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UFC Jacksonville: Brian Kelleher's focus is on fight, not coronavirus

Brian Kelleher of Selden weighs in on Friday,

Brian Kelleher of Selden weighs in on Friday, July 21, 2017, ahead of Saturday's UFC Long Island fight night at Nassau Coliseum. Credit: Newsday/Mark La Monica

Something Selden’s Brian Kelleher didn’t care about: Who his opponent would be for his next fight.

Something Kelleher is trying to not think too much about as he prepares for Wednesday’s UFC fight in Jacksonville, Florida: The coronavirus pandemic and the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 that brought a halt to most sports, businesses and schools around the world.

“I'm tuning all that out because the scariness of the fight itself is enough, I feel,” Kelleher said. “I have to be in a good mental place in order to perform to the best of my ability. And in order to be in that place, I have to almost kind of ignore the circumstances that are around in the world right now. And I'm doing a good job at that, just kind of having a positive mindset, making sure that I be cautious but don't be obsessed with the negative aspect of things.”

Kelleher will face the undefeated Hunter Azure (8-0) in a featherweight bout in front of no fans at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Both fighters usually compete in the bantamweight division but have experience at 145 pounds as well. The nature of preparing for this fight, with stay-at-home rules in place and gyms closed in most states, lends itself to a little movement among divisions for some fighters.

Training for Kelleher (20-10) mostly revolved around some pad work, lifting weights and riding his bike at home, along with some running around his neighborhood.

“The training definitely had to be modified,” said striking coach Brian Michelino, who be in Kelleher’s corner on fight night. “The biggest thing is we just don't have access to a lot of partners. So we'd have to pick one partner, and we just would keep working with him. And that way, we're not interacting with too many different people.”

But then the fight officially was announced with about two weeks’ notice.

“It was crunch time and I was willing to take more risks,” Kelleher, 33, said. “So I got a couple of really good sparring sessions in with Merab [Dvalishvili]. That was really helpful. I got a couple of drilling sessions in with my brother, and I'm able to kind of do that throughout this week.”

Dvalishvili, a Serra-Longo fighter, is known for his cardio and the pace he keeps in the octagon, where he is on a three-fight win streak.

“Two sparring sessions with Merab, I feel like I could find anybody as many rounds as possible right now,” Kelleher said.

When Kelleher arrives in Jacksonville on Sunday, several hours after Saturday’s UFC 249 concludes, he will receive both the antigen and antibody tests. The UFC said it obtained 1,200 tests – 600 of each – for all people associated with the three fights over eight days in Jacksonville. There will be regular temperature checks as well.

All the fighters have their own individual workout rooms, as opposed to the typical setup where fighters share workout rooms in the hotel. Meals will be delivered to the fighters’ rooms and left outside their doors at set times.

Social distancing guidelines also are part of the UFC’s health and safety operations manual. Beyond the six feet of separation, fighters also will be directed to arrive at the arena closer to their start time than normal.

“This is my job just like anybody else who wants to put food on their family's table. They've got to take a little bit of risk and get to work and potentially be around people. I know it's different because we are intimately sweating and breathing in each other's faces,” Kelleher said. “I eat really healthy. I take all my vitamins. I take a whole ton of probiotics. I drink kombucha, I’m very healthy, so I try to just do the best I can with what I have.”

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