How have gym owners managed during the crisis and how do they plan to adapt in the future? fighters only asked some of the top names in the industry for their views.
The brave, new post-pandemic world will be a vastly different place. We know that already. But with social distancing and a climate of alertness forced upon everyone, there will be heightened physical awareness – an unease even – everywhere and nowhere more so than in gyms across the globe. But the show must go on, even though gyms are set to be very different places.
The ‘new norm’ could involve thermometer tests upon entry, coronavirus passports and potentially a whole host of new and very serious protocols involving smaller teams training together, isolated, and test after test for coronavirus.
Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on all contact sports, and nowhere more so than in the fight industry. Practices will have to change, and will affect how fighters, trainers and coaches go about daily life in what is effectively their work place.
Just imagine. Sparring, clinching, rolling, grappling and wrestling – not to mention hygiene, cleanliness and health – will take on a whole new level, set to new dimensions. As a result, around the world, some of the most renowned coaches and famed gyms are gearing up for change as they prepare to re-open their doors to a new era, with a panoply of differing views on what we have just experienced, and what we will now have to do – or not do – as they begin to spring back to life.
Javier Mendez spent almost every day during the lockdown commuting to his famed American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose – where UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and former heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and others train – working on plans for the future.
“I’m doing as good as I can, I drive to the gym four or five days a week, otherwise I’d go stir crazy,” the renowned head coach told Fighters Only. “There’s a couple of people I let in to train because you can have someone in the gym as long as it’s not more than ten people. But we’re definitely closed for business.
Gabriel Benitez fought in the second UFC event back in May and he trained here. I also have a new kid training for the Ultimate Fighter Contender Series, so I come here for him too.”
But making sure that the 27,000 square foot gym continues its presence in the fight world has been stressful for the former fighter turned coach. “We’re just waiting for the authorities to tell us what the rules are and then we’ll open.”
Over in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Brandon Gibson was plotting for the re-opening of the gym that houses the training camps of Jon Jones and Holly Holm. “Here in New Mexico our Governor closed all gyms in mid-March. We are looking at being able to re-open in a four-stage approach,” explained the man who holds the mitts for Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champ.
“Obviously there’ll be an increase in cleaning measures, an increase in what we call Covid-safe practices. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think the four-stage approach will expand. Early on, it’ll be training in groups of less than ten. And then groups of 30 and maybe 50 and maybe 100. I don’t know if our gym will ever get back to that scale where we had so many people on the mats at one time. I think we’ll break it down to small, contained groups – into pods. Probably those at the same level, same weight class and 6-8 fighters at one time. Our mats used to be packed with 20-something UFC fighters and newcomers at one time. I just don’t know if we’ll ever get back to that level.”
It will also mean staggered training times, he believes. “Having timed events throughout the day to keep the crowds low will be a key approach as well,” explained Gibson. “And you want to have more time between those slots. You want to clean the mats more regularly and keep the bathrooms stocked. It will be about limiting the contamination risk for all.”
In Ireland, John Kavanagh who runs the Straight Blast Gym, famed for the rise of Conor McGregor and a phalanx of successful mixed martial artists, told Fighters Only that the pandemic has wiped out some gyms, for different reasons – economic ones.
“Sadly, I know of a few martial arts clubs that will probably close down and it is more to do with unscrupulous landlords using this as an opportunity to get rid of tenants that they did not want instead of giving them a break on the rent,” he explained.
“They are insisting on rent and of course clubs are not making money, so they are going to be out of business. It’s an absolute shame. I hope that in time they will get going again.”
“For the clubs that are still here, August 10 seems to be the return date for training so we are preparing for that. But I do actually think there will be some positives out of this. Moving forward, martial arts clubs will be places of very high hygiene levels, with foot and hand sanitizers, better practice of cleaning of the gyms and people being more mindful of their hygiene and personal health. I’m focusing on that when we open so we have these conditions in place.”
In New York, Renzo Gracie takes a different view and believes that once the fear that the public feels over social distancing has eased that many will return to the gyms. Gracie explained that many of his students in New York have continued to pay their fees, and the jiu-jitsu ace is in talks with doctors from the Boxing Commission in New York over the guidelines for when he re-opens his gyms in Manhattan.
