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Coronavirus in boxing and MMA: What sports fans should know

Lee Cleveland Updated
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Several months ago, who would have thought the previously little-known Coronavirus would generate so much fear?

(Fight portion of main image courtesy of Motivedia; Design portion of main image is courtesy of iaff.org). 

There's no way to tell how boxing and MMA will be impacted by the virus but the world of sports certainly won't be exempt.

  • Fact: There is no vaccine for the virus but research is underway.


The Ladies Professional Golf Association canceled three events in Asia and the Basketball Africa League has indefinitely postponed its inaugural season. And stateside, the Chicago State University men’s basketball team has decided not to travel to play two Western Athletic Conference teams earlier this week. Their women’s team will not be hosting two games at home in Chicago because of the Coronavirus.

OK, so a few low profile college teams have been directly impacted as well as sports organizations in Asia and Africa. But, Coronavirus hasn't hit mainstream American sports, has it?

ASF 2019 3866 Med Res 615322AB 54BF 4B79 92C278ABF746B6AF 15d432a9 b8e1 4d71 b0db91b6c5fe8cdb
It has.

The IFBB's annual Arnold Sports Festival (March 5-8), which is considered the second most prestigious event in professional men's and women's bodybuilding and plays host to martial artists, strongmen and other athletes from 80 nations, closed its door to spectators of its annual trade show. (Spectators were allowed to attend the Arnold’s finale Saturday)

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine expressed his concerns via a press release:

gov ohio

"Throughout the week I have been working closely with Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, our public health officials and representatives of the Arnold Sports Festival. The mayor, our public health officials and I are gravely concerned that that the event as organized poses a unique and unacceptable risk for the spread of COVID-19 for guests and the community."

Bodybuilding and acting legend Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't thrilled about the decision but seemed to understand.

“I am very excited about the fact that the powerlifters are here, and the world’s strongest men are here, the bodybuilders are here, the women are here that are in shape and all the athletes are here and competing and all this,” said Schwarzenegger.

arnold on coronavirus
“But at the same time I am sad it cannot be watched by spectators because we were told by the Governor’s office that we cannot have spectators because of the coronavirus. So, we are team players. We go and do exactly that he has asked us for.”

So, what about the participants?

The 20,000 plus athletes who arrived at Columbus airport to compete in the Arnold Sports Festival were immediately funneled to an airport screening room where they had their temperature taken and were met with detailed questions about possible symptoms, their recent whereabouts and who they'd come in contact with the past several weeks.

And 12 people from China who were believed to be part of the media were sent right back to an outgoing plane. 

arnold 1

  • Facts: Coronavirus symptoms: Coronavirus infects the lungs. The symptoms start with a fever followed by a dry cough. After a week, it can lead to shortness of breath and some people need hospital treatment. Other symptoms include muscle pain, headaches and fatigue. The early symptoms can easily be confused with other winter bugs including colds and flu.


Was the beautiful midwestern city, known most for it's education institutions, parks and culture, a glimpse into the immediate (but hopefully brief) future for boxing and MMA?

Answer: Maybe

Economic fallout
Should the situation worsen, the show will go on, right? Athletes can be tested and spectators can simply watch (or order) their favorite events on TV. 

Maybe - But should things progress, cities and states that rely on sporting events for revenue may take a hit.

In Columbus, for example, Downtown businesses usually thrive this time of year due to the boost in revenue from the the Arnold Sports Festival. 

200,000 / $53 Million
Per Jenn Cartmille, director of marketing for the Greater Columbus Sports Commission via the Columbus Dispatch, the four-day festival was expected to generate $53 Million for the city.

And while Columbus still stood to gain some revenue, the fact that 200,000 fewer people participated this year will undoubtedly put a dent in city's economy as many of those folks were expected to buy hotel rooms, eat at Downtown restaurants, relax at bars/nightclubs and spend money on transportation and souvenirs.

What can all of this mean for professional combat sports like boxing and MMA?

