It’s not an exaggeration to say that UFC fighters are the healthiest, most fit human beings on the planet. But that doesn’t exempt them from contracting the dreaded COVID-19 virus.
The 32-year-old Australian fighter tested positive in late March. As he told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani in a recent interview, it began with the “normal symptoms” that involved headaches, fevers, and backaches. Then things took a turn for the worse.
“My lungs started hurting a little bit where maybe this happens a fair bit, too. It started hurting to breathe,” he recalled. “We started sort of really wanting to pay attention to everything when I started coughing up… when my phlegm started coming up pinky, with little specs of blood.
“I was lucky enough to have Jordi (Sullivan), ‘The Fight Dietitian.’ He’s my nutritionist, and he knows a little bit. So he knew, like, ‘That’s something we need to look at because that’s probably blood in the lungs. So we need to, maybe, look into this.’”
With the help of the UFC, Volkanovski had himself checked out. The doctors concurred with Sullivan’s assessment.
“That’s when we found out… I don’t know too much about it, but I got COVID pneumonia,” he said. “The pneumonia in the lungs, and we’d done a scan and we could see the infection was in the lungs. But it was still a mild case at the time. Oxygen levels were good.”
Because he started showing some progress, Volkanovski was allowed to go back to his hotel room to quarantine. It was then when his condition worsened.
“The fevers started to maybe go away, but the lungs started hurting more and more. So I felt like some of the symptoms started going away. The COVID symptoms. But my lungs started getting worse. My oximeter… I’m usually at 99, 100. My lungs are good. Really good, usually.
“And we’re starting to see it start to decline, my oxygen levels. They started getting fluctuating under 93. At the time, it would still go up. I didn’t want to panic too much, I didn’t want to go back to the hospital.
“There’s videos of the oximeter going 91, which was low. Very low for me. And I was told, ‘if you hit those numbers, we need to probably look again.’
“A couple of days this was happening. My cough, I started spitting up more blood and phlegm. And I had my team saying, ‘Look, we need to go back (to the hospital).’ And I was being stubborn and being a fighter, and I’m like, ‘Let’s just see how it goes.’ My oxygen levels were still coming up and down, fluctuating. They’re sometimes coming back up.
“I think on the Tuesday, I went for the first check-up, and then on the Friday, this was a week later, I wake up and that’s when I started coughing up even more blood. So the blood just got worse and worse.”
Volkanovksi went through a second check-up and was advised to take antibiotics and other medication while confined in the hospital. Apart from a slight scare when his resting heart rate dropped to 35 beats per minute, the champ is now easing himself back into training.
After going through what he did, Volkanovksi wants himself to be a precautionary tale about the severity of the disease.
“At the end of the day, I’m a UFC champion. I’m a fit human being,” he said. “But it sort of shows you that it was affecting me or, ‘Look how healthy and fit I was, and look what it still did to me.’ I needed medication.
“If I was unfit or if I was overweight, or had underlying problems, this could’ve gotten really, really serious. You could see why people obviously pass away.
“It was a bit of a shock to me to be like, ‘Why am I coping so much harder than everyone?’ I had other guys in the team that tested positive with me. Some of them had the symptoms, some didn’t have too many symptoms.
“But I went for the whole nine yards. It rocked me. I was in bed for days, sleeping in ’til 12 o’clock in the day and just doing nothing, not eating all day. It got pretty nasty, coughing up blood, struggling to breathe.”
Volkanovski was supposed to co-headline UFC 260 against Brian Ortega for his second title defense. He will now be coaching against “T-City” in the return of The Ultimate Fighter after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus.