whatever the codes are at that particular time."

While gym owners balance complying with new guidelines related to the coronavirus pandemic and helping fighters train, the athletes are looking for the best ways to prepare with fewer training partners than normal. That's one of the main storylines for UFC 249 on May 9 in Jacksonville, Florida -- finding out which fighters were able to get the most out of their training during these unprecedented circumstances.

Only fighters who have upcoming bouts can train at ATT, and the typically busy mats are now used sporadically and cleaned often.

"For me, it's actually kind of good, because I get very specialized, specific training from my coaches," ATT's Charles Rosa said before leaving for Jacksonville to face Bryce Mitchell at UFC 249. "It's not like I'm in a class with 10 other people in there getting the same amount of attention from one coach. It's still a little weird, though -- like, did they clean it good enough? It's a risk I have to take to take this fight."

Instead of training at Jackson Wink in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fighters are training outside in the mountains, hitting mitts or training at home. According to the gym's general manager, Michael Lyubimov, the unique nature of the preparation could lead to some unorthodox fights.

"It's not going to be pretty in the beginning," Lyubimov says. "I don't know how good of training you can get when you're isolated from everyone."

Donald Cerrone, who faces Anthony Pettis on Saturday, agrees with Lyubimov. Cerrone expects cardio to be a major factor.

"There's going to be a lot of early stoppages and not very long fights, people are going to get tired quick," Cerrone says. "I don't know what a lot of these guys are training, or what they're doing. ... Is everyone just training in their backyards, their garage, or wherever they can? I just don't know. Who are their training partners?"

Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Michael Rothstein spoke to trainers and more than a dozen fighters on the UFC 249 card before they traveled to Jacksonville and learned about the creative training techniques they have used to deal with this unprecedented challenge. From sparring with their spouse to moving into their gym, here are their stories.

Tony Ferguson, who was training in Costa Mesa, California:

I'm still living my same life. I'm still doing my thing, which is training. I'm bettering myself every single day. I feel great.

The past month has been busy. I started MMA sparring again. So I'm padding up everybody. And I haven't sparred like this in years. I'm having fun again doing what I love.

I've been training since December. I've peaked I don't know how many times. I've got this thing down to an art.

Even after UFC 249 was canceled the first time, Ferguson still made weight on April 17.

Justin Gaethje, who was training in Denver:

I can't take shortcuts. I can't not have teammates here. Kamaru Usman is here, Beneil Dariush is here, and we're all isolated in my house, working out together. Neil Magny is in here -- he can push the pace. I just need people to push the pace right now.

As an athlete it's on or off. Green light, red light. I really trust the people around me, my coaches. I've never worried about a game plan, I've never asked if there was a game plan. Trevor Wittman instills something and I go out and fight, and afterwards say, 'Oh, we've been working on this.' I really trust the people who are leading me.

Dominick Cruz, who was training in San Diego:

I don't have a lot of people in the gym, especially now with the quarantine. We've all been having to train with minimal people, like four to six people, max, so that nobody's getting contaminated.

It's been pretty silent in there. So I think fight night in the empty arena is going to resemble training in the gym, and also similar to "The Ultimate Fighter." You had all of the competitors on the teams in the "Ultimate Fighter" gym, but it still was eerily quiet.

Henry Cejudo, who was training in Scottsdale, Arizona

If anything I think this quarantine time has been a blessing. Having the gym all to myself. Being less distracted. I really don't know when the difference between being in quarantine and being in fight came. It's all been the same. My shoulder is healed up and I'm ready to rock 'n' roll this Saturday night.

Francis Ngannou, who was training in Las Vegas (as told by his coach, Eric Nicksick)

If you think about it, we were supposed to fight in March. We had a full camp of sparring. We had eight weeks of that. So, when the fight was postponed, we took a week off. Then when it was supposed to happen in April and got postponed, he took another week off.