Possible frequent testing of fighters, referees and cornermen
There are no other sports where Coronavirus can be spread more easily than boxing and MMA, where fighters sweat, bleed and (unintentionally) spit on each other. As a result, look for some form of testing to be implemented on fighters as well as those who'll come in contact with the participants, such as referees and cornermen.

  • Fact - The incubation period -  between infection and showing symptoms - lasts up to 14 days, the World Health Organization (WHO) says. Some researchers say it may be up to 24 days. 

  • Fact: No Symptoms - A church in Newcastle, UK had to close because a member of its congregation tested positive for coronavirus - The member said he had no symptoms

  • Is Coronavirus fatal?  Yes, but rarely. It could possibly people kill between 1 and 7 percent of those infected. Older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease), are more likely to become severely ill.

  • Good News: Of the more than 110,000 people who have caught the virus globally, Johns Hopkins data show that almost half — more than 62,000 — have already recovered (Source: CBS News)

  • Fact: Major sports organizations — including the NCAA, MLB, NBA and NHL — have asked athletes to avoid high-fives

022 Wilder vs Fury

Boxing and MMA are havens for the spread of Coronavirus because fighters sweat, bleed and (unintentionally) spit on each other. Referees, cornerman and sparring partners are at-risk as well.

A quarantine of sorts? Fighters from areas believed to be highly infected

Also, until this blows over, fighters from certain countries, like China, will probably be forced to compete nationally or go on hiatus as participants from other nations will be reluctant to travel there or play host to a fight team from an area that is believed to be highly infected.

ramirez postol

China and Italy
In boxing, the much-anticipated WBC/WBO super lightweight bout between world champion Jose Ramirez and former world champion Viktor Postol, originally scheduled to take place February 1 in China, was re-booked for Saturday, May 9 in Fresno, CA due to the coronavirus outbreak. The card will be televised live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.

  • Fact: Italy, South Korea and Iran are among the worst-affected countries. In Italy, strict new quarantine measures in Lombardy and 14 provinces are affecting a quarter of the Italian population and centre on the rich northern part of the country. Residents have been told not to enter or leave Lombardy - including in its main city Milan.

And last month, some were concerned about staging the March 28th boxing fight between light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev and his Chinese opponent Fanlong Meng for fear the latter may have come in contact with the virus.

beterbiev vs meng coronavirusBeterbiev vs Meng is on for March 28 in Quebec City.

"I contacted the promoter of Meng (Dino Duva) when the first fatal cases of the coronavirus were declared," said Yvon Michel to The Montreal Journal. "However, he quickly reassured me that his boxer had lived in New Jersey for a few years and that he had not returned to China for some time." 

  • Most Impacted Areas (as of March 9):  A total of 113,616 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infection including 4,000 deaths (including 3,124 in China, 366 in Italy, 237 in Iran, 53 in South Korea, 26 in the US, 25 in Spain, 22 in Japan, 19 in France, six in Iraq, three in Australia, the Netherlands and the UK, two in Switzerland, and one each in Canada, the Philippines, San Marino, Egypt, Argentina, Thailand, and Taiwan) 

Beterbiev vs Meng is happening as scheduled but the MMA organization ONE recently postponed a show that was scheduled to take place soon in Vietnam. Instead of March 20, ONE: Heart of Heroes will take place June 26. Also, ARES Fighting Championship pushed back its ARES 2 event, originally scheduled for April in Belgium, to October in the same city.

 one postponed coronavirus

Attendance / Live Gates and Financial Implications
Stanford officials announced Thursday they are limiting public attendance to on-campus sporting events to a third of the venue’s capacity through at least April 15 because of the threat of the coronavirus.

The move could impact the first two rounds of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament because seventh-ranked Stanford is expected to be one of the host schools for the March 21-23 games. Maples Pavilion will be limited to 2,345 spectators according to the school statement.

