MIKE BROWN WAS sitting at a desk in Jorge Masvidal's Las Vegas hotel room. It was July 5, hours before Brown was scheduled to accompany Masvidal on a flight to "Fight Island" for UFC 251.
While Brown, one of American Top Team's head MMA coaches, was on his laptop, Masvidal's manager, Abe Kawa, entered the room and asked to speak with Brown privately.
Kawa broke the news: The UFC had called and said Brown tested positive for COVID-19. The coach would not be able to make the trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to corner Masvidal's welterweight title challenge against Kamaru Usman in the main event.
Brown, stunned by the circumstances, had to walk back to his hotel room to call Masvidal on his cellphone and let his close friend of 13 years know he would not be there for perhaps the most significant fight of his career. Brown, unsure if he was contagious, was afraid to tell Masvidal in person.
"That was crushing," Brown told ESPN. "It was like the feeling of your biggest fight falling off. It's by far the worst situation I've ever gone through. Heartbreaking for me."
Brown's experience has become more common since combat sports have resumed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fighters such as prospective UFC welterweight title challenger Gilbert Burns have missed main events and huge paydays. Fighters are independent contractors who get paid only when they compete. Coaches get a percentage of that pay, and have been pulled from meaningful bouts because of positive tests.
And while the UFC and other promotions have enacted protocols that emphasize social distancing and testing at event sites, the biggest problem facing combat sports is the spread of the virus at gyms, where social distancing is impossible when fighters train with each other and resources are slim.
JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which boasts over 40 fighters from around the world, including light heavyweight champ Jon Jones and Holly Holm, is doing temperature checks and requiring recent negative COVID-19 test results to enter the facility. Co-coach Greg Jackson said only one person from his gym has tested positive, but he is under no delusions.
"When you're dealing with our numbers of fighters, it is absolutely inevitable," Jackson said. "We just want to mitigate it as much as we can.
"It could literally be happening as we speak."
SAYIF SAUD CALLED a team meeting at his Fortis MMA gym last month, one of several he has conducted since the start of the pandemic. Saud had just returned to Dallas from Las Vegas, where Fortis fighter Ramiz Brahimaj was supposed to compete on the UFC's June 27 card. The bout was canceled during fight week when one of Brahimaj's cornermen tested positive for COVID-19. Saud read his fighters and coaches the riot act.
"I told them, anybody that f---s up someone's fight, you're gonna have problems with me," said Saud, the owner and head coach of Fortis. "Any type of extra behavior -- no going to the bars, none of that s---. Whatever relationships you're having, you have to understand the responsibility that you have to the team."
Fortis, like many combat sports gyms, has made major changes to its procedures since the start of the pandemic, and those continue to evolve as the number of coronavirus cases rises in Texas. Fortis now requires temperature checks at the door and the submission of a negative COVID-19 test once a week for fighters. During off hours, the staff cleans the gym with a fogging machine equipped with disinfectant. The general members are kept separate from the pro fighters and the Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes -- which require close contact -- have been reduced from 15 per week to three.
Last weekend, JacksonWink MMA shut down for a few days for a deep cleaning, Jackson said. The fighters are split into "pods" -- they train with only four or five others in the same weight class with one coach. The idea is to limit exposure if someone has the coronavirus.
"You hope for the best and do everything you can -- and even with that, you still need to get lucky." Dan Lambert
Owner of American Top Team
JacksonWink, which is open only to fighters and not the public, is unique in that it has dorms attached to the gym. There are pros and cons to that, Jackson said. On the plus side, those fighters are not making much contact with the general population and are not going home to their families. But there's also a greater risk for an outbreak with so many people living close together. Jackson said there are plans to isolate anyone who has symptoms or tests positive.
"We want to follow the guidelines," Jackson said. "If they get it, they're isolated. If they're working out with COVID, everybody else gets COVID and no one can fight."
American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, the home of stars like Masvidal and UFC women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, has yet to reopen its doors to the public, and only fighters who are signed for upcoming fights are allowed in, owner Dan Lambert said. The ATT kids program has been shut down for good. Lambert said the team is selling off five vans used for the team's after-school program.
ATT now has three different companies coming to the gym weekly to administer COVID-19 testing. Lambert said he is currently in talks about buying a machine that does its own coronavirus testing analysis. Despite the precautions, ATT has had several recent COVID cases, including Brown's. Pedro Munhoz was supposed to fight former champ Frankie Edgar on the UFC's July 15 card in Abu Dhabi, but Munhoz's coronavirus test results came back positive. Munhoz was rebooked to fight Edgar at UFC 252 on Aug. 15 in Las Vegas.
Boxing has had similar problems. WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring was supposed to defend his title against Jonathan Oquendo on a July 2 Top Rank card in Las Vegas, but Herring tested positive for COVID-19. The bout was rebooked for July 14 -- and Herring tested positive again, even after a negative test in between, and was yanked.
Based on the Herring situation, Top Rank has decided to not reschedule fights after a positive COVID test for at least six weeks, a source told ESPN. The UFC has not yet taken a measure like that, but UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN earlier this month that a testing program for fighters in training camp -- before they fly to the fight-week bubble -- could be in the offing.
"We're looking at any way we can to get better," Epstein said. "If it makes sense, of course we're gonna do it."
Jorge Capetillo, a cutman who gained fame for closing Tyson Fury's enormous cut during a 2019 fight against Otto Wallin, had to shut down his Las Vegas boxing gym earlier this month after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Capetillo said he had a high fever for five days. And last week, with no one in the facility, Capetillo TM Boxing Gym was robbed.
