War in the Time of COVID

By: Ben Duffy
Nov 25, 2020

To put it mildly, 2020 has been a trying year for mixed martial arts and the people who work in and around it. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, entertainment industries, including sports, ground to a complete stop, and MMA was no exception. In March, the Ultimate Fighting Championship suspended operations for nearly two months, then came back with an ambitious schedule of events in empty venues, followed by several other major promotions. As the industry scrambled to adjust to a radically changed world, the coronavirus pandemic presented different sets of challenges to fighters, coaches and gym owners.

For UFC welterweight Alex Morono, whose job description includes all of the above, it was quite the scramble.

To top it off, the coronavirus had put MMA into a deep freeze right after a miserable loss. At UFC 247 on Feb. 8, Morono had faced a then-unknown Kalinn Williams, who had stepped up on short notice when Dhiego Lima withdrew from the card. Heavily favored and fighting in front of a partisan crowd in his hometown of Houston, Morono was knocked out in just 27 seconds, as “Khaos the Ox Fighter” got much the better of a brief, wild brawl. Looking back at that fight, Morono makes no excuses but admits it was heartbreaking.

“I did all my research,” he says. “I prepared for that fight like every other. I knew his strengths, knew his early brawl potential, I knew the odds but didn’t overlook him, and still made the bad decision to plant and throw without finding range. I learned from my mistake, wanted no sympathy, but I was utterly devastated, you know? I had everyone I know there watching, people from every local gym, plus I had musicians that I like, tuning in and giving me props. It sucks, but that’s the nature of the beast.”

While the loss stung, and was followed just weeks later by the UFC putting on the brakes due to the coronavirus, Morono maintains that he wouldn’t have been pushing to get back into action immediately anyway. As aggressive as he is in the cage, outside of it he is measured, erring on the side of caution.

“The doctor told me 60 days of no contact; I wanted 90,” he says. “As much as I love fighting, I want to do everything in my power to make sure [my] brain health is as good as it can be—for someone who fights in a cage for money. So I knew I was going to have at least three months off anyway, and then in that period of time, COVID hit.” At that point, Morono’s trio of professional roles rotated, with the focus turning to his ownership of Gracie Barra Woodlands, north of Houston. Like similar businesses all over the country, Morono’s gym suddenly found its primary source of revenue—in-person classes—entirely gone. He confesses that the first months in particular were stressful, as he worked to keep afloat.

“My life’s work was nearly shut down in front of my eyes through no doing of my own, so priorities definitely changed,” he says. “For like a month and a half we did classes remotely on Zoom. Then we were allowed to reopen and we did no-contact training for a while, then we did one-partner training, or one or two-partner training, to control the amount of direct contact. We were on a very limited schedule at first, which has gradually opened up more. People really wanted to come back; there was a social aspect to it that they didn’t realize they were missing.”

The reduced schedule led to Morono teaching all of the classes personally for most of the summer, which in turn impacted his ability to return to action himself, as his camps involve splitting time at Fortis MMA in Dallas, three hours away. Once things returned to a normal enough state that he felt able to accept a booking, the opponent on offer was Rhys McKee, a former Cage Warriors Fighting Championship standout who made his debut in the UFC earlier this year and was steamrolled by Khamzat Chimaev. Against McKee at UFC Fight Night 182, Morono got back on track, outboxing the Irishman for most of three rounds and landing several takedowns in the third. He claims the fight went largely according to plan.

“I knew he had a good jab; he’s dropped people with that jab before,” Morono says. “He’s long, but I actually prefer fighting long, gangly guys. I just feel I can react better. Quicker. I knew my striking was better, and I knew my grappling was better. My game plan was simple—it’s always the same: I’m going to stand with guys and try to knock them out, because that’s how I want to win fights. If the striking wasn’t going as clean as it was, I’d have certainly wrestled earlier, but it was going well and I thought I could knock him out.

“Going into the third round, my coach [Sayif Saud] said, ‘He’s in good shape, he has a good chin, you’re not going to knock him out. Mix it up.’ I added in some level changes and went three for three on takedowns, which are some of the first takedowns I’ve initiated in the UFC. I’m not usually the guy who wants it to go to the ground,” he adds. He laughs, perhaps in acknowledgement of how that statement sounds from a BJJ black belt and owner of a jiu-jitsu academy. He sounds pleased in his performance on Saturday because of the process as much as the result, and both the process and the result are part of coming back from the loss to Williams.

“I told my striking coach, Matt, that I wanted to be patient and technical,” he says. “My goal was to prove to myself as a martial artist that I’m better than that last fight. Because that fight…it wasn’t a fluke, but it was a combination of bad decisions and bad luck, and I wanted to prove to myself that I’m better than that. And this fight, I outstruck a bigger fighter, a younger fighter, and I set a personal record for strikes landed, which was a good feeling.”

As it happens, Williams fought Saturday as well, continuing his stunning rise to prominence with a 30-second knockout of Abdul Razak Alhassan, a Fortis teammate and primary training partner of Morono’s. The finish was chilling, a brutal right hand to the chin that left Alhassan out cold and stiff on the canvas. Morono’s feelings were mixed: concern for his friend; respect and admiration for their mutual foe.

“Turns out ‘Khaos’ is a bit of an issue,” he says with a laugh. “Turns out the dude is rather imposing. Dude’s a freak. It’s nice to see that the guy I lost to...hey, it turns out he’s pretty good. And it certainly made me see how much worse my fight could have gone. But that was a brutal knockout. It was hard to watch. [Alhassan] is my boy.”

The Williams fight is in the rear view now, however. Morono is back on the winning track. As well as a win in the cage, UFC Vegas 14 was a test case for getting back to work in all three senses of the word.

“I took this fight, and started camp, having my instructors take over more classes so I could go up to Fortis, and I decided I would do it even if I ended up having to use part of my fight purse to cover those operating expenses for the gym,” he says. “But that didn’t end up being necessary. We made it work.” At the same time, local Texas promotions such as Fury Fighting Championships are reopening, just in time for Morono to get his own stable of fighters back into the cage. As for himself, he claims he would like to fight again in the spring, right around the time the UFC’s new apparel partnership with Venum launches, a partnership that Morono seems to regard with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. Hearing him talk about the Venum deal, at no other point in the conversation does he sound so much like a fighter, coach and businessman all at once.

“I’ll be getting more per fight from Venum than I was under the Reebok deal, so that’s great,” says the 30-year-old. “I heard the UFC may have bought a bunch of stock in Venum, which if they did, that was a smart move. Plus I love Venum gear. I think they make the best shin guards in the game; I buy them in bulk. I loved Reebok too, but at this point I’ve got 11 [Reebok] fight kits. I’m ready for something new, and I actually used to wear Venum before I was in the UFC. I’d love to fight next April and time it so that I’m the first guy to get the new gear.”
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