PITTSBURGH (AP) — John De Jesus could feel how close he was to reaching the top of the mountain.
The 29-year-old mixed martial artist from Canonsburg is a veteran of 20 professional fights and is coming off two consecutive victories. Though nothing is ever guaranteed, De Jesus felt he was “close once again” to being tapped by the Ultimate Fighting Championship for some high-profile bouts with bigger spotlights.
The morning of his last fight, though, De Jesus had weighed in and was going about his usual pre-fight routine. His wife/manager was tucked away in a room on the phone with the event’s coordinators for an hour. When she finally emerged, she broke the news that the fight had been canceled due to safety concerns surrounding COVID-19. Any dreams of reaching the UFC would be delayed.
“When they told her it was a done deal that the fight was off, she told me and it was the biggest kick in the stomach,” De Jesus said. “I was furious for like an hour and then I chalked it up to the pandemic. It is what it is; there’s nothing I can control.”
De Jesus isn’t the only Pittsburgh-area boxer or MMA fighter to have a big bout canceled because of forces beyond their control. Despite not knowing when they’ll step into a ring, octagon or even a gym again, these folks are still doing everything in their power to keep their minds and bodies ready for the next fight, whenever that will be.
Gerald Sherrell, 26, of Bellevue, is a professional boxer and was a finalist on season five of the Epix series “The Contender.” He was in Tampa, Fla., training for an April 17 fight when he was forced to come home and figure out how to stay in shape without anything concrete to prepare for.
“In this pandemic, it’s pretty much doing it from the house, keeping that same regimen going,” said Sherrell, whose home gym includes three punching bags, a workout bike, a dumb bell set, resistance bands and a medicine ball. “It’s a lot harder for guys keeping that same intensity, but you try to do it the best way you can.”
Occasionally, Sherrell will invite four or five other fighters to train with him, though he says he wears a mask whenever that occurs. He misses working out in gyms and being able to train without “having to worry about the bullcrap” of this new normal.
Khama Worthy doesn’t have to deal with those logistical hurdles. Sure, the 33-year-old will occasionally run the steep hills on Canton Avenue in Beechview. But he also happens to own the The Academy of Martial Arts and Fitness in Green Tree and can usually get in socially distanced training sessions with a few folks at a time.
Worthy, a Moon native, is an established brand at this point, having knocked out Devonte Smith during UFC 241 in August in an ESPN-televised fight. He was getting ready for UFC 249 in Brooklyn, but that was called off because of COVID-19. Now, he’s dealing with a lack of fights on his docket, the financial impact of his gym being shut down for the foreseeable future and four young children to support.
“It took a lot of figuring out to deal with because that’s how I make my money,” Worthy said. “My gym’s closed and I fight, and now that’s not happening. ... It was a lot of transitions all at the same time.”
One of the luckier local fighters is Eric Vaughn, 29 of the South Side, who was able to get his second pro fight right under the wire March 7. He was still riding the high of that second-round knockout and getting a little time off between bouts when the world suddenly changed.
Of course, he’s still doing his best to remain in fighting shape. Vaughn isn’t missing the gym because he isn’t training for anything specific, but he is doing a lot of “high-school gym class” exercises such as jogging, push-ups, sit-ups, core drills and squats to make sure he doesn’t get too rusty.
“It’s like a pitcher missing pitching,” Vaughn said. “You can go outside and throw a baseball, but there’s nothing like being in a live game or live training.”
Vaughn’s trainer and manager happens to be his uncle, J. Major “Philly” Medlin, who said basic calisthenics and strength drills are usually all a fighter needs to keep his or her body where it needs to be. He does, however, sometimes like to drive behind Vaughn and the other boxers he works with “screaming crazy (expletive) at them” for a little extra motivation.
“There’s just so many (exercises) you can do outdoors by yourself,” he said. “With a coach with you, I can push them a little harder. I can do that from 10 feet away staying in my car.”
Getting back in the ring
No matter how ripped these boxers and MMA fighters get, their hard work will be for nothing if no one is putting on bouts. The UFC is still operating without fans, but the organization has TV deals and sponsors to mitigate losses suffered from not having ticket sales. Smaller promoters don’t always have that luxury.
Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, said he hopes the state “can kind of start easing into” reopening workout facilities by the end of summer, but the timeline is going to depend on the “scientific results that are coming in.”
That doesn’t bode particularly well for the return of live boxing or MMA fights in western Pennsylvania anytime soon. But there is a potential scenario in play with counties in the “yellow” phase of reopening, where spectator-less fights involving 25 or fewer people on hand could theoretically happen. Sirb said if organizers follow proper safety protocols and secure a television or streaming contract to make up the lost revenue, “I’m sure we would be open to that.”
“Lives definitely come first before economics,” he continued. “That’s what we’re all about. I oversee a dangerous sport, both MMA and boxing. (Those) boys and ladies, they mean a lot to me. I’m not putting anyone in harm’s way if we can’t do this safely.”
Promoters don’t doubt these fights could be done, but they’re skeptical it would be financially worth the effort for anyone involved without paying fans in attendance.
“The nut and bolts of it is that there’s not a streaming contract that would be lucrative enough that would cover the cost,” said Matt Leyshock, who owns Pinnacle Fighting Championships and Southside Boxing Club.
Ryan Middleton, who owns 247 Fighting Championships, also cited a lack of clarity surrounding the amount of people allowed to gather in the “green” phase of counties reopening as another problem.
“Even when we turn to green ... green doesn’t mean we can have large crowds,” Middleton said. “There isn’t a clear indication of what needs to happen in order for large crowds to be able to assemble again.”
‘I am itching’
So, what do trainers, boxers and MMA fighters think about returning to action under these strange circumstances?
“If people can’t come to the show, these local promoters aren’t going to survive just doing that,” said Chris Williams, who trains Worthy and De Jesus. “Until we’re in the green, there won’t be local shows.”
Mike McSorley, who owns the Conn-Greb Boxing Club in Oakland and has been training two boxers since the pandemic began, is more optimistic: “If (my fighters) were paid the market rate for a fight and particularly if it was televised, we would be all over it.” He also thinks a lack of match options is going to make a lot of boxers “who have been particular about their opponents” agree to tougher fights going forward.
Worthy admitted fighters “are in a real weird place right now” in terms of their ability to schedule anything. That uncertainty hasn’t shaken Vaughn, who is so ready for a fight that he would “even wear a mask if they made me” in the ring. When asked if he would participate in one of those possible yellow-approved matches, Sherrell laughed and said, “Depends on how much I’m getting paid.”
Then there’s De Jesus, whose day job dragging logs, clearing brush and climbing trees for the Davey Tree Expert Company is generally enough exercise to keep him in prime fighting condition. As the reigning Honor Fighting Championship featherweight champion, he has a title to defend and still has aspirations of making the UFC.
“I am itching,” he said. “You don’t understand. I’m dying to get back in there.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com