This past weekend showed the polar opposites of strategies boxing promoters will take when it comes to COVID-19. In Las Vegas, days before Top Rank’s mid-pandemic return on ESPN, Mikaela Mayer tested positive for coronavirus and was forced to pull out of her co-feature bout against Helen Joseph. Across the country, 1200 miles away, boxing returned in Kansas as well, but the only way a fighter would have been removed for COVID-related precautions would have been if they answered affirmatively on their “COVID questionnaire” or registered a high temperature, because there was no formal testing for the virus for any participants.
These two events showed what we already should have known. Boxing can and will be restarted, but there is no 100% safe way to do it quite yet.
Boxing doesn’t exist in a silo. Promoters and networks are businesses just like any other, the fighters are independent contractors like any other, and all are human beings subject to a wide array of opinions as far as how to handle their business during the pandemic. The severity of the pandemic unfortunately depends on millions and millions of autonomous choices made by people all over the world. Particularly in the United States, the rules for what is permissible vary state to state and county to county. Those administrative bodies are the same ones that oversee athletic commissions, which oversee boxing. Even though the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) set forth protocols for how a show should be run during COVID-19, many things are still clearly left up to discretion.
Saturday’s event in Kansas took place in the Never Surrender MMA Gym in Abilene, and was a hybrid show consisting of pro boxing, kickboxing, MMA and bare-knuckle boxing bouts. No fans were in attendance, just participants and essential personnel on hand, with the majority of them wearing masks. Everyone who attended was reportedly sent a COVID questionnaire at least two weeks prior to the event, asking them if they had previously had COVID or currently had any symptoms. Those entering the gym then had their temperature taken on the way in.
This is, notably, pretty much what WWE’s protocol looks like, and they are running multiple shows a week on television and pay-per-view. The promoters of the event, Carden Combat Sports, also did technically abide by the rules in place in Dickinson County, where the event was held. As of the last week of May, gatherings of 50 of more are permitted so long as a log of the attendees is taken. In a looser definition of the rule, the county decided that “cruise nights, events and vehicle shows” are permitted as long as social distancing takes place.
That is not to say that it is actually a thoroughly effective method of preventing COVID-19 transmission, however. It is true that Kansas has a relatively low number of cases, and Abilene’s numbers may still be in the single digits. The accuracy of those numbers of course is dependent upon widespread testing, which still has its lapses nationwide, and the maintenance of those numbers relies upon the small community being sequestered from outside spreaders. Though most of the participants were Kansas residents, three fighters came in from out of state, each with up to three team members with them permitted in the building.
In the case of the series of Top Rank events in Las Vegas, the level of caution being exercised appears to be drastically higher than that in Abilene. According to what has been shared by Top Rank and Nevada State Athletic Commission officials to media, participants are questioned weeks in advance as fighters in Abilene were, but then, are given a COVID-19 test prior to each event, and provided they test negative, are kept within the “bubble” venue. Once individuals leave the bubble, they must be tested again in order to re-enter. Contact tracing is also reportedly shared with state officials at the cost of Top Rank.
Mayer’s positive test was reported on Sunday, June 7. Mayer stated that she was asymptomatic, and her trainers, Al Mitchell and Kay Koroma, tested negative for the virus. According to Mayer’s social media, she had been sheltering and training with close friend and US National Team member Ginny Fuchs. In recent weeks, the two had been training in Houston, Texas, where gyms have been opened.
Given that Mayer was asymptomatic and hadn’t yet been tested, it’s possible that she could have had the virus while she was training in Houston. The number of people she could have come into contact with during training is unknown, but on videos posted to Mayer’s Instagram, there are others in the gym she was training at.
This illustrates the danger in running boxing events currently. Even when a promoter has thorough safety protocols during fight week and the night of the bouts themselves, scheduling someone for a bout means asking them to go to the gym and train. The blame in this case can’t be put on Mayer for contracting COVID-19 any more than it should be placed any other laborer who has to go to work and comes home with the virus. Properly performing her job requires preparation in a public space and interacting and training with people physically.
One could argue that provided on-site testing exists, even with its potential for error, that the actual boxing match itself is the least dangerous aspect of running a boxing event right now as it pertains to public health. If you had to grade levels of risk, a fight between two people with a referee and two trainers has less potential for widescale harm than an eight-week training camp in various gyms with strangers present sharing the same airflow in a confined space and touching the same objects splattered with bodily fluids.
The nature of boxing training, as well as the travel involved when it comes to putting on larger scale events such as Top Rank’s, make it very difficult to do safely. In theory, the safest possible way to hold an event right now would include all of the same testing measures Top Rank currently employs plus sequestering the participants in the same place for weeks and training for the bouts within the bubble. Doing so is both cost-prohibitive and not something that is or even could be mandated, so an NBA-style Disney World bubble is probably not coming to boxing any time soon.
The Mayer incident also shows how precarious any show with testing is. A fighter showing up without COVID is a complete roll of the dice. Knowing that, how many promoters will be eager to schedule pay-per-view caliber main events and go through the tremendous efforts of putting protocols in place, knowing the likelihood of it having to be cancelled on the spot?
Unfortunately, fighters still have bills to pay, and as long as there are promoters like Carden Combat willing to stage shows with looser restrictions, there will be fighters willing to take part in them, at least knowing that if they’re going to go through the dangers of training during COVID-19, they will be able to get their win and their paycheck.
As long as events are going to take place, everyone at every level of boxing is faced with an ethical dilemma for which there is no simple solution, and as they always are, the fighters are the ones who will endure the punishment.