As main-eventer Jessie Magdaleno started his walk late Thursday night, he turned a corner and saw the ring. This is usually the moment when he hears the crowd, when the energy pumps through his body. Instead, he heard nothing.
He saw the giant LED screens created by Top Rank Boxing to make both a grand and intimate atmosphere for the television viewer, but for him, in that moment, something felt off. The changes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic had finally hit him.
“You notice it right away. As soon as the music goes on and your opponent goes out, you [usually] hear the people chanting,” Magdaleno said. “You hear the people either booing or applauding your opponent; and then when you come out, you feel it from the people that are cheering for you. Your family members, your friends. The people who are just fans.
“You don’t hear them anymore; it’s very silent and very quiet. It kind of threw me off a little bit. I wasn’t really expecting this. I thought it would be a little bit different, but no, it wasn’t my thing. I need my fans there.”
In reality, a live audience won’t be present for a while. This atmosphere is the new normal as sports organizations continue to deal with conducting live sports during the pandemic.
Last week was the start of Top Rank’s attempt at getting boxing back to the viewer and creating work for the fighters and trainers who had been sidelined.
It turned into a week both boring and hectic, of challenges and relative ease. It saw one fighter question COVID-19 testing protocols and a trainer elated by the smallest of things — a TV marathon to help pass the time. It involved constant security escorts, temperature checks, multiple COVID-19 tests and a confinement to the 12th floor of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that, predictably, felt incredibly restrictive.
But, it also largely worked.
“Truthfully,” Top Rank chief operating officer Brad Jacobs said, “I don’t think I could be any happier.”
Mikaela Mayer landed in Las Vegas on June 6, rode in one of the sanitized vans to the MGM Grand and took a COVID-19 test. She wasn’t worried. She had been tested in Houston before she left — and while that test showed her positive for the antibodies of COVID-19, her actual test for the virus came back negative. She had been exposed to it. Her body had created antibodies to fight it. She figured she’d be good.
Her phone rang the next morning. She had tested positive for the coronavirus, and her fight was off. She had to leave the MGM Grand and either go into a separate quarantine or drive home. Annoyed and confused, she jumped into a rental car and began a 13-hour drive from Vegas to her home in Colorado.
“I was blasting hip-hop, my sunglasses on, like, pissed,” Mayer said. “And then going from really angry to really sad to just going through all the emotions. … I just went through all the emotions, listened to all the genres of music and missed my dogs.
“I just wanted my dogs, to be honest. I was like, ‘Where are my dogs,’ because my dogs and my car are in Texas.”
What was going to be a huge stage for Mayer — a prime slot on a nationally televised, heavily promoted card — disappeared for what she believed was a false positive. She spent the rest of the week setting out to prove it. She was retested in Denver on Tuesday and spoke out on social media multiple times throughout the week, calling for a change in the testing protocols of Top Rank and the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC).
She made it clear that she didn’t blame anyone. The testing process was new, after all. Her instincts were right. The test from Denver came back negative on Saturday as her dogs arrived from Houston, driven by her best friend, flyweight boxer Ginny Fuchs. Still, the protocol won’t change anytime soon.
Top Rank and the NSAC defended their procedures. Top Rank would have loved for Mayer — and for featherweight Chris Zavala, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday and also was pulled from his bout — to have tested negative and fought. But rules are rules. Mayer is expected to fight again during the week of July 21, according to Jacobs.
“Am I unhappy and disappointed that several fighters were preparing to fight and unfortunately they had a positive test? Of course,” NSAC executive director Bob Bennett said. “You know, they work hard. Their livelihood is short in nature, and [one] can only be a fighter for so long.
“Are we happy about that? No. Are we pleased that we looked out for the health and safety for everybody? Our protocols were proven to work, and they were effective and efficient and provided the health and safety for everybody that was in that closed-system event.”
Top Rank president Todd duBoef said he couldn’t change the protocols without approval from the commission. He didn’t anticipate that happening in the near future, especially considering he knows he has more than just one fighter or even his own employees to try to protect.
He has an entire operation to think about, and duBoef is going to stay conservative. And inside the MGM bubble, the concern over COVID-19 brought about caution.
“You could feel people’s vibes,” Magdaleno said. “People’s vibes were very different. They had that fear in them, that fear of getting COVID or testing positive. Some guys were taking it very seriously, all masked up and gloved up, everything.
“It’s a scary situation to be in, something nobody wants to get, especially days before a fight.”
Mark Kriegel accentuates the importance of live audiences during boxing matches and explains how empty arenas will impact future fights.
Jacob “Stitch” Duran drove from his suburban Las Vegas home to the MGM on June 7, took his throat swab test and went up to his room on the 12th floor and started to wait. The legendary cutman was one of two hired by Top Rank for the week.
