TORONTO — On Saturday, with professional sports across the globe almost universally halted, and North Americans slowly coming to terms with the reality that COVID-19 wasn’t only present in their communities, but had been spreading for some time, John Makdessi was walking out of a tunnel into an aging arena in Brasilia, Brazil for the 17th fight of his UFC career.
There was no one there to greet him. No roar of the crowd layered beneath his booming entrance music. No friends or family to spot in the masses. The UFC had been forced by governmental order to do the sensible thing in these strange times and hold its event without fans in attendance, lest it create the kind of mass gathering that leads directly to COVID-19’s rapid spread. Perhaps the only thing more surreal was that the event was being held at all.
“Walking down the tunnel, I felt like I was in a Mortal Kombat movie or something,” Makdessi says. “Like I was in The Twilight Zone.”
Makdessi, a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian who was born in Halifax and makes his home in Montreal, was one of 24 athletes who participated in UFC Fight Night: Lee vs. Oliveira on Saturday, which will no doubt go down as the final event held by a major North American professional sports organization for some time.
While every prominent league on the continent called off competition at some point over the last week-and-a-half, the UFC plowed forward with Saturday’s event. And the company would have continued this weekend if it had its way, going so far as to source venues within tribal jurisdictional areas in order to circumvent athletic commissions that were barring events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But on Monday, the company was forced to acquiesce and postpone its next three cards.
Of course, Makdessi doesn’t really care about any of that. He’s still sore over the unanimous decision loss he took Saturday to heavy-handed, 41-year-old veteran Francisco Trinaldo, who fights out of Brasilia. Makdessi thought he did enough to win it. And maybe he has a point, which we’ll get to later. But no matter the result, it was bound to be one of the strangest fights he’s been a part of in a 12-year MMA career.
“Everything was weird. The people were weird, the food was weird, the air was weird,” he says. “Everyone’s saying your fight’s going to be cancelled. Everything’s getting cancelled. My phone was going crazy with all of these messages. My family was sending me messages worried about me. All that stuff on social media with, you know, the whole coronavirus thing.”
Right, that thing. It’s the reason why Makdessi spent most of the lead up to the fight wondering if it would take place at all. Fight weeks are stressful, anxious times for fighters under the best circumstances, as they severely restrict calories and dehydrate themselves in advance of weighing in for their bouts around 36 hours prior to the event. Monitoring a global pandemic that was shutting down sporting events across the world — including a card scheduled for that same night by UFC’s biggest competitor, Bellator — added a new layer.
After Makdessi weighed in at 155 pounds, he went to a local restaurant with his team to eat a substantial meal for the first time in days. When the waiter placed a basket of unwrapped bread on the table, Makdessi’s immediate reflex was to reach for a piece. But his team wasn’t so sure he should.
“We’re looking at the bread like, ‘Wait, should we eat it? Should we not touch it?’” he says. “Everybody’s panicking. Everybody’s washing their hands constantly. Nobody wants to touch each other. Every little cough and sneeze, someone would stare. It was crazy.”
Fight night was always going to be odd, as Brasilia’s Nilson Nelson Gymnasium — the 1970’s era facility where the event was held — is a significant step down from the modern facilities UFC fighters are accustomed to in North America. Makdessi warmed up in what he described as “a small, little bathroom” and had to acclimatize to the thick humidity the building held in on a 29-degree Celsius day, even with no one in it.
— UFC Canada (@UFC_CA) March 14, 2020
Communication was another challenge. Understandably, the UFC strictly limited the amount of US-based staff it deployed to the event, relying instead on a small crew of locals from the area to run the show. Makdessi says he didn’t even see representatives from USADA, the anti-doping agency that oversees testing of UFC fighters and typically has a presence at every UFC event.
“It was all Brazilian staff. They were all talking to me in Portuguese. I can’t understand anything they’re saying,” Makdessi says. “There was just a lot of things going on. Like, 10,000 things entered my brain. Honestly, I thought I was going to be stuck in Brazil. I was like, ‘F—, how am I going to go back home? What if I have to go to the hospital and no one speaks English?’ It was crazy — just crazy.”
Makdessi’s currently in Montreal, isolated at his home under quarantine. Fortunately, his mother and sister live nearby and can deliver him food and anything he needs. But what he can’t get currently is medical attention. Inflammation and swelling from damage he sustains during fights isn’t unusual, but typically Makdessi would be able to have it assessed and treated by professionals. This time, he’ll have to live through it and wait out his period of self-isolation.
“I can’t have contact with anyone. I have to be alone for 14 days. No hospital will take me. So, I can’t even get medical assistance,” he says. “I’m happy to be back on home soil. I’m just very frustrated with everything. It’s been a really crazy journey. But what can you say? What can I do? I have to stay home.”