The one thing we're in complete control over is our cardio, so that's the one thing we've been trying to emphasize, is being in good shape. Francis has been doing a lot of good things cardio-wise, but what that doesn't equate to is wrestling cardio and grappling cardio. So we've been trying to make up in those areas where we can, because we're short on bodies. So, when we get [fellow heavyweight] Blagoy Ivanov in the gym, I like to see Francis wrestle a little bit more during sparring than normal, to make up for those grappling rounds we've been missing throughout the week.

We're mixing it up and going to the park. We have to stay fresh mentally.

Yorgan De Castro, who was training in Massachusetts

Having the fight canceled a couple of times really burned me out for a while. I felt like I was in the right spot, physically and mentally, right before it was canceled the first time. I was feeling good. My cardio was good. Then the fight was off, and I took a couple of days off. I got right back to training when the fight was back on, but then it was off again. I just told myself that it is what it is. At this point, it's a mental challenge more than physical.

Now I have more time to train. I still go to my two gyms. Both are closed, but my coaches opened the buildings for me. I work one-on-one with my trainers.

Michelle Waterson, who was training in New Mexico

The gym is closed down, so there's no training there. They're still trying to limit the amount of people that gather together here in Albuquerque. Luckily, we have a very sweet setup here at my house.

We pretty much have everything we need at home. Josh Gomez, my husband, has been primarily holding mitts for me. We've been working a lot of boxing. We have really sweet trails up here to run. So I've been doing that for cardio. But we also have a row machine, an assault bike, a treadmill inside our home gym. All the weight equipment that we need. We have tons of free weight stuff from Onnit. We have a sauna, a cold plunge. We have a swimming pool. So, we've got everything we need.

Josh is letting me tee off on him. Which is nothing new; he's always been a sparring partner for me. But the situation has definitely allowed me to work my boxing with him. He started to learn jiu-jitsu about a year and a half, two years ago. So he's been rolling with me.

Each day we have one of our main coaches come down. So coach Mike Winkeljohn will come down and hold mitts for me at the home gym. My jiu-jitsu coach, Rafael "Barata" Freitas, will come down and roll with me one-on-one. Same with coach Joey Villasenor. He works MMA, the ground stuff and the wall stuff. Just depending on the day, a different coach comes down and we just work. It's not the same, but I think as fighters you have to be comfortable with being in uncomfortable positions. That's what coach Greg Jackson always talks about.

Carla Esparza, who was training in Irvine, California

We're not supposed to go to the gym according to California regulations. A lot of the fighters live in a house together. It's almost like your own "Ultimate Fighter" house. I've been training with them, like small, private sessions. You do what you've gotta do. In the fighting world, sometimes you've gotta fight with injuries, sometimes you've gotta fight when you're sick, sometimes you've gotta fight after dealing with personal tragedies. The situation is new, but bumps in the road and crazy new things are not new.

I think I'm having a good enough training camp. I don't have access to all my coaches. I would say that's probably the biggest part of it. It's just not having access to all the people I normally would. My strength and conditioning coach, Mike Saffie, has a newborn baby, so he's been staying at home. I haven't been doing certain things. It's been tough.

Charles Rosa, who was training in Coconut Creek, Florida

ATT is open for professional athletes. They're very strict about it. There's certain times that fighters can come in with certain coaches and certain training partners. So they spread it out so there's not more than two or three people on the mat at one time. There's a cleaning crew that comes in after and cleans up after you train.

I'm cooking every single meal, which is probably better. It keeps my diet more in check. I graduated from culinary school. I went to Johnson & Wales University. Before I was gonna be a fighter, I was a hockey player and I went to culinary school to become a chef.

The biggest thing, if you don't know about food, is the ingredients. Fresh ingredients are key. It's so huge being able to cook and meal prep for myself with quality food. I notice when I see other people, like my teammates. I see what they're eating. Like two weeks out from the fight, they're eating dry pieces of chicken and lettuce and I'm eating sautéed scallops and white wine with garlic and red peppers. They're like, 'Man, how did you get to eat that?'

