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SportsMixed Martial Arts

LI's UFC fighters in difficult position between performing, social distancing

Huntington's Matt Frevola hits pads on Thursday, Oct.

Huntington's Matt Frevola hits pads on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 at LAW MMA in Garden City. Credit: Newsday / Ryan Gerbosi

The risks are displayed on every television screen. The symptoms spelled out on every website and in every newspaper. The increasing numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths scream out through every scroll through social media.

It all gives Huntington’s Matt Frevola cause for concern. And Levittown’s Gian Villante. And Baldwin’s Chris Weidman.

They are professional mixed martial arts fighters in the UFC.  That is not an “essential business.” Athletes never really are in the larger sense, even less so when the world faces a global pandemic unlike anything several generations of humankind has known.

UFC is the one major North American sports entity still actively trying to host their scheduled events when the others have suspended their season and much of the world has banned large gatherings and faces uncertain and troubling economic realities now and in the future.

“Everywhere I see and everyone I talk to, do your part in flattening this curve and stay at home and social distance,” Frevola said. “And then I'm thinking, like, ‘How can I do that?’ I have to train to this fight. I’m four weeks out. I have to prepare for another trained professional fighter. It's a mental struggle right now for sure.”

Many fighters face the same problems right now, especially in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic with more than 66,000 reported cases and 1,200 deaths across the state as of Monday afternoon.

How do you train for a fight when gyms are closed, people are instructed to stay home and, if they do leave the home, are supposed to remain at least six feet away from each other? How do you prepare yourself mentally for a sport where athletes are so conditioned and structured in their training, where their confidence carries them nearly as much as their skill?

“I hate to see my guys have to go in compromised at this point,” said Ray Longo, who trains Frevola and Weidman. “I don’t get it. Don't think there's anything wrong with postponing the fights until we could all train the right way. But to go in compromised, as a coach, it bothers me.”

Frevola has been drilling and hitting mitts whenever and wherever he can. He and Weidman have done some training at their homes under the the watchful FaceTime eyes of Longo. Frevola also said his strength and conditioning team at Xceleration Sports Training have put together video training sessions for him to do at home.

Frevola lives with his fiancé, Billie, and his 64-year-old father, Sal. Villante and his girlfriend, Katie, have a three-month-old boy at home. Weidman and his wife, Marivi, have three children at home. Plus, many of their family members live on Long Island.

These situations leave fighters and their cornermen concerned about the collateral damage of this powerful pandemic if they did ignore the established guidelines and recommendations.

“I’m not really worried about the ‘SteamRolla.’ I’m more worried about the ‘BullDoza,’ ” said Longo, referring to Frevola’s father.

Frevola, 29, is scheduled to face Roosevelt Roberts at UFC Fight Night in Lincoln, Nebraska, on April 25. Nebraska has a ban on gatherings of 10 or more people. Still, he said he was told to get his medical tests and paperwork completed.

“I go back and forth every 10 minutes, but honestly, no,” Frevola said of the likelihood his fight actually will take place April 25. “I don't think it's gonna [happen].”

That card is scheduled to stream on ESPN+, but it could be moved to the main ESPN network if it does take place. To Frevola and the other fighters on that card, it’s important. It’s their payday. In the bigger picture of life right now, not so much.

“We only get paid when we fight and that's why a lot of people are saying keep these fights going, get these fighters paid, but it's like at what cost right now?” Frevola said. “I always think, I got this fight with my opponent for the UFC, which is a big deal, but right now, mankind is in a fight with this virus and I think that's bigger than these fights right now.”

What happens with Frevola’s bout significantly hinges on what — if anything — happens seven days prior. That’s when UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is supposed to defend his title against Tony Ferguson. It had been scheduled to take place at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 18, but the New York State Athletic Commission nixed that on March 18.

According to an ESPN report, Nurmagomedov (28-0) said in an Instagram Live video Monday that he still is in Dagestan, Russia. The country closed its borders Monday as it tries to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

UFC president Dana White has remained adamant and steadfast in his belief that UFC 249 will take place somewhere on April 18. He said last week that he “99.9 percent” had a location set.

The promotion has said that UFC 249 would take place without fans, just as their March 14 card in Brasilia, Brazil, did. UFC’s March 21 card in London was postponed, and its March 28 and April 11 cards had been moved to the UFC Apex training facility in Las Vegas before being postponed. It is presumed the April 25 event would not include fans as well.  

Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson has been booked four other times, with each bout getting scrapped by either injury, weight-cutting issues or other unforeseen happenstance. It is among a small handful of monster fights the UFC can put together and expect a large financial windfall from pay-per-view buys.

Such a built-in buildup helps the narrative of that fight. And in a time there are no live sports in America because of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s an itch to watch something competitive and happening now rather than the “classics” from a different decade or century.

Wherever the location of UFC 249 is (if anywhere), getting there will be problematic for Villante. Over the weekend, President Donald Trump considered a quarantine for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut before issuing a “strong Travel Advisory” for the tri-state area instead.

“I really don’t see how it’s possible if they do call me,” Villante said. “I’m not going to another country, no thanks. A) Going to another country and getting infected, or B), getting back in this country, and C) getting back home?”

Villante lives in Long Beach with his girlfriend, Katie Bolotovskaia, and their son, Gianluca, who was born on Christmas morning. His concerns now are far different from a year or two ago.

The Long Beach boardwalk, always a beacon of activity and the benchmark of beach-town life, is desolate. The gym Villante often uses at a nearby apartment complex is closed. His training facilities at Bellmore Kickboxing MMA and Serra BJJ are closed.

That basically leaves Villante (17-11, 10 KOs) running on the streets of Long Beach to build up his cardio and using things around the house to lift for strength and conditioning to prepare him for his move up to heavyweight to face Ben Rothwell (37-12, 28 KOs).

“There's nothing open at all to go get a workout in and not that I would want to go there anyway, though, and have the risk of getting sick,” Villante said. “It’s getting too crazy.”

Weidman, the former UFC middleweight champion, at least has some workout equipment in his basement. He has posted some of his workouts on social media. But that’s just sweating in front of a smartphone camera. It’s not the typical training he, or any of the fighters, are accustomed to five weeks out from a fight.  There’s been no jiu-jitsu, no wrestling, no sparring. Weidman is scheduled to face Sweden’s Jack Hermansson in the main event on May 2 in Oklahoma City.

Weidman often has mentioned how a fighter has to be selfish as the fight draws closer. It has to be about the fighter first, with family and friends making the necessary adjustments in their schedules.

Not now. Not this fight.

“This is not the time to be selfish,” Weidman said. “It’s also hard to stay super motivated when you’re super unsure of a fight happening or not happening. Just the whole uncertainty of everything and just seeing everybody going through tough times, it’s hard to just focus on my fight. Being around my family all day, it’s just hard to make it about me.”

The best Weidman (14-5) can do is stay in shape, cardio and weight-wise, as best as possible with the limited options available.

“A part of me is kind of excited about fighting, not doing all the typical stuff and just go out there and get in a fistfight and just, whatever,” Weidman said. “I have all the tools as far as wrestling, jiu-jitsu. And I know how to fight, I’m just trying to stay in shape.”

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