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Looking around the sports world, it’s hard to deny that the Ultimate Fighting Championship is doing a good job at keeping operations running relatively smoothly. Sure, reshuffling a title fight the week of the event isn’t a great look, but it’s a whole lot better than Major League Baseball or college football, where big chunks of teams are testing positive at the same time while plans for the next season are still in flux. It also helps to have the UFC’s structural advantage of being able to seamlessly swap in other—and often more exciting—competitors at the last minute.
Though the UFC will no doubt take more credit than it deserves—and it does deserve credit—much of its success compared to other major sports has been a result of similar structural advantages: not having large groups of athletes frequently sharing spaces, having a rolodex of replacements to run down in case of a positive test, being able to negotiate with individual athletes instead of a union of them. Thus, it stands to reason that fighters and their camps deserve at least as much credit as the UFC for making these events as successful as they’ve been.
This wasn’t a given. With gyms closing and budgets tightening, you’d expect more bizarreries to occur; MMA is weird enough already. It’s a credit to the fighters that they’ve been this professional about their preparation during otherwise challenging circumstances. There have, of course, been a few exceptions.
At UFC on ESPN 12, Gian Villante made the most hilarious heavyweight debut in recent memory, putting on the kind of bulk that regular work-from-home schlubs can only dream of justifying. He weighed in at 255 pounds—49 pounds heavier than his previous fight at light heavyweight—and it looked like he put on the weight the way most of us do: bored, steady snacking and daily beers. He was submitted in fitting fashion, tapping to lumbering exhaustion under the guise of an arm-triangle choke while he was almost in side mount.
Though we only have a sloppy physique and a sloppy performance to judge Villante’s level of preparation, we know all we need to know about Mike Perry’s. He was victorious against Mickey Gall despite not training with coaches. Instead, his camp was mostly a two-person party: “Platinum” and his girlfriend, who has no prior experience. It showed. Perry has never looked worse in a win; he looked to be channeling the spirit of 2005 Koji Oishi from his fight against Nick Diaz at UFC 53. That he was still able to win is evidence that Gall just simply is not a UFC-caliber fighter.
For both Villante and Perry, showing up underprepared isn’t much of a storyline beyond putting on performances that are memorable for all the wrong reasons. Neither has any hope of being competitively relevant in any of their divisions, and both carry a certain meatheadedness that makes their sloppy pandemic preparation seem more like charming foibles than sins against athletic professionalism. Yet a legitimate cautionary tale appears to be brewing for UFC 251 this Saturday in the United Arab Emirates.
Former featherweight champion Max Holloway told ESPN that he had no training partners and did no sparring to prepare for his rematch against the man who dethroned him: Alexander Volkanovski. “A lot of my training was over Zoom,” he said. “The first time seeing my coaches was at the airport.”
This is a disconcerting sentiment, even if it comes from a genuine place of wanting to not risk exposing his loved ones to COVID-19. “Blessed” was cleanly defeated by Volkanovski at UFC 245 in December. It wasn’t a blowout by any means, as Holloway turned it up late and stole two rounds on two of the judges’ scorecards, and even in the rounds he lost, he was still competitive and had moments of success. Volkanovski was stellar, however. He landed more and harder shots, was an effective matador when Holloway pressured and threw heavy leather when he moved forward. He stifled Holloway’s rhythm with feints, leg kicks and perfectly balanced small steps in circular motion, rarely moving straight back.
Although the first fight wasn’t terribly close, the rematch is definitely a winnable fight for Holloway, assuming he and his team concocted the right tactical adjustments and drilled them into muscle memory. Sparring is an essential part of that process, especially when it comes to keeping timing sharp. Timing is a big part of what makes Holloway ruthlessly efficient when he’s at his best, and it’s exactly why Volkanovski’s approach of layered disruption worked so well. A rusty “Blessed” will almost certainly not be enough to regain the belt, casting one of the division’s greats into the purgatory of having to wait for someone else to beat the champ before getting another shot. Such is the fate of being 0-2 against the champion while being better than virtually everyone else.
On the face, it may seem like a stretch to lump one of the most successful fighters in UFC history with the likes of Voluptuous Villante and Romcom Perry, and any apprehension is mere speculation until Holloway and Volkanovski are in the Octagon together. As it stands now, however, there is still cause for concern that a great rivalry may get prematurely railroaded when an obvious solution—wait it out until a proper camp is possible—is viable for both parties.
Maybe Holloway is right. Maybe this type of training camp is actually better than the normal kind, and all he needs to do is turn up the tempo one round sooner to win. “Sometimes in camp we do over-push our bodies,” Holloway said in the same interview. “We go over the line without even knowing.” Overtraining is real, and it’s not like Holloway needs more reps in the gym, in general. He already has more wins and more Octagon minutes than any featherweight in UFC history. The Volkanovski rematch will be his 27th pro fight in a career that’s closing in on its 10-year anniversary. Robbie Lawler famously stopped sparring in his fight camps to stay fresh, and Michael Bisping put on his best performance at UFC 199 on a short-notice camp where he explicitly cited a lack of overtraining as a reason for his success. We’ll see.
All that’s left to do for those of us on the outside of the cage is wait and trust that the fighters know better than we do. Luckily, that’s almost always the case.
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.