“I’m sure we will get back to normal,” Gracie told Fighters Only. “The biggest problem will be getting over the panic that people have felt, and my feeling is that it has been made even worse by the media and politicians.”
At RVCA headquarters in Costa Mesa, near Newport Beach, California, Jason Parillo, a striking coach for the likes of Michael Bisping and Cris Cyborg, was getting back to work in late May.
“We’re closed up, we have been closed up from the start of the lockdown. I’ve been in there a few times but because I work privately with my fighters I have been training guys in a basketball court and at fighters’ own gyms.”
Back in San Jose, as the world changed suddenly in mid-March, Mendez was studying the pandemic curve. “Lockdown was surreal. At first, I didn’t think it would be for that long. But sure enough, I started looking at the world meter and I saw how the US kept climbing. I saw we were going to pass China. Then we passed China and then Italy and now we’re far ahead of everyone else. No one is even close to the US when it comes to contamination. The US is one million and up. I’m looking at that and thinking we’re not going to open anytime soon.”
Initially, for a month, Mendez stayed at home. “It was tough. I did exactly what we were supposed to do. I went to the store and stayed at home. Man, that drove me crazy. My health started going bad on me so I decided I had to go into the gym. Just to be here. I have one person who cleans. He cleans Monday through Friday but sometimes I’m here Saturday and Sunday by myself.”
“Being here at the gym gives me peace of mind. It’s better for me to be here and keep my mind occupied. My lease is so expensive that it’s taking tens of thousands of dollars.”
Here lies the rub for the likes of Mendez., one of the most respected men in all MMA. “You’ve got to imagine I’ve got 27,000 square feet. That’s a big gym. They [the government] gave us a little bit of help but that’s just one quarter of one month. It’s better than nothing, but they’ve closed us down and they’re putting us in a position where we may have to close our business. I know some people who have already closed shop. They couldn’t maintain it. I guarantee once we re-open there will be a lot of people who can’t survive because of the restrictions. A lot of people won’t feel comfortable. Are they safe? Are procedures being followed? Maybe it doesn’t matter if you are, because it’ll take a while for people to feel safe. Gyms have generally been functioning to this point [with the growth of MMA] on maximum capacity, and now they can’t. It’s going to be tough.”
Back at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, Gibson explains that “a super, deep cleaning” of the gym with approved US government disinfectant has been ongoing in the lockdown.
“It’ll also be a case of making sure fighters who come in have clean gloves and equipment. Whatever they’re bringing in needs to be cleaned. Everyone needs to take active ownership of the cleaning of the gym. It’s a martial arts tradition to have students mopping the floors. I would like to see more pride taken in that by every member.”
How fighters approach gyms will also be vitally important. Caution, confidence and cleanliness will be key. Some have said they will set up gyms of their own, some will continue but in small groups as at AKA, Jackson-Wink, American Top Team or other gyms such as Kaobon in Liverpool.
Fighters Phil Davis and Douglas Lima told me that they will train in small groups. It is a departure for Davis, who explained that “generally I go to two or three different gyms on a regular basis to train” in preparing for a contest. But that will now change. “Each decision I make during this time is in full view of everything I have going on at home,” he said, in reference to being the father of young children.
Lima, the Bellator welterweight champion, has just finished the construction of a new gym with brother Dhiego Lima, a UFC fighter, at home in Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m very excited to open the gym, it’s newly constructed, but we’ve got to be ‘safety first’. We’re talking about checking people’s temperature before they walk in, having extremely high hygiene levels and testing. My style is to fight safely in the cage and I won’t take too many risks in life either,” said another father of young children.
Scott Coker, president of Bellator MMA, believes there will be a hit, but that gyms will survive and thrive again. “It might be more than a year written off. We just don’t know. I think the world is learning a lot from these type of viruses. I think we have to be careful that another virus doesn’t come back and start this process all over again.”
The new normal will be very strict in all professional gyms.
“It’s going to take a lot of measures. I think there will be screenings for people coming in and maybe temperature scans,” explained Gibson. “Other businesses are doing that. As a striking coach, it’s pretty easy for me to space out the mats and have guys shadow boxing, drilling and circuits. That’s how I initially plan to approach my striking classes.”