He fell asleep and woke up Monday morning without a phone call. No COVID-19. He met fellow cutman Mike Bazzel in the 12th-floor hallway, walked with security to the back elevator, took it to the ground, climbed in the sterilized van and took the short drive to the MGM Grand Convention Center, where the two had a parfait breakfast and created their plan for the week.
Each fighter — unless they had previous affiliation with Duran or Bazzel — would pick one of the two for their fight. Duran and Bazzel met with the fighters they didn’t know to ask questions about medication, gauze, tape and everything else.
For fight night, they each had individually wrapped swabs already dipped in adrenaline hydrochloride and a 1.75-ounce travel-size Vaseline jar — Duran preordered 74 of them, to ensure no mistakes of double usage, which could lead to fighter contamination.
Duran didn’t mind the solitude, but he didn’t have a coffee pot or microwave in his room — only a refrigerator — and his television was on the fritz. He passed the time reading on his phone and calling unsuccessfully to try to have his TV fixed, something he hopes happens by Week 2 in the bubble.
As the week went on, Bazzel and Duran began to joke they were like Andy Dufresne and Red from the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” The only time they left their rooms was for meals, meetings, weigh-ins and the fights.
“When we come out, we look at the fighters coming in and decide, ‘Who do you think we’re going to work with, him or him?'” Duran said. “Then we go back to our little rooms. This is the boxing version of ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ no doubt about it.”
Duran took the job because of the chance to do something historic and the challenge of it. He took photos with some fighters and employees, both with their masks on and off. He figures one day he’ll tell his grandkids about working to bring boxing back during a pandemic.
Duran and Bazzel will have company soon. Top Rank is adding a third cutman to the roster, Bob Ware, to assist if any of the fighters want Duran or Bazzel to wrap their hands. If that happens, Ware will replace one of them at ringside while the other tends to the wraps, an alteration after Duran was unable to wrap the hands of Jared Anderson and Shakur Stevenson on Tuesday night.
It’s just one of the adjustments for Top Rank.
An idea born out of limiting the amount of people inside the bubble — having permanent cutmen — was something duBoef ended up really liking. It could stick longer than the pandemic, although duBoef wasn’t ready to commit to permanent changes to anything after a week.
“I’ll give you a line from Wolf Blitzer,” duBoef said, referring to the CNN anchor known for his election night projections. “Too early to call.”
Andre Ward describes his disappointment that black boxers often need to be the villain to become popular; Timothy Bradley tells a story about his experience with police.
Joe Tessitore wasn’t sure where the conversation would go. One of the most impactful moments from the two nights of fights last week came not inside the ring, but on multiple small television boxes with his colleagues spread across the country.
It was an idea presented a week earlier in a production meeting conference call. They had seen protests sprouting nationwide nightly over racial inequality in the United States. On the call, they had an open discussion in which whoever wanted to talk about their experiences and feelings could.
After that internal call, they tried to figure out how to best use their voices to incorporate it into the broadcast. Tessitore, the play-by-play man, and on-air colleagues Tim Bradley, Andre Ward, Mark Kriegel and Bernardo Osuna have worked together long enough that conversations about race had already been commonplace. They decided, especially because of boxing’s own history with race, to address it on-air Tuesday night.
Tessitore set up Bradley and Ward without knowing what they were going to say. What resulted was a 7-minute segment where both Ward and Bradley shared their own powerful stories, giving the viewer a peek into behind-the-scenes conversations.
“I was like, let me bring us to that place, let me present it and bring you to the front step of what it’s like to sit with Timmy and Dre and experience that,” Tessitore said. “We didn’t know that it would be that well-received and that people would be that touched by it or after listening to that, they would say, ‘I understand, and I’m better for it.'”
The conversation with Ward and Bradley was part of a bigger production unlike anything Tessitore had been through before. He had previously called fights remotely and done college basketball games from afar.
However, this was the first time in his career his broadcast partners would also be far-flung. Unlike Korean baseball or some of the other sports ESPN has televised since the start of the pandemic, this was also produced by ESPN, adding a degree of difficulty.
“This is the most challenging type of broadcast I’ve ever done in my career,” Tessitore said. “To be the studio host of a show that’s being intertwined with being the blow-by-blow, play-by-play guy of an event.”
Tessitore was solo in the studio. Osuna was by himself on-site in Las Vegas. Kriegel, Ward and Bradley were in their homes. Tessitore and producers weaved all of that together and made it seem seamless.
Thursday night felt more comfortable than Tuesday, when they went through it the first time and no one was totally sure how it would work. Neither did duBoef, who watched from his office to get a feel for what it was like for an at-home viewer.
