A career-best win for Bellator’s Jason Jackson was marred somewhat by a coronavirus-related controversy.
As first reported by ESPN, Jackson’s coaches Henri Hooft and Greg Jones were issued a three-month suspension from the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation due to a violation of COVID-19 quarantine protocol prior to Jackson’s bout with Ben Henderson at Bellator 253 this past Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
Jackson’s coaches were both fined $500, with the fines expected to come out of Jackson’s purse. He went on to defeat Henderson by unanimous decision to score his third consecutive win.
MMA Fighting spoke to MTDAR director Mike Mazzulli, who explained the rationale behind the suspensions and the monetary penalty.
According to Mazzulli, he discovered through a social media post that Hooft and Jones went up to Jackson’s hotel room sometime Tuesday. At the time, Hooft was yet to undergo a COVID-19 test and Jones was awaiting the results of his own test. All fighters and coaches are expected to remain isolated until they are tested and have received a negative result.
Mazzulli spoke to Jackson after Wednesday morning’s weigh-ins to discuss the situation and assure him that he didn’t want to pull Jackson from his fight.
“I said to Mr. Jackson, ‘There’s going to be some repercussions with this, what’s occurred,’” Mazzulli said. “‘But I tell you right now Mr. Jackson that if any of you three are positive, the fight is off. With that said, there’s no possible way I can mandate Bellator to pay you. So if Mr. Hooft, who has not been tested, and Mr. Jones, who’s been tested and ignored the quarantine as well as Mr. Hooft because he’s supposed to be quarantined until he’s tested, so if that’s positive you are not getting paid.’”
Mazzulli repeatedly commended Jackson for his professionalism. He told him that though the fines would be coming out of his purse, Jackson could decide whether to simply deduct that amount from what he pays his coaches or to have them reimburse him.
As for why Jackson was the one to be fined, Mazzulli wanted to send a message about fighter accountability.
“My belief is this: As a fighter, you are responsible for your career,” Mazzulli said. “You are responsible for the people that train you, so you’re responsible. You want a long career and you want a successful career, you pick a certain trainer that you think is gonna help. So you’re responsible for that trainer.”
One reason that Mazzulli was particularly put off by the actions of Jackson’s team is that he feels the fighters and coaches who appear at Bellator events should have a strong grasp by now on the quarantine rules that have been laid out by the commission, Bellator, and Bellator’s parent company Viacom. Bellator resumed domestic operations in July with Bellator 242 after canceling a slate of events following the COVID-19 outbreak in March.
“I wrote my protocol up in mid-June and Viacom took it and I said to Viacom, ‘This is my protocol. If you want to exceed that protocol, you can,’” Mazzulli said. “My protocol was written by Dr. Michael Rajkumar and Dr. Michael Schwartz. Dr. Michael Rajkumar is the infectious disease doctor for me on my staff. Viacom, multi-billion dollar company looks at it and says, ‘Okay, that’s great.’ They change, they tweak it a little bit on their own, not mine but theirs. So the protocol’s set back then.”
The three-month suspension could throw a major wrench in Hooft and Jones’ plans. As noted by ESPN, the two coaches are expected to be in the corner for Gilbert Burns when he challenges Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title in a bout rumored to be taking place on Feb. 13. Both Usman and Burns train at Sanford MMA in Florida.
Though the suspension was handed down in Connecticut, Mazzulli hopes that other commissions in the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports acknowledge the penalty, as is often the case when one state’s commission issues a suspension. Mazzulli has already spoken to Nevada State Athletic Commission chief assistant Jeff Mullen about the suspensions, which could play a factor if the bout takes place at UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
“As a past ABC president, I only can hope that all commissions will adhere to these suspensions,” Mazzulli said. “This isn’t just a safety issue. It’s a national pandemic and they decided to not adhere to the process to allow their fighter to fight. It baffles me.”
Mazzulli did not speak to Henderson’s team about the suspensions prior to Thursday’s event, saying that he did not want to distract Henderson with the possibility that the fight may not happen. He also did not speak directly to Hooft or Jones and he is unsure if they are planning to appeal the suspensions.
“I have not spoken to them about it,” Mazzulli said. “I said to Mr. Jackson, ‘I do not want to hear from them until after the fight. You concentrate on the fight.’
“That’s another reason why I didn’t just toss them out, because if I toss them out and allow Jackson to fight, who’s gonna corner him? … It’s gonna affect the fighter and at the end of the day, I’m here for the fighter.”
MMA Fighting reached out to Hooft for comment on the matter, but has not yet received a response.
Should Hooft and Jones or anyone else become a repeat offender, Mazzulli said he will not hesitate to issue the maximum suspension of one-year for violating quarantine protocol. He believes that all the governing bodies involved have gone to great lengths to ensure fighter safety and prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that it’s not a lot to ask the fighters and coaches to follow the rules.
Some examples Mazzulli gives of organizational quarantine efforts include Viacom employing a full-time official on-site to monitor and enforce quarantine protocol, and Bellator providing a portable sauna, PPE, and a food delivery service to the fighters, as well as individual rooms for fighters and each of their coaches.
If cracking down on misbehavior leads to some personal disagreements at times, then Mazzulli can live with it.
“I always look out for the fighter,” Mazzulli said. “A lot of people think, ‘I come to Mohegan, he’s a pain in the ass.’ But they know it’s all fair play here. I have no qualms saying, ‘Listen, you don’t have to like me. I hope you do like me because you know I’m fair.’ But with that said, this is a pandemic and perception is huge and these guys are flying in from all over the world and we’re testing and we’re doing the right thing here.
“I’ve got to commend Bellator for letting me do what I want to do when it comes to fining and regulation. They understand there’s a separation and I just hope that all commissions will adhere to this suspension because if not, it’s gonna happen again because they’re gonna say, ‘Hey, I got away with it once and I’m gonna get away with it again.’”