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MMA, boxing and wrestling are all facing a major issue: a cracked combat sports pipeline

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Why fewer regional MMA events is a problem for the sport (2:22)

Marc Raimondi and Ariel Helwani discuss how having fewer MMA regional events because of COVID-19 has an adverse effect on bigger promotions like UFC. (2:22)

Scott Coker was sitting in the stands at the Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove, California. It was May 10, 2014. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was promoting an amateur MMA card that night, and Coker went with a friend to see Jackson.

At the time, Coker, the longtime combat sports promoter, was a free agent. He was in talks with Spike TV executive Kevin Kay about taking over as president of Bellator MMA, which was owned by Spike parent company Viacom. Coker, the former Strikeforce president and founder, was also considering starting his own promotion again.

Coker wasn't sure what his next step would be. But that night in Orange County, he decided that no matter where he landed, he wanted A.J. McKee to come with him. At Jackson's Conquest FC event, McKee, then 19, ran through Abraham Nava via second-round submission.

"I said, 'I've gotta sign this kid,'" Coker told ESPN.

Just over a month later, Coker signed a deal to promote Bellator -- and signing McKee was one of his early transactions. Now, McKee is 16-0, was ESPN's 2019 top MMA fighter under 25 years old and remains a cornerstone of Bellator's future.

"And that show," Coker said of the Conquest FC event, "would not be happening today."

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the regional and local scenes in combat sports, doing untold damage to the long-term future of MMA, boxing and professional wrestling. The next Floyd Mayweather or Conor McGregor has probably not fought in 2020. Many athletes cannot even train with consistency due to gym closures. The combat-sports pipeline -- from amateur to prospect to contender to superstar -- has cracked, and stakeholders aren't sure how or when it will be fully repaired.

"It bothers me," UFC president Dana White said to ESPN's Hallie Grossman last week. "It's a problem. ... It might not affect me this year or next year, but it's gonna affect me. It's gonna affect my business. It's not a good thing that that's happening right now. It's absolutely, positively something that is a concern to me."

While major promotions with broadcast deals like the UFC, Bellator, Top Rank, PBC, WWE, AEW and Golden Boy continue to run without fans during the pandemic, smaller events that rely on ticket sales have been dormant, leaving thousands of up-and-coming athletes inactive and businesses potentially decimated. Combine the loss of live-gate revenue with the added medical costs of COVID-19 testing and housing, and it's unclear when the combat sports "club" scene will return.

"The lifeblood of our industry -- both MMA and boxing -- are the club promoters," said Fight Club OC owner Roy Englebrecht, who promotes both sports. "That's the minor leagues. Boxers don't turn 18 and just sign with Golden Boy or Top Rank.

"COVID-19 has put a lot of club promoters maybe out of business forever. At our level, without any TV money or livestreaming money coming in, when you have to make it off of ticket sales and fighter ticket sales and sponsorships ... it's tough to cover your show expenses."

From March 1, 2019, to Sept. 1, 2019, there were 19,371 mixed martial arts fights in the world, according to record-keeper Tapology. Between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2020, there were only 3,764 -- an 80.6% drop. In the United States, the number of MMA fights went from 5,377 between March 1 and Sept. 1 of last year to 861 during that same time span this year.

According to Tapology, from March 1, 2019, to Sept. 1, 2019, UFC parent company Zuffa accounted for 4.4% of MMA fights in the United States. This year, during that same time span, that number has jumped to 21.3% -- a figure made even more startling by the fact that Zuffa ran only one event, UFC 248, in the United States in March, April or July. From March 1 to Sept. 1 of this year, more than one in every five MMA fights in the United States has been in either the UFC or Dana White's Contender Series.

In boxing, the numbers are just as stark. Last year, there were 15,856 boxing matches worldwide between March 1 and Sept. 1, per BoxRec. This year? Just 5,150, which is a 67.5% drop. In the United States, there were 3,443 boxing matches from March 1, 2019, to Sept. 1, 2019. During that same period this year, there were just 1,508.

"I don't think there has ever been a time like this," BoxRec founder John Sheppard said. "Even during [World War II] on D-Day in 1944, there were three [boxing] events in California."

Though the UFC has a built-in feeder system in Dana White's Contender Series -- which has had a record 26 fighters signed to the UFC this season -- not many other promotions have that luxury. Things have gotten so difficult as far as developing prospects, Coker said, that Bellator is considering financially supporting a smaller MMA promotion to help get the ball rolling on events.

