LAS VEGAS — Robeisy Ramirez had no idea that his fourth professional bout as a featherweight boxer would come in the middle of a pandemic.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist from Cuba, Ramirez had spent the previous three days in a quarantined “bubble” at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, then needed just 54 seconds to knock out Yeuri Andujar, which was his way of christening the return of live boxing to Las Vegas after a three-month hiatus because of the coronavirus outbreak.
To Ramirez, it felt a lot like a normal fight, except that no one was there to cheer for him.
“You feel the difference,” he said, “when you hit someone.”
The five-fight card Tuesday night, organized by boxing promotion company Top Rank and shown on ESPN, offered a glimpse of what live sports now look like, and a preview of what could await MLB, the NBA and other sports leagues as they seek to resume play.
Rigid testing protocols. Wristbands with bar codes. Security personnel who patrolled the hotel hallway and escorted fighters to a designated area for their meals. A ring-card girl who wanted to know if she should change into her “cute mask” for the prefight weigh-in, and boxers who pulled on powder-blue surgical booties before stepping onto the scale.
And then there were the spectator-free bouts themselves, staged on the set of an elaborate TV studio, replete with 11 oversize video screens, smoke machines to assist with the fighters’ entrances and piped-in crowd noise, courtesy of an online app. Instead of being in the ring, the host was stationed on a platform about 30 yards away, not far from a second platform for the ring-card girls. And broadcasters called the action from their living rooms, thousands of miles away.
“I’ve spent 55 years in the business, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Bob Arum, Top Rank’s founder and chief executive. “What the hell did I know about the coronavirus?”
Top Rank hopes to stage two cards a week through the rest of the summer, and the company’s preparations were exhaustive. Brad Jacobs, Top Rank’s chief operating officer, said that all the additional medical protocols — which include virus testing and temperature checks, along with on-site nurses and physicians — would cost about $500,000 through July.
And then there was creating a self-contained and highly sanitized sliver of the MGM Grand’s sprawling campus in a city that had otherwise relaxed its social distancing policies. The bubble consists of a single floor of the hotel, where everyone associated with the fights — boxers, trainers, promoters, production crew — is tested and housed, and an adjacent convention center, where the fights are staged.
There are also locker rooms for the fighters, two training gyms, and offices for personnel from ESPN, Top Rank and the Nevada Athletic Commission. A catering staff serves meals behind panes of plexiglass in a conference room, where the décor features posted reminders to maintain 6 feet of social distance and dinner comes with a side of hand sanitizer.
The whole setup feels at times like an actual bubble, amplified by the nearby presence of one of the resort’s swimming pools — viewable from the convention center’s lobby through huge windows that make it seem oddly illusory. The pool has been teeming with sunbathers since casino resorts across the city reopened on June 4.
The contrast between those two worlds, and the radically changed environment, has led the state’s athletic commission to take a more prominent role in the staging of bouts.
One of the commission’s primary responsibilities has always been to ensure the health of the fighters, Bob Bennett, the executive director, said. But that imperative has multiplied amid the pandemic. Now, he said, the commission has to safeguard “the promoter, the cornermen, the production crew, the security, the officials and our staff.”
Bennett said he was leaning on his past experiences as an FBI agent and as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. “You have to be anticipatory and respect your foe,” he said, referring to the virus.
Boxers and their camps will come and go over the coming weeks. But many out-of-town staffers were anticipating being stuck in place for the long haul. Michael Nevitt, the president and senior designer for Crossfade Design, which produced the signage, graphics and lighting for the fights, lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He was not going stir-crazy — yet.
“I’ve never had to be sequestered for a job before,” Nevitt said. “It opens up all kinds of weird things because we get here and think, ‘Oh, I need to run out to the Home Depot for something.’ Well, I can’t because I’m locked in.”
Those who leave the bubble have to start the process over to come back in — getting a new test and then quarantining overnight in a hotel room until the result comes back. Within the bubble, everyone is tested at least twice a week.
Nevitt said he had worked out a system of “runners” who could retrieve items he may need and drop them off at one of the hotel’s loading docks. Still, an event that would normally take his crew about a day to set up had consumed the better part of five days.
“But I like a challenge,” Nevitt said. “The other thing is, it’s work, right? In our industry, when you’re a lighting and design company, we do television, lighting, corporate events and sports arenas. I just named five things that COVID killed. So this gives us an opportunity to at least get our guys working.”
That was the consensus among the bubble dwellers. If they had experienced various inconveniences — “It feels like we’re grounded,” said Tianna Tuamoheloa, who was working the event as a ring-card girl with Stephanie Cook — it still beat the alternative, which was a lot more of doing very little.
