WHEN leading South African trainer Colin Nathan left home for Russia last week, he thought he was going to be in and out in a few days.
The 43-year-old coach didn’t imagine he would be stuck on a Covid ward in a foreign land, struggling with terrible health, watching almost the entirety of Breaking Bad on Netflix from a hospital bed having missed the entire reason for being in Russia in the first place.
He was travelling with his fighter, Ryno Liebenberg, for the veteran’s farewell fight against Fedor Chudinov in Saint Petersburg.
But upon arrival, Nathan tested positive for Covid.
Colin instantly wondered whether the fix was in to separate him from his fighter, particularly after he passed a second test, but then he started to feel unwell.
“It’s been a scare,” admitted Nathan, a week on and still on a Russian Covid ward. “I had a first test and it was positive and I didn’t believe it. I was feeling rundown but I often feel rundown when I travel because you’re not in your same bed, the time difference, different food, you’re out of routine… Then, when I tested positive, I thought something wasn’t right and I wanted to have another test which was negative and I thought we were all on track. But because the first test I had was positive they put it in the Russian national health service here, so 48 hours later the doctor had to come and check me out in my hotel room and I had to be admitted and have another Covid test there. The Thursday I had to do a third Covid test in alignment with travelling back to South Africa within 72 hours of having a PCR test, that came back positive as well and by that stage I knew I wasn’t well. My lower back was murdering me, I was doing a ton of walking around in Saint Petersburg but the back pain wasn’t normal, it was really sore. From there I did another two Covid tests in the hospital and they came back positive.”
He and Ryno, a fighter of his for the last 10 years or so, knew then that Liebenberg would be having the final fight of his career without his friend and coach in the corner.
“When I left the hotel and I walked past Ryno’s room and he was there, and I was literally being escorted to the ambulance by medics and everything and I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not going to make your fight’, and it felt like someone had died,” explained Nathan.
"He looked at me and said, ‘It is what it is.’” I think he instinctively knew it was his last fight and I think he instinctively turned to what he is most comfortable doing [on fight night] and that is to go toe-to-toe and give the fans what they want to see and what it’s like to be Ready to Rawl [Ryno’s mantra] and I think sub-consciously that’s what he did. I don’t know I could have turned the fight around if I’d been there, I certainly could have made the scores a lot tighter but I think because he had no real guidance as to what to do he turned to his natural instinct and that was to turn it into a brawl and do what he does, balls-to-the-wall and fight.”
Ryno lost to Fedor Chudinov by margins of 119-108, 116-111 and 118-109 as Nathan watched on from his hospital bed. A friend of Colin’s in South Africa had the fight on TV and WhatsApp video called Colin so he could see the fight live. Liebenberg was cornered by his brother-in-law and strength and conditioning coach with Nathan about 30 miles away from the venue.
“It was very hard, very hard,” Colin continued, of being so helpless on the night. “I saw so many openings and gaps and it was just unfortunate. It was just one of those things, the way it had to work out. He put in a very gutsy performance even though he lost but I was heartbroken. But I was sick. I realize that now.”
And while Nathan is on the mend, things got worse before they got better.
“Day two was really horrible and I kind of broke down,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with being courageous, you’re in a very intimidating environment where you can’t speak the language, you don’t know what’s going on, you’re all alone… It is what it is. I’m sick. I’ve gone for chest X-rays and CT scans and I’ve seen some patients here, man… A guy a few years older than me just battling to breathe and it’s such an eye-opener. You can’t take things for granted.”
Then, on Thursday Nathan was hit with further bad news that he had pneumonia in his left lung, explaining why he’s been struggling with a cough and they’ve told the physically fit Nathan he can’t run or weight train himself for two months. But first things first and Nathan just wants to get home to his wife, Lara, and children. The earliest that could happen is if he passes a Tuesday Covid test to fly on Wednesday, but until then he’s on a ward with one other Covid patient.
“The doctors are pleasant, obviously google translate is helping a lot,” he added. “The food’s not great, there’s a Rabbi here from Saint Petersburg sending me meals [and] that has been amazing but you can’t go for a walk or anything.”
Liebenberg is home now, too, and he’s been calling his former coach and messaging him daily. There’s not much else Nathan can do but sit, wait and recover as best as he can.
“He [Ryno] felt heartbroken leaving me here,” Nathan said.
The feeling was mutual when Nathan realized he couldn’t be there for his charge, too, but it could be another week before they are reunited.