"Where are you going to find your next big MMA stars?" Coker said. "You look to the smaller shows. And it's not just the smaller shows. You can't even go into the [amateur] wrestling community now or other combat sports communities because everything is shut down. And I don't mean just domestically. I'm talking worldwide. It's a huge problem."


MMA

Steven Nguyen had just finished his second practice at Fortis MMA in Dallas. It was mid-March, right at the start of the pandemic. He and his girlfriend had moved from Wichita, Kansas, so Nguyen could pursue his mixed martial arts dreams.

After training, Fortis head coach Sayif Saud approached the team and told them the gym would be closed for at least two weeks in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Nguyen was crushed.

"This is my new city," Nguyen said. "I'm supposed to be grinding, supposed to be getting ready, reaching new levels and new heights. And he was like, 'Well, we're gonna be closed until further notice.'"

Nguyen's story is similar to those of many combat sports athletes over the past few months. He is close to making the big show -- Nguyen's undefeated record was snapped last year on Contender Series -- but now he can't get booked for a fight. There just aren't enough promotions running, and the spots are limited. Nguyen has not fought since that third-round TKO loss to Aalon Cruz on July 30, 2019.

"I was kind of sitting in my apartment, didn't really have much to do," Nguyen said of the beginning of the pandemic. "No money, no training. Just sitting here in a different city, just me and my girlfriend, not really knowing what to do. It was a little scary."

MMA promotions such as Invicta FC, Titan FC and LFA, where Nguyen hopes to fight next, resumed their shows in June and July.

California opened up for crowdless shows in July. But the increased cost -- promoters must foot the bill for COVID-19 testing and other protocols -- has been too steep, with zero revenue coming in from ticket sales. There still hasn't been an MMA card in California since March.

California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive officer Andy Foster says he believes where the difference will be felt most in MMA is in the development of innovation. MMA, still a young sport, is constantly evolving with new skills and tactics being implemented. With gyms in big states like California and New York still closed and fighters lacking the ability to put training into practice during fights, the sport could be stagnant from an advancement point of view, said Foster, a former MMA fighter himself.

"The fighters, they'll get that skill level back very, very quickly," Foster said. "But the innovations that happen inside the gym -- and they absolutely do exist -- are just not happening right now. They're stuck back in 2019. ... I think the real question is -- and I don't think anyone knows the answer -- is how does it come back? What does it look like?"

The fighters themselves don't have the answers either. Mitch Raposo, a top flyweight and bantamweight prospect out of Massachusetts, won his first amateur title in October 2018. At that point, he set a goal to be in the UFC by 2020. But Raposo, 21, has not fought since January and sits at 4-0, just a bit too inexperienced for the UFC or Contender Series.

"I felt like it was gonna happen," Raposo said. "Everything was going exactly the way I thought it would. Then the world shut down. Nobody cares about your plans."

With the challenges currently in place, will the smaller promotions survive? And will any blue-chip prospects leave the sport? Like Nguyen and many other fighters, Raposo is a personal trainer in addition to being a fighter. And for the past few months, that profession has been damaged as well by gym closures.

"I can only imagine other guys who even have kids, who have to provide," Raposo said. "I can only imagine the stress of that. The only way to really make a career out of [MMA] is to get into the UFC, get into the bigger organizations. And our progression is kind of like halted."

There are still some smaller organizations putting on shows. Valor Fights in Tennessee has run four events since the start of the pandemic with fans in attendance, including one last Saturday in Knoxville. Valor promoter Tim Loy said his events have had only 25% of the venue's capacity crowds, with social distancing and temperature checks, though COVID-19 testing is not required.

To stay running with fewer fans, Valor has made its shows available online through pay-per-view. The demand from athletes to get on Valor's cards has surged, Loy said. The event last Saturday had 17 fights.

"We've got fighters coming from far and wide, because there are so many places that are shut down," Loy said. "The fighters are desperate and urgent to fight. From that standpoint, you're getting fighters to fight for a lot cheaper."

There is little clarity as to when the combat sports world will return to "normal." Loy and other promoters have no idea when regular-sized crowds will be allowed. Most are expecting these challenges to continue into 2021.

"I think that you'll see a little bit of a stall out as far as talent elevating and rising up to the UFC and to those large promotions," Loy said. "A hot prospect, a blue-chipper, a collegiate wrestler who is 2-0 and had plans to be 6-0 by the end of this year -- that's probably dashed at this point. Everybody is gonna be set back about a year."