Limited to online marketing through their social media accounts in recent months, Tuamoheloa and Cook said they were happy to be working again but disappointed that they were barred from using the hotel’s fitness center, which was outside the bubble.
“We brought stuff to work out in our room,” Cook said, “but I would still prefer a treadmill.”
They also had concerns about the masks, which they were required to wear at the weigh-in Monday afternoon. What was the point, Cook asked, if nobody could see their faces? After all, everyone inside the bubble had already tested negative. But the optics were important to Bennett and the event’s promoters.
“We want to show the public respect,” Bennett said.
Unlike the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which seemed to go out of its way to flout coronavirus precautions during fights last month, Top Rank and ESPN ensured viewers knew they were taking the pandemic seriously. The first 10 minutes of ESPN’s telecast were dedicated to outlining every health precaution being taken, and there was even an “in memoriam” segment for boxing figures who had virus-related deaths.
The weigh-in itself was another clear indication that none of this was business as usual. Mark Shunock, Top Rank’s in-ring host, was rehearsing his lines — “Boxing is BACK!” — when he came to the realization that shouting into a mask was bizarre. But he practically vibrated with enthusiasm.
“I think we’re tired of watching cornhole,” he said in an interview. “I know I am.”
The boxers, also wearing masks, came to the stage to be weighed, one by one, then posed, while social distancing, for photos with their opponents. The scale was constantly wiped clean after being blasted with antimicrobial spray. Bennett was annoyed when he realized that Shakur Stevenson, the headliner, had stepped forward for his photo after he had ditched his mask.
“It’s just the principle,” Bennett said.
Later that afternoon, Stevenson was relaxing in his hotel suite — one of several perks for being the show’s headliner. He also had an off-site personal chef who was able to deliver his meals through hotel staff.
A 22-year-old super featherweight from Newark, New Jersey, who has drawn comparisons to Floyd Mayweather Jr., Stevenson fired up “Call of Duty” on the video game console he had brought with him. Usually, he said, he would be spending time with his family before one of his fights. He has a couple of young cousins who he likes to boss around.
“Have them do stuff for me, run back and forth, do this, do that,” he said with a hint of nostalgia.
But before Tuesday’s bout, Stevenson found that his traveling party had dwindled to one: his grandfather, Wali Moses, who works as his coach.
Stevenson had some other family members and friends who had made the trip, but they were staying at a different hotel and would not be able to see him until he emerged from the bubble. But Stevenson was glad to be fighting, he said. It had been nearly eight months since his last bout. And he liked that he was the star attraction for boxing’s return.
“I’m hoping that I can get some fans from outside of boxing to become Shakur Stevenson fans,” he said. “It’s definitely cool that all eyes are going to be on me.”
Stevenson did have some minor quibbles with bubble life, starting with the training gym. It was too cold when he was trying to shed pounds before his weigh-in, he said, and the punching bag was the type “you give your 3-year-old son.” But he said he also understood the odd circumstances.
Of greater concern to him was the sudden departure of his trainer, Kay Koroma. Even though Koroma’s coronavirus test had come back negative, he had also been working with Mikaela Mayer, a boxer on the card who had tested positive. Protocols put in place by the state’s athletic commission required that Mayer and the rest of her team be removed from the bubble. (Mayer’s was the only positive test.)
“Contact tracing takes place,” Bennett said. “It’s for the betterment and safety of everybody.”
In any case, Stevenson was irritated.
“They said he took the test and it came back negative,” he said, referring to Koroma. “So why does he have to go? It don’t really make too much sense, but the show’s got to continue.”
Given its modest ecosystem — about 150 people were quarantined for Tuesday’s fights — and the obstacles it still produced, the event raised questions about how other sports would restart in much larger, more complex bubbles. The NBA, for example, plans to play out the rest of its season at Walt Disney World’s sports complex in Florida. The two teams that reach the finals could be isolated in a small wedge of the theme park for about three months, and some players are raising qualms.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a bubble that long,” Stevenson said. “And they’re not going to have fans? You all think it’s weird with boxing. In basketball, it’ll be a whole different thing.”
By fight night, Stevenson was ready to go and proceeded to punish his opponent, Felix Caraballo, to run his record to 14-0.
Afterward, Arum described the fights as “Phase 1” of the return to sports: three months of sports without spectators. “Phase 2,” he said, would introduce a limited number of fans.
For now, Arum said he would like to beef up future cards by adding fights.
“With all of the issues about the hotel rooms and testing, we didn’t want to overload the thing,” he said. “But now, we feel pretty confident that we can handle it all.”