"It's crazy, obviously I didn't want any outbreaks in the gym," Capetillo said. "I had to be responsible for all the people there. My wife told me we're shutting this gym down for at least 15 days. So we put a little sign letting people know that we're going to be in quarantine, and that we're going to be closed.
"They just broke in [July 13]. They took gloves, they took a few things that we sell there, and merchandise. It's tough."
MASVIDAL WOULD NOT have been in the welterweight title bout at UFC 251 on July 11 had Burns not tested positive for COVID-19. Burns' test results came back July 3 and he was not allowed to make the trip to Abu Dhabi for the pay-per-view headliner against Usman.
Burns trains at Sanford MMA in South Florida, a team that is sponsored by Sanford Health, an integrated healthcare company. Sanford has taken measures to keep COVID-19 out. The team has two gyms -- one in Deerfield Beach and one in Fort Lauderdale -- and only fighters who are signed and preparing for a fight can access the Deerfield Beach location.
Brad Reeves, the Sanford MMA team doctor and a sports medicine specialist, said the team has administered close to 100 tests to fighters, coaches and staff. Groups are being separated into three fighters plus one coach and distanced around the perimeter of the gyms, Reeves said.
Even with those procedures, Sanford has still had five fighters, including Burns and ONE Championship double-champion Aung La N Sang, and one coach test positive for the coronavirus. Sanford fighter Jared Gordon flew to Abu Dhabi for the UFC's July 15 show with no cornermen because everyone who was scheduled to be in his corner had COVID-19.
Geography, Reeves said, is a major problem for Sanford. According to the CDC, Florida averaged over 10,000 new COVID cases per day over the last seven days. Reeves said he is in discussions with several top Sanford fighters with high-profile bouts coming up about uprooting their training camps to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where Sanford is based.
"If I could snap my fingers and everybody thought it would be a good idea, I would uproot this entire team -- coaches, everything -- and move them to the training facilities we have in Sioux Falls, South Dakota," Reeves said. "And maintain those people who have scheduled fights to do their entire camp with our science and our athletic training facilities that we have in Sioux Falls. I would feel much better about guys not getting hit with positive tests just because of that geographical issue."
Another problem is the accuracy of testing. Reeves said Burns tested negative for the coronavirus two days before flying to Las Vegas, where he was tested by the UFC and his results came back positive. Gordon tested positive for COVID-19 in his first test in Abu Dhabi, but then three more tests came back negative, clearing him.
Those are not isolated incidents. Lambert said he had Brown and Munhoz get tested for COVID-19 when they returned to Florida after testing positive. Both tests came back negative. Brown said he felt some symptoms when he found out he was positive, but he's still not sure he actually had the virus. Munhoz was asymptomatic.
New UFC flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo initially tested positive before leaving his native Brazil two weeks ago. His manager, Wallid Ismail, said Figueiredo tested positive two months earlier, and they believe the recent test produced a false positive. A subsequent test was negative and Figueiredo passed several more tests in Abu Dhabi. Figueiredo was cleared to fight Joseph Benavidez this past Saturday and finished Benavidez by first-round submission to win the title.
Covid Free! 🙏🏾— GILBERT BURNS DURINHO (@GilbertDurinho) July 20, 2020
Sem Corona! 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/A6Pb4srIaP
In boxing, Herring had two positive tests with a negative one in between. Last month, budding star Mikaela Mayer was pulled from a Top Rank boxing match due to a positive COVID-19 test, but then tested negative from a test she took three days later at home in Colorado.
"That's the struggle right now, because there's still so much that we're unaware of in terms of which tests are more accurate," Reeves said. "What part does the antibodies play? Right now, it plays none. What part does previous history of exposure play?"
While information about the coronavirus remains fluid, promotions keep cranking out fight cards. And fighters and coaches need to do their jobs -- at the gym and inside the ring or cage -- in order to get paid.
Wood is the owner of Syndicate and coaches Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone and Joanne Calderwood, among others. He said he tested positive for the coronavirus two weeks ago before one of his fighters, Natan Levy, was set to compete for the LFA promotion. Levy was pulled from the bout.
At the time, Wood didn't have any significant symptoms, but when he returned home to Las Vegas, he had lost his sense of taste and smell. Aside from that odd sensation, Wood said he just feels like he has a cold. COVID-19 was something he knew he'd probably get considering his profession.
"What choice do we really have?" Wood said. "Coronavirus or no coronavirus, if fighting is your career, you've gotta f---in' fight. Ninety-seven percent [of fighters] don't have insurance. Most of them don't have anything else to fall back on. It's like fight, or you're f---ed.
"All these fighters, this is our jobs and careers. They're relying on coaches and gyms. You're fighting for a paycheck a lot of times -- just to survive."
Fortunately, no one else in Masvidal's traveling party tested positive for COVID-19 despite Brown's results. Masvidal ended up losing to Usman by unanimous decision at UFC 251 on July 11 in a card that was one of the biggest in UFC history, surpassing even some of Conor McGregor main events, according to UFC president Dana White. Masvidal took home the largest purse of his career.
"If Jorge got sick and couldn't have done this fight that did a million pay-per-views and got him a nice payday, that would be pretty catastrophic," Lambert said. "You hope for the best and do everything you can -- and even with that, you still need to get lucky."
Steve Kim contributed to this report.