White said one of the things the UFC will do to help the sport's ecosystem is expand its regional MMA offerings on the UFC Fight Pass streaming service. Currently, promotions such as LFA, Cage Fury Fighting Championship, Titan FC, Invicta FC and others air on Fight Pass, and the UFC pays for the content.

"What I'm trying to do is put as many of the strong regional shows on there as I possibly can," White said. "Obviously, it helps fund their production and enables them to be able to put on live events. So we're trying to beef that up."


BOXING

Stevie McKenna and his brother Aaron had just begun training under legendary trainer Freddie Roach at Wild Card Gym in February. The two Irish-born prospects and their father, Fergal, have been living in Los Angeles, in part because of the boxing scene.

Due to the pandemic and gyms being closed, they moved back to Ireland temporarily. That means no workouts at Griffith Park or on the Santa Monica stairs. But most importantly, no training with Roach.

"Not being with Freddie Roach is an absolute downside to this," Stevie said. "We miss the leadership and knowledge that Freddie brings to our corner. The sparring is world class in L.A., we are looking forward to getting back for that."

Before September, the McKenna brothers had not fought in 2020, which was set to be a huge year for them. Stevie, 23, moved to 5-0 by beating Gary McGuire in England on Sept. 5. Aaron, 21, was recently signed by Golden Boy Promotions but is still searching for his first fight of the year.

"To the general boxing fan, [Stevie] really should be known," said Lyle Green, vice president of Sheer Sports, which manages the McKennas. "He's not, because he hasn't gotten an opportunity to go out and fight. A lot of our guys are right there. It's funny, we talked internally at the end of 2019 about how 2020 really should have been our year, because we have so many prospects who are at the point of turning from prospect to contender."

But that developmental process from contender to champion just isn't happening in 2020. Englebrecht, one of the most-tenured combat sports promoters in California, promoted early fights for the likes of Deontay Wilder, Johnny Tapia and Dmitry Bivol. Englebrecht has not run a show since the start of the pandemic, he said, because it makes no fiscal sense. And if those shows are not running, boxing prospects aren't getting the fights they need to make their way to high-profile matchups.

In California, the addition of COVID-19 testing and procedures would cost in excess of $20,000 on top of the pre-pandemic expenses of running a boxing event, according to Englebrecht. That means more overhead and almost no profit attainable, in many cases, without paying fans. Unless a promotion has a broadcast partner paying for content, Englebrecht said, it just doesn't make sense from a business standpoint with no revenue from ticket sales.

"You could not possibly do a show at all unless that promoter is independently wealthy ... or he [just] likes to sit in the front row," Englebrecht said. "It doesn't pencil out at all."

New York promoter Lou DiBella has also not run a show since the start of the pandemic, and he said a lot of his fighters are feeling the impact of the slowdown. The younger fighters on the way up are the ones hurting the most, he said. In MMA, fighters get into the UFC sometimes with fewer than 10 pro fights. In boxing, there is typically a longer developmental process. Wilder wasn't getting high-profile fights until he was 30-0. Many of the shows on the level he competed on to build himself up are not happening now, and the ones that are have much thinner undercards.

"Developmental fights don't fit the mold of what people are trying to do right now during the pandemic," DiBella said. "The way fighters have always been developed in boxing is deep undercards. You would get your televised fights, but the card might start three hours earlier with six prospects fighting. In a COVID world, you can't have that many people hanging around. So, the shows ... are four to seven fights, not eight to 15."

This has also had a negative effect on women's boxing, DiBella said. Even before COVID-19, there were fewer featured women's fights. Mikaela Mayer had time in the spotlight in July, and Jessica McCaskill, Cecilia Braekhus and Katie Taylor returned in August, but generally speaking, there have been minimal women's bouts since the sport's return.

"There's no women's boxing series in the United States of America, which is sort of atrocious," DiBella said. "It's really atrocious during a f---ing pandemic."

In the United Kingdom, Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn, who on Friday announced his own positive COVID-19 test, has run a series of events with no fans in the garden of the company's headquarters. There was a sign of hope for a return to normalcy, but the government recently halted plans to allow crowds at sporting events. Most of the top U.K. boxers have not fought in 2020. Without crowds, not only are promoters losing revenue, but fighters -- specifically the top boxers in the sport -- who get a share of the gate won't be making as much money, either.

"We thought we would have crowds back by now, which is why we have waited this long without fighting," WBA super middleweight champion Callum Smith said. "All the fighters that were waiting for crowds to return will have to just get on with it now. We can't afford to wait anymore because we might have to wait ages for crowds."


