AFTER ARRIVING IN Haikou, China, in the early hours of the morning of Thursday, Jan. 23, Viktor Postol and his team, who had just flown in for their Feb. 1 bout with WBC/WBO junior welterweight champion Jose Ramirez, woke up to some bad news.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak that was spreading in another region of China, the bout, which was scheduled to take place at the Mission Hills Resort, was in jeopardy.
Everything had seemed far less dire when Team Postol left Los Angeles, where training had been taking place at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym. But the flight to China had no internet access, and at that moment in time, there seemed to be nothing to worry about.
"We're talking about 20 hours of having no contact," said Marie Spivey, the business manager of Roach, Postol's trainer.
Once on the ground in China, Spivey received a call from Top Rank and was given an update on the virus and the guidance to take extra precautions.
"During that [flight] I think things escalated and people realized how serious this was becoming. ... I jumped on the computer and [saw how] every day the numbers were jumping so quickly," Spivey said. "And the locals were telling us it was a lot worse than what we were seeing in the news."
Postol and his team were told to stay on the hotel grounds to reduce the risk of exposure. So instead of going to the gym that was set up for them in the city, Roach put Postol through a workout at the hotel.
"When we were going to China, I didn't know about the virus," Postol told ESPN in January. "My wife told me when we landed there that it was all over the television channels in Ukraine. [Once on the ground in China,] we did [only] one training session and one last sparring to complete the camp."
Later that day, the fight was called. Oleg Kovalchuk, who is part of Postol's management team, said Postol was crestfallen upon hearing the news.
"He was upset. We were all upset because it was a great camp. He was in shape, he was ready to go," Kovalchuk said. "[Postol] didn't believe me [when I first told him]. He said, 'No way, c'mon, we have to fight here.'"
In the midst of the chaos that Postol, his team and Top Rank were dealing with, getting everyone out of China became the priority. With fears of the airports closing, time was of the essence.
"As you can imagine, [rescheduling flights] wasn't easy because a lot of people were trying to leave the country," Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs said.
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@toprank @vadimkteam @wildcardboxingclub @bradleyalanjacobs @thekovalchuk @freddieroach @aleggator Me and my team came back home safely. Top Rank Promotions and Seca Promotions who had cooperated on the mutual boxing show in Haikou, China on Feb 2nd were forced to cancel the show and postpone my fight with Jose Carlos Ramirez to a new date and venue to be determined shortly. I want to thank deeply Top Rank Boxing and each member of this team for prompt reaction on the ongoing virus situation in China and assurance of the fastest possible, comfortable and safe trip back home for whole members of my team and care of each of us throughout time staying in China and trip back home. We hope and pray the situation in China will be resolved shortly. Хочу сообщить, что я вместе с командой благополучно вернулись домой из Китая. Из-за вируса, который сейчас распространяется в Китае, организаторы вечера бокса, где я должен был драться против Хосе Карлоса Рамиреса 2 февраля в Хайкоу, Top Rank Promotions и Seca Promotions приняли решение отменить событие, а сам поединок перенесен. Новая дата и место поединка будут известны в ближайшие недели. Хочу от себя лично поблагодарить компанию Top Rank за молниеносную реакцию на текущие события в Китае, обеспечение нашей команде скорейшей, безопасной и комфортной дороги домой, а, так же, за беспокойство обо всех членах команды на протяжении времени пребывания в Китае и на пути домой. Мы надеемся и верим, что сложившаяся ситуация в Китае улучшится.
There were two groups of passengers: Postol's crew of three heading to Ukraine, and four others, including Roach, heading to Los Angeles. Arrangements were made, and the team headed back to the airport less than 48 hours after arriving. Kovalchuk said it was a rather eerie scene inside the airport, which is usually bustling with activity.
"It was kinda weird because we had a connection in Guangzhou, it's a huge international airport in China -- and it was completely empty, almost no people," said Kovalchuk, who recounted that everyone at that time was wearing specialized masks, which demonstrated to him the severity of the crisis.
But the challenges didn't stop once at the airport. Postol's group missed its connection, and there was a significant concern that his group would have to stay there until Monday or even longer. At the very last moment, Top Rank's Jacobs found a solution.
"I got on the phone with our travel agent, and we pulled three seats out of our rear end and found a flight at like 3 o'clock in the morning," Jacobs said.
By Sunday, everyone was home.
THINGS WEREN'T QUITE so complicated or inconvenient for Ramirez and his team. They never left California.
Trainer Robert Garcia and the rest of Team Ramirez were scheduled to leave the day after Postol did, but on that Thursday morning, after picking up his assistant Jose Contreras, Garcia got the call from Top Rank.