But then we ponder the wrestling, clinching and grappling sessions. “That’s a very different beast. I can think of every grappling situation I’ve had, your face is in their face, you’re breathing, you’re sharing sweat.”
“I think that’s another reason we’re approaching this with such small groups. When you have 50 in a class and everyone is rolling with each other, it makes the exposure risk that much greater. If we keep classes of grappling and wrestling of healthy athletes who have been screened and showing no symptoms, hopefully we can limit the exposure risk. But it’s going to be very complex to manage.”
That view resonates with Mendez, who touches on testing fighters on arrival, daily, at the opening of AKA in San Jose. “We’ve got the thermometers here. We’ll be testing them on a regular basis. When we do fighter training camps, it’s closed training. So we don’t have any issue when that time comes. When Khabib or Daniel come, that’s what we’ll be doing. Daniel has built his own gym at his house too, so I’ll be going there to train him.”
“We had as many as 50 pro fighters when Khabib was here. Most fighters already know what the risk is. Unless the government says I have to structure it different, then this is how we will do it. If the government says I can only have X amount of people at one time, then okay. I’m not the kind of person who breaks the rules. I will do exactly what the government tells me to do. But until that time comes, I’m assuming I can train fighters as I have in the past. We just have to be more cautious, clean more, be very very vigilant.”
Mendez is also trying to get his head around grappling, like Gibson. “I already know the striking has got to change drastically. I don’t how you’re going to do the grappling? How the hell do you do that? Will they allow it to come back? Is wrestling done?”
”And is pro sports done?” Mendez continued, musing on that bigger ongoing debate. “Is basketball done? Is football done? These are all contact sports. Are we finished with them? There’s got to be some kind of solution where everyone can go back to the sport we love and not worry about spreading the virus to the ones they love. Some people have no symptoms, like Jacare Souza and his two coaches had no symptoms at the UFC event. They were healthy, but they could have been infecting everybody. But nobody knows enough about this virus yet, and as yet, there is no vaccine.”
Then, says Mendez, there must be individual as well as collective responsibility.
“If the fighters feel sick, then they’ve got to have themselves checked out. Even before the lockdown happened, we told fighters ‘Don’t come in if you’re sick because you’ll infect everyone else’. The reality is that we were already talking about all this before the pandemic hit.”
“It’s not right for guys to be coming in here and infecting someone who has a fight. We talk about that and the more you talk about that kind of the thing, the more fighters feel they’ve got to take care of each other. Most fighters are selfish by nature. They won’t feel obligated to say something. So we need to address it.”
Many think a medical passport for licensed fighters could help. Mendez thinks so. “100 per cent. It would be great. Then you’ll have all these fighters who are competing who are consistently clean.”
Gibson also believes in having Covid passports because “the tracing components are very valuable in this time, to protect everyone else.” Moreover, the man based in New Mexico reasons that fighters may now have “small, private camps” as opposed to “these mass gyms where’s there are hundreds of bodies on the mats at one time.
“The new normal is what we’re facing,” added Gibson. “There will be so many facets of society learning as we go along. I can definitely see parts of the gym internally quarantined for our high-level fighters and keeping track of who goes in there. Protect the large group and protect the highest assets.”
Kavanagh, like his colleagues, remains optimistic that the industry will fight back.
“I predict by the end of the year clubs will be stronger and clubs who did not make it will be back too,” he reasoned. “Martial artists are used to dealing with uncomfortable situations and do not quit, by their very nature, I think we will be back to it by the end of the year and better than ever.”
“But until they find a solution, or a vaccine, we’ll have to deal with all the hardships. Hopefully it doesn’t break the world as it is now,” added Mendez. “We will have to find a way – and I hope we will.”
Fighting has been around forever, as have training camps from the ancient armies to modern combat. It is a time to adapt and adopt, and the great minds that run the sport’s great gyms are doing just that right now, intent on surviving and then thriving again.
This Article First Appeared in Fighters Only Magazine [FIGHTERSONLYMAG.COM], July 2020, Pages 52-57