You have to be a real hardcore fan to have heard of Cristian Binda before last month. The ones that do know him, though, will remember the wars he put on every time he fought. “Mano di Pietra” — “Hand of Stone” for non-Italian speakers — started his long MMA career back in 2006. His name is among the trailblazers of the sport in Italy, together with Michele Verginelli, Alessio Sakara, and Ivan Serati. Apart from fighting at the 135-pound weight limit when he is a natural flyweight, perhaps too many injuries marked Binda’s regional career. After his last couple fights, he decided to hang up the gloves in 2018.
In the last month, though, the Italian pioneer’s name hit the headlines after he became the first MMA athlete in the world to test positive for COVID-19. Now, Binda sounds relieved while he is doing his last days of hospitalization at the Lanzo Intelvi Hospital, about a half an hour from the majestic Lake Como.
“I think I’m healed but my last swab turned out to be positive, so there’s still a small viral load,” Binda said to Sherdog. “It doesn’t give me any physical problems, but it’s still there and I’m still contagious. It can worsen again, so doctors prefer to not discharge me until my swab is fully negative. I eat everything they bring me, three starters, main courses, and two sandwiches! I’m training hard in the hospital gym, I’m just waiting for my swab to turn up negative.”
Binda’s odyssey began on March 9. The same day, the Italian government ordered a national quarantine as the cases of COVID-19 were skyrocketing. At the time, people could still do outdoor sports activities, a liberty they would lose a few days later.
“I was bike riding that day and there was a gentle breeze. I started coughing, but I didn’t worry at first because I blamed the breeze. Plus, I suffer from acid reflux and have a hiatal hernia, I’ve always had a bit of cough. In the evening, my body temperature started to rise. The day after, I kept on coughing and had a temperature near 100 degrees. During the first four or five days, it stayed under 100. I was coughing like hell, but I breathed normally. After a while, my temperature got worse, it went up to 103, my cough didn’t improve at all and my chest started to ache. I called the numbers the Italian government set for the COVID-19 emergency, but they told me that they couldn’t help me. If I could breathe, I had to stay home and take Tylenol. But I felt worse and during my last day at home, I was sick for real.”
Locked in his own home, Binda couldn’t help but think about how he got into a sticky situation like that. He doesn’t want to point the finger against anyone in particular, given that he came to no certain conclusion, but he came up with a couple of hypotheses.
“Before the national lockdown, I went out only to do grocery shopping. I have a small fridge, so I had to go out once every two days. But I will confess that I also went to my usual bar to drink a beer and I used to stay there for half an hour. A friend of mine who went to the same bar was taken by ambulance two days before I went to the hospital. He was intubated and his life was in danger. I have many hypotheses, but there are a lot of asymptomatic people. We have to stay the hell away from each other. I was healthy, I trained a lot and I was in good shape. I even started a multivitamin treatment, but it hit me hard anyway. It could’ve been worse; I’ve seen appalling scenes. I think I got at that bar, talking to the wrong person, or perhaps doing grocery shopping.”
Ten days after he got that troubling cough, Binda’s condition wasn’t improving at all. In his way, the Italian fighter’s toughness is reminiscent of when Randy Couture walked into an ER alone even though he had just suffered from a heart attack. Binda drove himself 30 miles to go to the hospital.
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“On March 19, I called a friend of mine, who is a surgeon working in the COVID emergency department at Sant’Anna Hospital in Como. He sounded alarmed after I explained my symptoms to him. He told me, ‘Go straight to the hospital. If you are not coming on your own, tomorrow we’ll come and take you in.’ I went straight away. This was the only moment when I felt worried. I gathered all the strength I had, packed some things and I drove to the hospital by myself.
“I was into the ER from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The doctors checked up on me around 2 a.m. I did a general checkup, the famous COVID-19 swab, a CT scan, and X-rays. From the scans, they know right away if you are positive because the inflammation inside your lungs follows a certain pattern. They treated me with pills and antiretroviral therapy, the same kind used for HIV. Then they sent me to another facility, where they treat the less urgent cases. I arrived there with little fever, I had probably started to respond to treatment they gave me right away. Two days after that, I didn’t have the fever anymore, but I still had the cough and my chest still hurt. I felt weak like a maggot.”
The Cage Warriors veteran imagined several scenarios that would have followed once in the ER, but the drama of the reality exceeded even his worst nightmares. Binda is reluctant to talk about what followed his arrival in the ER. He didn’t want to go into many details, but he sounded genuinely scared about that experience.
“I’d describe the place as one of Dante’s circles of Hell. It’s hard for me to speak about it because I am very sorry for all the people who were there. Everyone was getting intubated, everyone had to put on that helmet to help them breathe and everyone was in desperate condition. I stayed in a hallway with the ones who didn’t need oxygen. They didn’t have enough space for everyone, so they put us in a sort of garage for ambulances. We were all in line on our gurneys waiting for our turn to take the exams.”
At the peak of his long career, Binda had the satisfaction of facing fellow MMA veteran Masakazu Imanari in the main event of the first Venator Fighting Championship numbered event. One year later, he won the Venator bantamweight championship at Venator 3 — which still remains the most important event in the history of Italian MMA. Turning 43 in September, there is nothing that would convince him to wear his gloves for one more match. But this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like the feeling of adrenaline flowing through his veins anymore.
“I don’t think there will be a last MMA fight for me, I’m not saying I don’t like it anymore, but I feel out of place. The MMA world is full of young people who are building their future, and I feel like the old man putting a hole in the ball of the kids playing because they’re making too much noise. There are other sports for old men like me!
“I’ll go skydiving, I got certified in August and when everything is back to normal, I want to level up. My dream is to do base jumping. Adrenaline is everything, without it, you can’t keep going. You need these shocks in your brain like little daily electroshocks to keep you alive.”
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