PHOENIX -- Poplar native Hunter Azure is an avid outdoorsman, so he has no problem with social distancing.
“I like just killing time,” Azure said from his home in Arizona. “I'll go out here and hike on these mountains, keep away from people and then go home.”
But on April 18, all bets are off and social distancing guidelines go out the window. Azure is scheduled to fight Umar Nurmagomedov at UFC 249, one of the few sporting events worldwide that is still on the books. But training during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging.
“I mean, they still got me training. The gyms and everything are shut down, but we're making it work,” Azure said. “My coaches are making sure I have partners and we just have to hop from gym to gym to make sure we’re not training with other people in there. So it’s kind of a headache going day to day not knowing what gym we're going to be training at.”
UFC president Dana White has said repeatedly that UFC 249 will go ahead as scheduled but hasn’t provided a location or venue. The event was originally scheduled at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. but was forced to move elsewhere after the New York Athletic Commission barred any events in the state.
Plenty of options for re-scheduling have been floated, including moving the event overseas to somewhere less affected by COVID-19, but nothing is concrete. On Monday, White told media "when you need to know, I'll let you know."
The uncertainty surrounding the event has left the fighters on the card in limbo while they wait for details to be worked out.
“We still have no word on the venue or a location or really if there’s a fight. They tell us a fight is still happening, but we don't know for sure,” Azure said. “You hear new things each day. Like one day we’re confident, ‘Oh yeah, this is happening.' And then the next we're like, ‘Shoot, maybe it's not going to happen.' It's just kind of a roller coaster and keeping us up in the air.”
Azure (8-0 MMA, 1-0 UFC) says he’ll be disappointed if the fight is canceled. He won his UFC debut against Brad Katona in September and was ready for a stiff test against a fellow undefeated bantamweight in Nurmagomedov (12-0 MMA) who is making his UFC debut.
Umar Nurmagomedov is the cousin of Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0), the top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world who is scheduled to headline UFC 249 against top lightweight contender Tony Ferguson (25-3).
“We're expecting a tough fight. He's 12-0 for a reason, but the last name's not much besides a name that people know,” Azure said. "There’s only one Khabib and he’s not Khabib. So it's a good one to have on my list of fights, but we're just training as if we're fighting the best guy.”
In addition to preparing for a fight and dealing with an unpredictable training schedule, Azure is also expecting the arrival of his first child next month, a boy, with his girlfriend Sage Pearce. That puts everything into perspective.
“That got me more energized and focused,” Azure said. “Just knowing that a kid is on the way reminded me that I got a lot more priorities besides myself. I felt like it's focused me a lot more and just given me a lot more to fight for.”
The UFC has had to cancel its past three non-Pay-Per-View events. So, Azure wouldn’t be surprised if UFC 249 is called off, as well, despite what White continues to insist. But for now, he’ll continue training, until someone tells him not to.