Donald Cerrone, who was training in Edgewood, New Mexico

I have a whole gym here, so I have no excuse. I got John Wood from Vegas, he drove in. Jafari Vanier drove in. I got a couple guys here at the ranch who are here full time.

The good thing is I'm old-school. I've taken a million punches. So the days of getting in there and grappling and striking, I don't feel like I mentally have to do that to prepare for a fight. The cardio and just touching up on my bags, the wrestling drills -- stuff like that is what I need.

Jacare Souza, who was training in Orlando, Florida

I think we're doing good. I will be ready. My camp is very good right now. I'm training hard, I'm resting good, I'm eating good.

I lived in the gym for many years when I was young in Brazil. Now, I'm back. For me, I'm back to normal. My home is my gym. It's just a little bit strange for me, because I have a family now. I have kids and a wife, Larissa. But my coach comes to help me and I have training partners come to my home, too. I've been working a lot with Josuel "Distak" Silva. He trained Paulo Filho when he was one of the best in the world.

I have weights. I have my wife's CrossFit stuff. I can't leave my home right now. Maybe it's better for me, because I can't leave to eat hamburgers or not train hard.

I don't like this, but right now I'm strong because she forces me to train hard. I don't like when we train together, because she kills me.

Calvin Kattar, who was training in New England

We're just ready to go at this point. We've been training since Jan. 5.

Things are just a little more remote. The groups are a little more exclusive and limited. But still the same amount if not more work. And just dialing in with the guys we have. Everyone is focused. It's a good distraction from what's going on.

For most of this camp, we traveled all over like we'd do in a normal camp. We trained in four states -- Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island -- and two countries: the U.S. and Canada. As it got closer and closer, we tightened it up.

I've also been working remotely with the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, using Omegawave technology for recovery. There's an app on my phone and a device they gave me. I hook up EKG pads to my thumb and forehead, wire it to the device and it connects to my phone app. It sends the data to a more in-depth database where UFC director of sports science Roman Fomin is. He's in charge of this type of stuff. He analyzes all your data more in-depth and gives you feedback on how you're recovering.

Him and Heather Linden, the UFC's director of physical therapy, have been awesome. They're both monitoring our workload for training optimization. I've been listening to what they're saying and sending video to Las Vegas boxing coach Jimmy Gifford and Joe Valtellini. I feel like we've got a lot of good feedback on the work we're putting in. We've got a lot of eyes on the camp. We're just dialed in at this point, ready to go.

Uriah Hall, who was training in Dallas

I know I wanted to get a little bit uncomfortable, so I decided to move into the gym on April 6. It's like that 'Rocky' mentality. I have a blow-up mattress. I have everything I need here.

My teammate Ryan Spann has got a place from Airbnb. He's actually fighting on the card. He's got a big house, he's got room and everything. He told me to come down and stay with him. I chose not to. It's comfortable. I'm not in the mood to be comfortable right now.

I do what I've gotta do. My boxing coach Clayton Hires will be flying in from Las Vegas. We'll be working together and he'll be in my corner.

A lot of people are comfortable, whether it's yourself or whatever you're doing. I ain't got time for that. I've locked myself in with my demons. I sat them all down and I'm giving them instructions.

Ryan Spann, who was training in Dallas

We're taking extra precautions to make sure we keep it real low-key and stay safe and healthy while we train for this. It's a little different. There are some adjustments, but we're making them work. We're having the gym cleaned, cleaning up after ourselves, showering and making sure we're clean when we get there. We're getting some good work in. The people that I work with, like UFC fighters Alonzo Menifield and Geoff Neal, are there at the gym. We're getting the same work. It's just a smaller group.

It's really the stop-start part that has been the biggest challenge. I don't care who I fight or where I fight them. I've been going so long at this point with the stop-start. We were supposed to have Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 247 on Feb. 8, but he got hurt. Then, it was going to be Paul Craig at UFC London on March 21 and that card got canceled. Who am I fighting now? Oh, Sam Alvey. They moved the Alvey fight from April 18. Just the start-stop.

