PHOENIX — The impact of COVID-19 continues to be felt across the sports world, and one industry that has taken a big hit is mixed martial arts or MMA.
All events have been canceled since March, and unlike gyms, bars, and restaurants, those in the industry tell ABC15 there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel as to when they can resume operations.
Joel Lopez, CEO and Founder of RUF MMA and Jason Martinez, who is in charge of fighter relations for the company, described Arizona as a hotbed of recruiting when it comes to up-and-coming MMA fighters.
"Arizona is truly one of the hot spots for the industry. We have a couple really worldwide reputable gyms that produce tons of UFC talent," said Martinez, but for six months now their business has been empty.
"It's been a teeter-totter so to speak. We have been knocked down, we have been shelved, we have been frozen and what not," added Lopez.
Event cancellations this year have led to a loss of more than half a million dollars in revenue for RUF MMA. The company promotes and hosts MMA events all over the state. Lopez added their last show at the Glendale Civic Center sold out thanks to walk-up ticket sales.
Now, with no future date in sight to get back on track, along with the promotion's companies, fighters like Andres "The Punisher" Ponce are also taking a hit. "I'm losing $20-25,000 this year alone, just by not being able to fight," said Ponce.
More than a financial punch in the gut, Ponce said he is seeing fellow MMA fighters struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.
"Thankfully I'm in a good situation now but I would say if you asked me this question a year ago, I would be homeless right now. I know a lot of guys that are struggling, trying not to become homeless, some are suffering from depression you know," said Ponce.
Now the fight is on to save the industry. Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts are regulated by the Arizona Department of Gaming. Since April Martinez said RUF MMA has been working with the state's Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts Commission, which is under the state's Department of Gaming umbrella, to come up with a detailed safety plan addressing the pandemic.
Lopez said state officials consulted with doctors to come up with one of the first plans to reopen a business while addressing COVID-19 public safety concerns.
"We can do it safer than the political convention that Governor Ducey was just at with 1,500 people sitting next to each other with no masks," said Martinez.
From hosting shows with no live audience to using the pay-per-view platform, COVID-19 testing, and quarantining their fighters, the plans were thorough according to Lopez and Martinez.
These plans were presented to Governor Doug Ducey's office in May, about four months ago. "And here we sit, without a response," said Martinez.
The MMA promoters tell ABC15 they want to play by the rules, but right now, they just want answers.
ABC15 has also reached out to the State Department of Gaming and Governor Doug Ducey's office to help the industry get some answers.
A spokesman with the Arizona Department of Gaming sent us this statement:
"The Boxing & Mixed Martial Arts Commission regulates and supervises all boxing, kickboxing, tough man and mixed martial arts contests in the state. The Commission meets regularly to sanction and approve scheduled events, as well as provide a forum for the industry to communicate directly with Commissioners and staff.
The Commission met on July 9, 2020 [gaming.az.gov] to discuss the ongoing impact of COVID-19 to combat sports in Arizona. In that meeting, draft protocols were submitted to the Commission for review as a preliminary step to ensure a safe return. Detailed testimony from the Arizona Department of Health Services, Chief Ringside Physician, Doctor Ken Ota and the Association of Ringside Physicians, led the Commission to consider additional factors around hospitalizations, testing capabilities, and additional new liability issues that may arise from COVID-19 related circumstances. After weighing these factors, the Commission determined the state was not ready to resume live events at that time.
We understand the desire of athletes and fans to see unarmed combat sports resume and thank them for their patience during this pandemic. The Commission intends to meet in September to discuss the latest updates in Arizona regarding COVID-19 and we hope a determination about returning safely can be made at that time."