UFC strawweight (and now flyweight) Cortney Casey is not surprised that the UFC is first out of the gate among pro sports during the coronavirus pandemic.
When Cortney Casey returns to action in Jacksonville on May 16, it will have been well over a year since the longtime UFC strawweight last competed. Fifteen months, roughly, have ticked away since a loss to Cynthia Calvillo at UFC on ESPN 1, and her upcoming fight against Mara Romero Borella.
Her return will come in a very different world, in a vastly different environment from that in which she’s used to competing. Gone will be the roar of the crowd. In its place, an empty arena — which, Casey told Cageside Press recently, may have both advantages and disadvantages. In fact, she’s more concerned about the empty arena than about ring rust, as she has stayed in the gym, training in the cage throughout her time off.
“There’s no fans. It’s going to be quiet. There are a lot of other variables that I need to worry about, rather than ring rust,” Casey explained. It’s an environment Casey isn’t used to, so her camp has focused on trying to replicate it. “We pretty much try to train with no music, keeping everything pretty quiet. There’s a lot of different sounds that you hear. Especially when you’re doing cage rounds.”
The cage moving, even the popping of the wood are all sounds a fighter might not be used to in a live fight. Then there’s how well sound might carry — both a blessing and a curse. “Especially being able to hear your corner a lot better, it can be a good thing or a bad thing,” observed Casey. “If I can hear them, [my opponent and her team] can hear them as well. We’ll see how it goes.”
Training during a pandemic has been interesting, to say the least. “I’ve been training out of my garage a lot,” admitted Casey. But she has been able to get back in the gym as well, more recently. “Things have been pretty small. A little bit more personal. A little bit more hands on. It hasn’t been a normal camp, but at the same time, I’m still getting the work in.”
Like many other fighters, Casey agreed with the suggestion that it’s almost like going back to an earlier point in her MMA journey. “I think it definitely takes you back to earlier in your career, when it was just a few of us out there. Especially with everything going on, the size of us has been a lot smaller. Two, three, four max at the gym. Which isn’t a bad thing.”
When her return bout was announced, Cortney Casey was fighting in San Diego, against Lara Procópio. Instead, she’s got Mara Romero Borella in Jacksonville. At flyweight, rather than strawweight. The change of weight classes is something Casey had considered in the past. Whether it remains permanent, she hasn’t yet decided. The change of opponents isn’t too concerning, in the end.
“It really doesn’t change too much. They’re different fighters, but at the end of the day, my job is to go in there and execute my game plan,” said Casey. “It pretty much stays the same. Go in there and push the pace. Just implement my style, and make the fight my fight.”
To ensure things go her way, Casey has been focused on working on her weaknesses and little things that she needed to get better on. “It’s just making sure that I’m a better version of myself when I step in there.”
After overcoming an injury that forced her off of the UFC on ESPN 7 card back in December, Casey is feeling much better. “I really do feel good, I feel prepared. There’s just a lot of variables that we can’t control, so I’m trying to focus on what we can control, and really just go in there and get the job done.”
Those variables include the aforementioned empty arena setting, and of course the training difficulties during a pandemic. In Arizona, Casey is counting her blessings. “I feel like it hasn’t been as bad as other places,” she told us. “Arizona’s pretty hot, we haven’t had a lot of cases. We were shut down, obviously as far as business and things like that. As far as our daily lives, it didn’t change that much, except for not being able to train. We just continued to do the same things we always do, and made the adjustments as far as training goes as best we could.”
“If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be us. Just because of the mindset of the company.
On top of that, there was a focus on staying safe, staying in touch with family, and making sure they stayed safe as well. Beyond that, said Casey, “we still have to live our lives, so we tried not to let it affect us too much.”
While a lot of people questioned Dana White’s attempt to pull off events during a pandemic, Casey was not surprised in the least. “Not at all. If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be us,” she said. “Just because of the mindset of the company. Do people agree with it? Probably not.”
However, “we have to work too. Everyone’s trying to fight to get back to work.” In the end, Casey is just happy to be able to fight. Besides which, there’s also the fighter mentality involved.
“We put our bodies on the line every day, training. We don’t just fight when we get in the cage. We fight every single day,” she pointed out. “I think it’s just kind of our mentality to keep pushing forward and come out on top as best we can.”
In terms of safety, the UFC contacted fighters last week regarding the protocols in place for the Florida events. Casey was told she’d be monitored, and every time she and her team leaves the hotel and comes back, they’ll be rechecked. “They’re making sure that everyone’s safe, that everyone stays safe throughout fight week, and that everyone can make it to the fight as safely as possible. I think the UFC’s doing the best they can with everything going on.”
With so much going on, and the Florida events almost feeling like a test run, there’s a question of whether this might be the only chance for Casey to fight this year. But “Cast Iron” isn’t worried. Given the UFC is hosting three fights in a week, she feels the company will start “putting a lot of cards together.” Something they might do for a couple of months, she suggested, to make up for lost time. “I definitely think right now is the time for all the fighters to stay ready, because I think they’re going to be putting a lot of fights together.”
And with apologies to Max Holloway — who has long campaigned for a UFC event in Hawaii — Casey is all in for a shot at fighting on Fight Island, should the concept happen. “Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to fight on an island? I think it’d be cool if it ends up happening.”
Cortney Casey returns on May 16 in Jacksonville, Florida at the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena. The event airs live on ESPN/ESPN+, and TSN in Canada.