I cut a s--- ton of weight for the original fight with Alvey on just two and a half weeks' notice. I lost about 13, 14 pounds.

I'm on track, though. Even though I cut a lot of weight a few weeks ago, I was on track to have one of the easiest cuts I've had. I think this time it's gonna be real easy, too. My strength and conditioning coach Mike Scaccia is like a mad scientist and he's coming out there to Jacksonville with us. He's gonna help me with the final steps of the process and the rehydration and everything. It's gonna be nothing. It won't be fun, but it'll be nothing.

Sam Alvey, who was training in Temecula, California

The biggest difference for me is I don't have to teach any of my kids' classes or my team classes at Dan Henderson's Athletic Fitness Center in Temecula, California. That's really been pretty helpful. I've had more time to do other training. It's really been the easiest end of a camp I've had, because I didn't have to teach anything. This is the first time I've ever had that be the case.

I've been able to get to a bunch of different gyms. I've had plenty of training partners, a lot of them who just travel with me. We get to work together, just at different locations all the time. I've been working with Tom Gallicchio, Joe Stevenson and Dan Henderson; he's been giving me a hand. But I've had quite a few training partners.

Anthony Pettis, who was training in Milwaukee

The first week everybody was skeptical. I made everyone send me their temperatures before I cleared them to come to the gym. As the weeks went on, it just kind of felt more normal. I feel like I'm in a training camp without the distractions. I own businesses. When I'm in training camp usually, not only am I worried about a fight, I have to make sure my gyms are doing right and are afloat. My barbershops. My sports bars. I have a lot of s--- going on. With this one, nothing is going on because my businesses are closed. I literally just have to worry about fighting.

This time, I was really forced to reinvent my training camp. If you just take a normal week on a professional fight team, you all train at 1:30 p.m. There's 20 people on a team, probably 10 high-level guys. That practice is made for 10 guys, as opposed to one guy. This whole training camp, every single practice was catered to what I need specifically to win. It feels good to be in this spot mentally. It's the easiest training camp of my life. It's weird to say that. This quarantine opened up my eyes. It made me slow down. I had to slow down, pull back and look at my life from the outside. It made me simplify.

I think for me, honestly, this was a blessing to do training camp this way, because it forced me to reinvent it. I own my own gyms. So that's a blessing for me. Training partners, I had to be very selective and that's what I loved about it. This time, it's like, 'OK, I need this guy, I need this guy, these coaches.' From now on, I'll do my training camp this way. My main training partner has been my little brother, Bellator fighter Sergio Pettis.

Fabricio Werdum, who was training in Los Angeles

The pace of training is very good, although it is not normal without the usual routine of going to the gym.

Master Rafael Cordeiro is doing online training with me, on Skype, on Zoom. Cordeiro is also coming here, traveling two hours from Big Bear.

Ricardo Tesfai is here and it's helping me a lot. He's my sparring [partner]. He comes and goes; sometimes he stays for a day or two.

And my brother is right here with me. When there is no one to do the sparring or anything, he does the gauntlet.

I'm running too, running on the mountains or streets. I'm just not working out, you know? I can't do weight training, but the rest is fine.

Of course it is different from everything we have lived through. Do online training? I never imagined that I would do an online training with the teacher, but it's been good.

Vicente Luque, who was training in Brazil and Florida

I have good teammates, good training partners, but we're managing and limiting the people in the gym to just me and one other guy. We're in the gym, but the gym is closed. Nobody else can come. We work, just the two of us.

I studied a lot of my opponent's fights. I'm in contact with my psychologist, my physical trainer, my fight coach, Daniel Barros Evangelista, who is my head coach, my trainer here in the Cerrado, Durinho and Henri Hooft who will be in my corner in Florida when I go there.

So, I'm feeling very well despite the situation. I'm prepared to fight.