Even in the pros, several NBA executives who requested anonymity confided with USA TODAY Sports the idea of playing behind closed doors, while a very last resort, is not so far-fetched. The NBA notified players Friday the league was preparing for that scenario and asked teams to identify essential personnel who would need to be in attendance for such games.

Live gate earnings, while not as significant as TV/PPV money, is a major stream of revenue for boxing and MMA's high profile cards. So, any negative impact in paid attendance would likely force a reduction in fighter purses.

las vegas coronavirus

Moreover, casino towns, such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, won't be as negotiation-friendly to promoters / fight cards if those cards can't attract a lot of attendees. After all, such venues depend on fans who drop a lot of cash in casinos and at hotels on big fight weekends.

Financial and venue implications, indeed... "There’s so many layers to this [empty sports venues]," David Carter, an associate professor of sports business at Southern California, told USA TODAY Sports

"It’s just all these cascading effects."

"You (wouldn't) need ushers and ticket takers and concession stand operators and parking attendants," Carter explained. "That’s a small, small, small number — but that’s also going to go into the appreciation of just exactly how costly this would be."


Will we be watching fights on TV that take place in empty arenas until the dust settles?

That possibility is remote, but it's a fair question. The Italian government has already enforced the NBA's last resort contingency by ensuring all of the country's sporting events, including Serie A soccer games, be held without fans. And Switzerland's national hockey league has started playing in near-spectator less arenas after the Swiss government banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

Even a popular Japanese sumo wrestling spring event has been moved behind closed doors for the first time in the sport's history.

The Golden State Warriors, playing in San Francisco's Chase Center, said in a statement Friday that their Saturday game – broadcast nationally on ABC – "will continue as scheduled." But the team advised fans who are feeling under the weather to not attend.

Is March Madness in jeopardy too? The tournament, which begins March 17, will feature 67 games at 14 locations across the country. It is also the NCAA's most important moneymaker and was expected to generate $844.3 million in television and marketing rights alone, making the notion of canceling it altogether nearly unfathomable.

Should sports venues go ghost, we'll also have the broadcasting aspect to consider.

Would crowd-free fight cards kill the excitement of TV broadcasts?

The most high profile crowd-free modern-day sports event took place in 2015 in Baltimore. The Orioles of MLB played the White Sox, and spectator attendance for that baseball game was prohibited by Maryland's government following political unrest in the city.

So, how did it go?

.... For starters, TV broadcasters could be heard by the players.

"Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Giants teammate Jeff Samardzija, who started that game for the White Sox," told USA TODAY Sports. "I honestly wouldn’t recommend it."

"This is a game to be played in front of fans," he said. "I understand a lot of people watch on TV nowadays, but it’s definitely a spectator sport."

Who knows what a crowd-free fight card would look like? Perhaps it'll resemble the main fight scene in the movie Kickboxer 2 (1991)? The finale bizarrely took place in an empty stadium.

Kickboxer 2 (1991)

kickboxer coronavirus

Is this what we have to look forward to? If so, let's hope there's some music and special effects to compliment the broadcasting.

How to protect yourself and others

What can I do?
Visual guide to the outbreak
How a virus spreads
How close are we to a coronavirus vaccine?
Coronavirus: Can it harm breastfed babies, and other questions

What will happen if you get tested?

You may have to give samples of mucus, blood or feces. These will be tested and results may be available on the same day. While you await your test results, you may be asked to stay at home and self-isolate.

What if you test positive for Coronavirus?

Keep in mind, the vast majority of people can fight it off like a bad cold. Treatment relies on keeping the patient's body going, including breathing support, until their immune system can fight off the virus. Older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease), are more likely to become severely ill.

Work to develop a vaccine is under way.

How fast is it spreading?

Hundreds of new cases are being reported worldwide each day. However, it is thought health agencies may be unaware of many cases. After starting in China, coronavirus is now spreading fast in countries like South Korea, Italy and Iran.

More on Coronavirus....


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