DuBoef made a few pre-broadcast changes — including having the arena recarpeted Tuesday morning after it looked on-screen like the original black, yellow and orange design conflicted with the giant LED boards.
Every detail was analyzed by duBoef, from the height of Osuna’s interview platform to where ring announcer Mark Shunock would be positioned outside the ring.
One thing that stood out to duBoef — besides the quality of the audio, including the sound of the punches landing — was the amount of fights on each card. DuBoef knew they’d be lean at first, part of his small-bubble strategy.
“It was different. And I guess it makes you appreciate having your freedom more. It’s like they sort of take your freedom away for the few days that you are there because you can’t do anything.”
“I didn’t take into account the falloff ratio and something could happen,” duBoef said. “I took the content a little bit for granted and changed it immediately, started loading up and adding at least one more fight per show. Let’s have a swing fight per week.
“We’re going to have falloff, it’s inevitable, and maybe it was wishful thinking and hoping and we didn’t want to go down that bridge, but that’s relatively where I made my biggest mistake.”
He’s rectifying it, as Top Rank will be bulking up cards beginning next week — both because time is allowing more fighters to be available and to make sure they have protection in case more than one fight falls off a card because of a bad weigh-in, last-minute injury or a positive COVID-19 test.
Adam Lopez and Louie Coria start off hot in Round 1 by each dishing out flurries of punches.
Buddy McGirt didn’t know his voice would carry that much. As Adam Lopez’s trainer on the opening fight Thursday night, the former WBC welterweight title-holder could be heard on the Top Rank broadcast — something he learned about only after the fight was over.
“People were texting me afterward saying we heard you loud and clear,” McGirt said. “I just started laughing, man.”
It added another layer to the broadcast. Tessitore and his crew could not only analyze what the fighters were doing, but also the instructions they had been given. McGirt’s voice got attention during a competitive fight.
McGirt arrived in Vegas on Tuesday night, well after Lopez. He also stalled checking in, first grabbing something to eat. He was warned once he went into the bubble, there wouldn’t be much to do. McGirt is a talker and usually likes to be out and about before a fight.
This time, he couldn’t do that. He wanted to avoid his phone because the one thing he didn’t want to talk about was the fight. Confined to his room, he turned on the TV and was saved by the Lifetime Movie Network.
“I got lucky,” McGirt said. “I love that show ‘King of Queens,’ and they had a ‘King of Queens’ marathon.”
When he saw the word marathon on the television, he said, “Yes,” to no one at all. LMN ran 21 episodes of “King of Queens” on Wednesday and McGirt also watched some “Everybody Loves Raymond” and the second Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton fight to stay busy.
Jacobs recognized the lack of activity for everyone involved. He had hoped to have other entertainment lined up and he’s been in conversation with MGM to add something as they go forward over the next month-plus.
Stuck in the bubble like everyone else, he understood the frustration. So, he’s making a fitness facility available beginning this week for non-fighters along with a private pool area during weekends. The UFC event this past Saturday was shown on big LED screens, and Jacobs said he’s working on getting ping-pong tables.
“Make it a little more livable,” Jacobs said.
The way the bubble exists now is isolating and lonely, with daily temperature tests, ID checks and constant security as the only breaks in the monotony. It’s also exactly what needed to happen to ensure bubble integrity.
“It was different,” McGirt said. “And I guess it makes you appreciate having your freedom more. It’s like they sort of take your freedom away for the few days that you are there because you can’t do anything.”
Yenifel Vicente lands four low blows during his fight against Jessie Magdaleno, leading to his disqualification from the bout.
For a few days after a fight, Magdaleno usually stays in that city with his family and enjoys the downtime. This time, for the first time in his career, he had his bags packed and took them with him from his hotel room to the convention center before the fight.
Magdaleno was told that if he stayed in his room postfight, the protocols would remain the same. And since he lives in Las Vegas, he and his coach made the decision to leave right after the fight.
Even though he usually likes prefight semi-isolation, he’d had enough. So Magdaleno and his coach grabbed food after the fight, and then Magdaleno went home to his family. Duran did the same and plans on having the same schedule weekly — downtime at home Thursday night through Sunday, and then back into the bubble Sunday until postfight Thursday, needing to be tested every time. Others, like Jacobs and Bazzel, don’t live close by and are likely to stay in the bubble throughout.
It’s just part of the new COVID-19 world in boxing. Each week new fighters will cycle in and out, and Top Rank will continue to tweak its approach, but so far the Top Rank bubble experiment has gone about as well as everyone involved could have hoped for.
“The takeaway now is really just that the preparation is paying off,” Jacobs said. “Who knows what tonight or next week brings, but for the moment, things are going according to plan.”