How is COVID-19 affecting UK MMA?

Just a mere two months ago, life in the UK continued along its merry way with not a care in the world for most. The COVID-19 outbreak was on our radars but was something that was happening elsewhere and not on our shores, as yet.

For MMA promotions, fighters and gyms around the country, life continued as normal. Promoters were busy matchmaking and ensuring everything was in place behind the scenes, fighters were training hard whilst balancing day to day life in preparation for their next fight, and gyms were busy with coaches and trainers divulging their knowledge and fight wisdom on their willing students.

Within a short period of time, all of that came to a crushing halt as the coronavirus hit the UK and muscled its way into the public’s psyche.

For the sport’s leading promotions, cancelling events has been tough but something that has had to be done, with the exception of some. For the regional and local MMA scene the pandemic has had the same impact, but the lasting legacy of the virus could have a crippling effect for many involved in the sport in the UK.

Due to take place at the Olympia in Liverpool on Saturday May 23rd, one such event that has felt the wrath of COVID-19 is Almighty Fighting Championship 17.

With coronavirus still having it’s grip on the world, how has the global outbreak hit one of the UKs leading MMA promotions?

The promoter – Ray Thompson

Originally penned in for Saturday 30th May at the Olympia in Liverpool, Almighty Fighting Championship took the decision early on to reschedule to the 23rd May due to a potential clash with Liverpool being in the Champions League final. Whether that would have transpired or not all became irrelevant as mid-way through March, the world as we knew it came grinding to a halt.

Following a phenomenally successful AFC 16 at the Metrodome in Barnsley, Almighty Fighting Championship head honcho Ray Thompson was looking forward to powering on into 2020 with shows booked for May and November in Liverpool and July and October for a return to Barnsley. But as we are all very aware, COVID-19 had other ideas.

On 18th March, just 5 days before the lockdown came into being, Ray had to make the heart-breaking decision to cancel the AFC 17 show in Liverpool due to three main factors. 1) mass crowds being banned 2) gyms closing down which in turn would mean fighters wouldn’t be able to prepare in full for the event and 3) the show goes on but with the uncertainty at the time, this would have been a massive gamble for the promotion.

Although only a small consolation, the decision to pull the event was made just 2 months after the show was booked. It might have been a completely different story had the event been cancelled a week or so before the event, as everything would have been well and truly in place. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case and although money has been spent and lost on putting together the show, things could have been a hell of a lot worse for Ray and all involved with the event.

So, what does the future hold for Almighty Fighting Championship? As with most things in the world at the moment, this is the million-dollar question. Just as fighters can’t fight and coaches can’t coach, promoters can’t plan and promote their next shows. That being said, Ray is chomping at the bit to get back to what he loves doing best, putting together shows for what has fast become one of the most respected events in the UK MMA scene.

Although planning can’t go on as normal, 2021 will mark a new chapter for AFC. With 2 shows in both Liverpool and Barnsley already booked in, the promotion is looking to branch out further afield with shows in the pipeline for Coventry, the North East, North Wales and a yet to be determined destination in the South. At just over 4 years old, AFC has firmly cemented itself as one of the top UK shows and once the current hold that we’re all experiencing comes to an end, expect big things from the promotion.

The fighter – Scott Johnson

Almighty Fighting Championship amateur flyweight champion Scott Johnson was all set to defend his title for the first time since defeating Fran Breen at AFC 15 in November last year. Fighting out of Aspire Combat Sports Academy in Liverpool, Johnson is 5-3 as an amateur and was due to take on SBG Bishop Auckland’s Luke Penberthy who is currently on a 5-fight winning streak.

Just before the lockdown came into effect, Johnson’s living situation took a fortunate twist as he moved in with his girlfriend, who lives with her Mum and younger brother. To make matters even better, the younger brother in question is top prospect and UKFC featherweight champion, Liam McCracken.   

Training 3 hours a day, 6 days a week prior to the lockdown, the “normal” life of a fighter changed dramatically but in Johnson’s case, he has been more fortunate than most due to now living with McCracken. Although the intensity of training at home might be different to that of training at the gym, Johnson still trains twice a day. If he can’t train, Johnson will go out for a run or bike ride to keep himself fit and active as like many, sitting still isn’t an option.  

Working at Liverpool University, a normal day in the life of Johnson would consist of work between 6am and 2pm followed by a bit of rest time before hitting the gym for 3 hours. With all the fighters at Aspire being really close, the team has stuck together during these difficult times. Head coach Dean Garnett has been in regular contact with the team and has been sending training programmes out to with the aim of trying to keep things as running along as normal as possible

Fortunately for Johnson, the cancellation of AFC17 was fairly soon after the fight was agreed thus meaning that his fight camp hadn’t really got underway.  As and when the lockdown is lifted and the MMA world can go about its business, Johnson will be fit and ready to defend his AFC title and is eager to get back to action. Although his plan for this year was to have 2 or 3 more fights before turning professional, the setback hasn’t deterred him, as Johnson still dreams of making a full time living out of MMA.

The coach – Bobby Pallett

As a professional fighter and coach, Bobby Pallett has probably felt the impact of the coronavirus more than most. With an unbeaten 5-0 record, the Rhyl MMA man not only had fighters competing on AFC 17 but also had a fight cancelled himself due to the outbreak. To make matters worse, that fight was scheduled for the Bellator card due to take place in London on Saturday May 16th.

On a coaching level, Pallett can often been seen in the corner with HAMMA coaches Sean Martin and Connor Hignett and was due to be doing so for AFC 17 with a number of fighters from both HAMMA and Rhyl MMA due to compete.

Staying in regular contact with fighters and those involved with Rhyl MMA and HAMMA has been important to Pallett but the frustration of not being able to plan ahead and focus on the next event is all too real.

For professional fighters and coaches alike, the impact of losing shows for themselves and their fighters is something that has had to be taken on the chin but when your full time job has also taken a hit, the reality is somewhat sobering.

As a self-employed personal trainer, Pallett’s coaching, fighting and job have all been hit square on by the virus. But, with the easing of some of the government restrictions surrounding exercise, there is an element of hope as although by no means back to “normal”, personal trainers and coaches like Pallett can begin to work again, albeit with the stringent social-distancing restrictions still in place.

Pallett lives and breathes for the sport so there is no doubt that once life starts to return to some form of normality, Bobby Pallett will be back on a Bellator card and will be stronger and hungrier than ever.  

What the outcome of this global humanitarian crisis is remains to be seen but you can rest assured that all involved with the sport will be doing everything they can to get things back to normal as soon as is humanly possible.

Image courtesy of Jamie Lee Smith DN4 Photography

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