TORONTO, ON—The week of March 12, Samuel Vargas was beginning to put the final touches on his preparation for one of the biggest fights of his career. Three weeks out from a clash with Vergil Ortiz Jr., Vargas was finishing up his daily sprints when he noticed his trainers were acting strange.
“I noticed my trainers were talking to each other and they were being distant. So I'm like uh, what's going on,” said Vargas.
The trainers were looking at their phones and talking to one another like something was wrong. As it turns out, Vargas would be one of the first fighters to have their bout canceled by the COVID-19 outbreak. The sprints would be his final ones for a while, and he packed up and headed home to Canada before travel bans were put in place.
Vargas arrived home at the peak of his physical fitness and readiness, but with nothing to do with it. Now he remains in the same position as every other boxer in the world—doing his best to remain in shape with the equipment he has at home. As he left the gym, he was able to take some weights and resistance bands with him, and as a fighter who has had plenty of television exposure over the years, was able to get additional equipment from Everlast. Still, his “gym” is now his living room.
“It's mental, really. You get antsy, you get angry. Even last week, I was like man, I'm feeling sharp, I'm feeling strong, but it makes sense, I was just in full-blown camp,” he said.
Vargas is likely among the “readiest” of fighters at the moment were he to be asked to fight, given how recently he was in training camp, but that won’t be happening any time soon. Like his contemporaries, he is seeing that readiness diminish day by day, without the ability to train in a boxing facility, much less spar with anyone.
“Staying ready” in boxing terms isn’t simply a matter of running, skipping and shadowboxing.
Though boxing is an individual sport and much of its training is done alone, or even in solitude, preparing for a fight still requires collaboration, not just in terms of sparring partners to simulate a fight, but interaction with a coach to hold mitts, or a strength and conditioning coach present to make adjustments. Some fighters are either wealthy or fortunate enough to have kept some semblance of a training squad together during social distancing and have access to a safe facility either in their homes or a place owned by them, but most are like Vargas, piecing together a routine in their living quarters.
Given that, it’s important to consider the challenges and dangers of fighters returning to competition once social distancing measures have been lifted. It goes without saying that a fight can’t take place the day after we’re all let out of our homes, but it also may not be quite as simple as giving fighters a standard eight-week camp and putting them back in the ring. Physically, they will require more time than that to simply get back to their base level of fitness to even enter a training camp.
“Their strength gains will be lost if they don't have access to an extensive gym facility like a high paying athlete like a LeBron James or a Roger Federer, top notch guys who have facilities. Without the proper resistance, strength gains will be lost within anywhere between two and three weeks,” said Dr. Joel Kerr, owner and founder of The Health Institute, who has spent his career working with high level athletes including the Canadian Men’s National Basketball Team. “Bodyweight exercises are great, band work is great, but it's not going to allow a boxer to maintain those power generating abilities that the full out equipment in a gym will allow for. We're not talking about the average Joe or Jane, we're talking about someone who needs to knock someone out. Their strength needs to be up there.”
Though the circumstances causing this time away from training and competition are unprecedented, there have been extended layoffs in sports that can provide relatable analysis for the current moment. When analyzing data following the 2011 NFL lockout, which kept players out from the beginning of March to the end of July of that year, Dr. Tim Hewett of the Mayo Clinic helped unearth a startling statistic pertaining to player injury post-layoff.
“What we showed was after the NFL lockout, the number of Achilles tendon injuries coming back because they had that shortened pre-season and ramped up really fast and had five or six months away from their medical teams, that number almost quadrupled. It was enormous,” said Hewett during a recent webinar hosted by Sparta Science. Hewett also noted that the number of ACL injuries “doubled or tripled” following the NBA lockout.
“You take a lot of time off and then ramp up really quickly, you better watch out. You better expect a rash of ligament, tendon type injuries. You can't take nine months off and then expect to jump right back into that activity,” Hewett said.
Though boxers are not in the same environment as football players or basketball players, upon returning to training camp they will be thrust back into explosive movements, but also ramping up their mileage in roadwork. Fighters like to adhere to the adage of “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” but doing so is usually with the general knowledge of a timeframe for a potential date, a potential weight to hit and a potential opponent in mind.
There is also the unmeasurable consideration of the most imminent danger a loss of reflexes and sharpness could cause. A fighter entering a fight post-COVID lockdown without adequate time to sharpen up is likely to take a number and type of punches they wouldn’t normally, and shouldn’t. These, among others, are considerations that should have, but seemingly weren’t made when the UFC was planning its ill-fated mid-COVID shows. Were fighters expected to train in isolation, without sparring partners, and throw themselves into a fight less than prepared, or were they expected to skirt social distancing measures for weeks on end to have a normal training camp? Not to mention the increased risk fighters would have to COVID-19 itself with a weakened immune system thanks to rigorous training and weight cutting.
With those shows nixed for the foreseeable future, the precedent should be set for boxing to not attempt anything similar, and our focus should now be on many, many months down the road in terms of a return to regular boxing action.
“It’s really challenging in the fight game, when they are used to have a specific plan for training camp that calculates their time and readiness. But right now they're in a perpetual state of limbo. The key is knowing how to balance. For those with good at-home gyms - and nothing but time, there will be a chance of overtraining as well, to keep working out without appropriate rest and recovery out of boredom,” said Melissa Doldron, RMT, who works with the MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays. “This is also a time the promoters could re-evaluate what is safe in terms of signing fights right after our social distancing is lifted, with appropriate weight classes, to take into account fighter weight loss and readiness, being realistic about the situation.”
Vargas says that the moment measures are lifted, he will try to spar in some capacity every single day, because it typically takes at least two weeks of quality sparring before he starts to feel sharp again. But he also points out an important variable: Money.
Many people in the world are being forced to work in dangerous or less-than-desirable circumstances right now, because the bills keep on coming. Like them, fighters are in need of cash flow, and promoters too are either in need or simply in pursuit of it. The moment restrictions are lifted, there will be the urge to schedule fights as quickly as possible. And while the physical realities and hazards should be considered, boxers, and the sport they participate in, have never been particularly good at taking the safe route.
“It doesn't matter whether you're ready or not, if there's a TV slot that they wanna put us in and it's next week, I'm gonna have to make it work. Because this is the way we make money, or the way I make money, so I'm not gonna say no,” said Vargas.