More than anything, Makdessi’s frustrated with how the circumstances affected his performance. Despite pounding coffee right up until he made his walk, Makdessi says he didn’t enter the octagon with the amount of energy or adrenaline he normally does. Brasilia sits at an elevation of 1,172-metres above sea level, which will sap the oomph from anyone. Add in the lack of a fervent crowd to feed off of, plus the elevated stress of a fight week filled with distractions, and conditions are ripe for mental drain. (Perhaps coincidentally, the first nine fights of the night went to decision.)
“It was weird in there. My body wasn’t reacting the way I wanted it to react. It wasn’t pulling the trigger. It felt like it was a sparring session,” Makdessi says. “I was in my head a lot during the fight. I really wasn’t in my best mind space. Physically, I was in my best shape. But mentally it was a big challenge for me.”
Not helping was that, by the eye test at least, Makdessi appeared to be at a size disadvantage on the night. A power disadvantage, too, as Trinaldo’s strikes appeared to be creating much more impact than Makdessi’s. Trinaldo fought as a middleweight (185 pounds) earlier in his career and his reputation as a heavy hitter is well earned. Makdessi’s strategy, which saw him circling away from Trinaldo’s power for most of the first two rounds, reflected that.
“The game plan was to make him miss,” Makdessi says. “He felt very strong. I felt his punches and his kicks. So, I wanted to make him miss a lot. So, first round, I was moving a lot. Second round, third round, I felt like he was getting tired. I out-striked him, out-landed him. But I guess they don’t care about that.”
That’s fair. According to UFC Stats, Makdessi landed more significant strikes, doubling Trinaldo’s strike total in the first round, matching him in the second, and landing only one less in the third.
But Trinaldo spent much of the fight moving forward and initiating action, while Makdessi spent much of it countering. That’s rarely a good look in the eyes of casual viewers. And earning a close decision on judges’ scorecards over a hometown fighter in Brazil was always going to be a tricky proposition.
“Eles estão todos correndo de mim…mas eu vou nocautear esses fujões”.@Massarandubamma somou mais uma vitória na carreira e novamente esbanjou sinceridade no octógono do #UFCBrasilia. pic.twitter.com/XdyTUxX92B
— UFC Brasil (@UFCBrasil) March 15, 2020
“Obviously, the public and everything, I understand for them it’s a boring fight,” Makdessi says. “But there are a lot of things the camera can’t catch. I knew he was trying to set up that big power right hand the whole fight. You look at his previous fights, he dropped almost every guy with it.
“And he was getting frustrated. I was frustrating him. I kept on kicking him. I kept on countering him. I kept on making him chase me. But that’s just me. The judges don’t care about that.”
But at least he got home. In recent days, travel restrictions have been enacted across North America, and airlines have been regularly cancelling flights. Makdessi was so concerned about getting out of Brazil that he opted not to sleep upon returning back to his hotel after the fight, instead packing his bags and immediately going to the airport to try to catch the earliest flight he could. He was wheels up at 7 a.m. Sunday, eventually making it home to Montreal after a layover in Miami, Fla.
Now, he waits. Not only for his quarantine to be completed, but to learn when he might get the opportunity to fight again. Ultimately, just how impactful COVID-19 proves to be across North America will have a big say in it.
That makes this a stressful time for all UFC fighters, who are independent contractors paid only when they compete. Makdessi, for instance, earned $46,000 plus a $10,000 promotional bonus for his fight on Saturday. But if the card had been cancelled, there’s no guarantee he would’ve been paid anything.
And he’s in a better position than a lot of early-career UFC athletes who earn a flat rate to appear for their fight and a further bonus if they win it. Take Saturday’s card. The first fight of the night was between Veronica Macedo, who made $12,000 for appearing, and Bea Malecki, who earned the same rate plus an additional $12,000 for winning the contest.
That earnings uncertainty makes it difficult for UFC fighters to budget their lives and know how much money they have to commit to training camps, coaches, recovery, and nutrition. What is certain is that no UFC fighter is going to earn anything from the company if it’s not holding events.
That creates an interesting push-pull for fighters, who must feel somewhat unsafe competing in such a physical sport while COVID-19 spreads, but need to compete in order to pay their bills. Makdessi was clearly willing to take the risk, travelling to Brazil amidst a global pandemic for the strangest fight of his life. But he does hope the UFC’s payout structure changes in the future, so that in uncertain times like these, those who put their livelihoods on the line for their sport have some modicum of certainty.
“I think the sport needs to evolve, to be honest with you,” he says. “The UFC, it’s a big promotion, a big company. I think they should change the way they do the income and the salary stuff. … They should at least give us a salary. You look at NHL, look at NBA — they have all these things. At least they have some type of stability, some type of security.
“Fighting, it’s like the stock market, man. I just lost. So, right now, my stocks are down. It’s a tough life, brother. MMA is a tough f—ing life.”