"[First] we were told we might have to wait 24 hours to leave. We kind of figured something was wrong," said Garcia, who said their group had a 10 p.m. PT flight that evening from Los Angeles. At that moment, the veteran trainer said he wasn't overly concerned about the situation in China, but his family had a different opinion and had given him masks to pack for the trip.
Considering that most of the team was at home in California, Ramirez and his crew didn't get caught up in a travel nightmare.
Ramirez was in San Pedro, California, getting his medical exams for the fight done when he received the news. When the fight was called off, he stopped training and eventually went back home to Avenal, California. Coming off a career-defining victory over Maurice Hooker in 2019, Ramirez was understandably disappointed.
RAMIREZ'S MANAGER, RICK MIRIGIAN, tried to quickly make contingency plans in an attempt to salvage the Feb. 1 date. He had venues lined up in Fresno, California, to keep the original date intact, but getting the right opponent was too tough a task. He ultimately decided the time wasn't right and they'd work on rescheduling at a later date.
"I took a couple of weeks off and I was able to relax," said Ramirez, reflecting on the period after the first date was canceled. "Then I got back to training camp."
As the pandemic continued, the teams negotiated a new date. After a month in limbo, Postol agreed to fight Ramiez on his home turf, the Save Mart Center in Fresno, on May 9.
"It got canceled again after being in training camp about four or five weeks the second time," Ramirez said. "After that, I felt like there was no direction. It could happen in June. It could happen in July."
BUT JUNE OR July didn't happen. Ramirez continued to wait as the teams and promoters searched for a window to make this fight. The uncertainty was constantly on Ramirez's mind. The prolonged delay was bad enough, but the lack of clarity on how soon the fight could be rescheduled kept Ramirez struggling. He feared not being at his peak when the fight finally happened.
"I couldn't really relax and put my guard down," Ramirez said. "I think most fighters during this pandemic, they stayed in the gym. They're in the same position as me. There was no direction for many of us. They had to be ready when they got the call. So they stayed in the gym, working. It definitely tests your discipline to be fighters all year round, instead of just eight weeks before the fight."
As the months rolled on, Ramirez managed to settle into a routine, working with Garcia and his staff in Riverside, California, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to prevent overtraining as they continued to wait on official word for when this fight would happen.
Once the Aug. 29 date was locked in, Ramirez spent a full eight weeks at the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy. By the time Ramirez finally steps into the ring Saturday, it will have been 13 months since his last fight.This stretch has been a blur for the 28-year-old champion.
"I've been in two camps, and the third one is this one. I just felt like it flew by," Ramirez told ESPN last week. "I thought about it, and it's already been a year. But I'm trying to not let that get to my mind because I want to make sure I start where I left off against Mo Hooker."
POSTOL ARRIVED IN Los Angeles from Ukraine on June 9. He had spent the past several months at home, largely training outside while gyms were closed due to the pandemic. By the time Postol left home, things were seemingly getting better.
"To be honest, everything seems fine," Postol said of the state of things in Ukraine, through his co-manager, Vadim Kornilov. "When I was leaving, everything was opening up. My family is there, and everything is functioning pretty much like always."
Though Ramirez has been off since July 2019, Postol has not fought since defeating Mohamed Mimoune on April 27, 2019.
Until Ramirez and Postol get in the ring Saturday, it won't be clear who was more impacted by the delay and the long layoff. But Postol doesn't believe it will play much of a factor.
"The only thing that really changed is that both of us had a long time out of the ring and that's been over a year," Postol told ESPN. "But we're on equal ground -- that's for both of us.
"[With] three training camps, this last one has been the toughest for me. I'm ready to go, everything is fine now. I'm very confident. I've had so many fights before and I have experience with long layoffs. So this is not new for me."
Both Ramirez and Postol have shared a unique odyssey on the way to their title fight, and barring another fork in the road, they'll finally arrive at their destination this weekend.
"I'm very excited because it's a very important fight for us," said Ramirez, who has designs on making some history. "After this fight we're trying to lock in the fight with Josh Taylor, and hopefully I'll be the first [Mexican-American] to become the undisputed world champion."
For Jacobs, this is also the end of a long, winding journey. A fight that was originally scheduled for a beach resort in China, then for Fresno, lands in the bubble in Las Vegas, where Top Rank has hosted a series of shows beginning in early June. For now, this is the hub for all the promotion's events for the foreseeable future.
"It's incredible, and it still has its little twists," Jacobs said on Tuesday, referring to Ramirez's trainer, Robert Garcia, testing positive last week for COVID-19 and being sent home from the MGM Grand. "So we're still limping to the finish line here, hoping he tests negative for the rest of the week and gets to work the corner with Jose on championship night.
"I figured we wouldn't be back in China, but I did not ever imagine the circumstances we find ourselves in today. ... By far, it's the most intense, complicated long-term item I've had to deal with in my career, no doubt about it."