The Big Picture: Fighting in the Age of Coronavirus

By: Eric Stinton
Mar 18, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It all seems too strange to be real. Maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe Charles Oliveira didn’t put on his best all-around performance to date. Maybe Gilbert Burns didn’t become a legitimate welterweight threat. Maybe Renato Carneiro didn’t remind us why he was such a highly regarded prospect for so long. Maybe my social distance-addled brain just invented UFC Fight Night 170 in a fit of wishful delirium.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship no doubt wanted to make it feel normal. Upcoming events were plugged and previewed with the same built-in assumption of certainty. Fighters walked out the same as they always have, entrance music and all. Octagon announcer Joe Martinez still bellowed grand introductions for everyone, adding extra emphasis for the Brazilian hometown heroes, only for the sound of his voice to impotently ricochet around the empty arena. Commentator Michael Bisping reflexively ended a post-fight interview by telling someone, anyone to “make some noise!” A few times, you could clearly see a bug—a moth perhaps—flap across the cage in front of the cameras. Even a genuinely good and exciting UFC event was just another place with lights on.

It all seems too meta, too on-the-nose—everyone dutifully minimizing the pandemic while its impact is visible all around them, like circus clowns rushing the stage and deploying maximum antics when a trapeze artist falls. Those empty seats, never in plain view but always somewhere on screen, served as reminders that other people in other places have COVID-19, but they’re just a quick blur in our peripheries at most. Nothing to see here, folks. If we focus on the fights, we won’t notice the absence around them. If we don’t test for coronavirus, we won’t have many cases. At best, we are all the Guy Tapping Head meme; at worst, we are all Rudy Gobert.

Meanwhile, we monitor the rising tally of coronavirus patients nearby, following their journey from our own surreal self-imposed quarantines: presumptive positive to confirmed positive, then to recovery or death. Thankfully, so far, there has been much more of the former than the latter. Moicano swiftly submits Damir Hadzovic with a rear-naked choke. Burns crumples the beloved Demian Maia with a thudding left hook and follow-up punches. Kevin Lee leaves his neck sticking out on a takedown and quickly taps to a guillotine. Their moments of utter helplessness pass and they all eventually exit the cage, more-or-less fine as ever, to join the rest of us in the same empty reality.

I look at South Korea, where I was living not that long ago, and see its government testing 10,000+ people per day, whether they are symptomatic or not, and texting residents the test results within 24 hours. Then I look around where I live now, see how the strict symptom-based parameters required to get tested have led to fewer than 100 total tests administered throughout the state, and … Wow, Oliveira is the real deal. He beat an always-game Lee fairly dominantly and apparently did so with a shoulder injury. He’s finally maintaining the brilliance he’s always shown in flashes but has never been able to sustain fight-to-fight.

My friends and I, likely driven by boredom, often talk about what is or isn’t being done about the pandemic, why that is the case and who is to blame. Not that any of us have a clue what we’re talking about. That’s the thing, though: We’re not that far behind the people who make actual important decisions, and at least we admit when we’re sticking our heads in the sand and that it’s comforting to do so. Did you see what “Do Bronx” did? Seven straight wins with seven straight finishes in the sport’s deepest division. You can’t deny he’s knocking on the door of a title shot. No one really knows what’s going on; it’s just a difference in the degree of qualifiers and confidence with which people speak.

Experts urge caution and crude but necessary lifestyle changes, because we still have more questions than answers about the virus. Politicians put on their best Calm in Crisis press conferences. News outlets oscillate between coronavirus scorekeeping and handwashing infomercials. Online dweebs continue to act as if they’re the first to figure out that Corona is also the name of a beer, and the UFC continues to schedule fights as normal while sports leagues around the world shutter their doors until further notice. No matter; it’s not as if the UFC is flying athletes and their teams from across the planet to congregate in one spot, or that fighters routinely compromise their immunity during weight cuts. How did Burns go from solid lightweight to very good welterweight? Is it a difference in weight class or individual stage of development? Is he that good or is time finally catching up to Maia? At least MMA is not a sport of prolonged physical contact where competitors swap all sorts of bodily fluids.

When I first started watching MMA, the experience was a mixture of confiding obsessively with like-minded friends and being online, swapping low-grade video links and sketchy URLs on forums and debating imaginary cross-promotional matchups. UFC Fight Night 170 on Saturday felt like a collapse of the past and the present, where everyone, including those who were supposed to be in attendance, were forced to watch and enjoy and debate with people in their homes or with people on the Internet. When we once sheepishly made excuses to skip the social gathering so we could watch some Sengoku card or something, this time we had the veneer of social responsibility. Sorry, can’t go out. Social distancing and all that, you know how it is.

It was a nice batch of fights and a nice distraction from all the empty seats outside the cage and empty words outside our homes. It was novel and, in a way very fitting, to watch our beloved, strange sport in an atmosphere of heightened peculiarity, to see the dumb silliness of trying to shoehorn How Things Have Always Been into How Things Are Now. The only problem? Distractions are exactly that and nothing more. Imagine Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson taking place at the Apex facility with no fans? How weird would that be?

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.

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