PRO WRESTLING

Anthony Gutierrez signed to wrestle for top independent promotion Evolve in August 2019. Evolve had a deal with WWE and was a direct path to WWE's NXT developmental brand, which airs weekly on USA Network. Current WWE champion Drew McIntyre and former NXT champion Keith Lee are Evolve alums.

"The situation I was in," Gutierrez said, "I couldn't really imagine a better way as far as how the opportunities go to get into WWE."

In July, in part due to the pandemic, Evolve owner Gabe Sapolsky sold the promotion and its content library to WWE. Gutierrez was released.

"I was about to approach my fourth year, and I really started hitting that path with Evolve," Gutierrez said. "I [beat current AEW talent] Eddie Kingston and had a good win streak going. Now it's like, boom, Evolve tanks, and I'm back to square one basically."

Gutierrez would like to get booked on indie shows, but there aren't as many running now, and -- like the case with boxing and MMA -- it's competitive to get spots on cards. He has not wrestled since February. Gutierrez is an MMA fighter and a veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 18, where he was on Ronda Rousey's team in 2013. Incidentally, Rousey and Gutierrez's TUF teammates Shayna Baszler, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir are all currently signed to WWE.

With a 12-3 MMA record, Gutierrez says he believes he might actually be closer to the UFC than WWE right now, though he'd like to do both.

"I want to accomplish both, because I've dedicated a lot to both," Gutierrez said. "It would be cool to say I reached the pinnacle of each."

Though the United States' two biggest promotions, WWE and AEW, never really went on a COVID-19 hiatus, smaller events have either not run at all since March or, like longtime independent wrestling standout Ring of Honor, have just started in the past two months. Major League Wrestling (MLW) promoter Court Bauer says his organization will begin airing new shows in November.

The lack of fans at events has been damaging to MMA, boxing and wrestling in fiscal terms, but the impact on wrestling extends beyond money. It's a form of entertainment where crowd noise -- cheering, booing and chants -- plays directly into the matches or interviews. Crowd reaction can be an indicator of what's working -- or in wrestling terms, "getting over" -- or not. WWE has recently added virtual fans to shows, and AEW has an outdoor venue with socially distanced fans at a lesser capacity. But doing shows in front of crowds safely has been difficult for smaller promotions.

"It certainly creates a challenge for the talent, especially younger talent, because you're getting less reps in the ring," Bauer said. "It slows down development. Crowds are one of the greatest members of your roster. They can take matches to the next level, help you gauge what's working and what's not working as a matchmaker, as well as if you're out there as a wrestler. Without that instant free-market research, you kind of lose a sense of the pulse of what works."

The opportunities to scout talent have diminished, Bauer said, and the events that are running are doing so with a "small, specific pool of talent," all at the same level of ability. It's not only difficult for bigger promotions to pick out the blue-chippers, but the improvement of athletes has also stagnated.

"You're only as good as the talent you're in there with," Bauer said. "You can only learn so much if they're at the same level. You're not having the opportunity to work with people who might come in from Great Britain or Japan or Mexico or Canada. You don't have the ability to pick the brains of those great athletes. That also will stunt the growth of the young talent."

Gutierrez says he believes he's only a couple of big moments on the independent scene away from getting back on WWE's radar.

"I'm definitely in someone's manila folder," Gutierrez said. "I just need to get big bookings and stay at it. The problem is there just aren't that many shows running right now."

MLW has moved to a model built more on streaming contracts than live events, Bauer said. Moving forward, the former WWE writer and producer said MLW could lean on states where the athletic commission regulates pro wrestling, so coronavirus protocols can be implemented. This is at a time, he said, where everyone needs to get more creative in terms of ways to continue on with combat sports businesses and careers.

"[WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon] had a saying -- you have to show up some days at the office like it's the first day at the job," Bauer said. "Everything you've been trained to think about, look at it completely differently. ... I think there's never been a more appropriate moment for that than right now."

The extent of the damage done to the combat sports development pipeline is currently unknown. But promoters believe there's no doubt that the lack of bouts happening and scarcity of athletes competing this year -- thousands fewer than previous years -- will have a chain reaction that stretches from the amateur level all the way to the highest planes of the sport.

"It's an unusual set of circumstances moving into the future, something we've never experienced in the past -- at least in my 35 years of being a fight promoter," Coker said. "The whole feeder system is going to be interrupted for, I think, a few years. It's a real problem, and it's something we have to figure out."

ESPN's Nick Parkinson and Hallie Grossman contributed to this report.