Resilient Athletes

Uriah Hall’s life alone in a gym leading up to UFC 249


This ongoing photo series examines the ways the coronavirus pandemic has upended and reshaped athletes' lives.

Uriah Hall received a message April 9 that was brief but consequential. His fight against Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza was not going to happen, at least not as it was originally scheduled for April 18. The long-awaited fight that Hall had moved to Dallas to train for was gone with no schedule for another fight, but he did not turn back. Instead, he went all-in. He moved into Fortis MMA gym April 10, and shortly after that answered the call to fight at UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida, on May 9.

Hall (16-9) hasn't fought since September, when he defeated Antonio Carlos Jr. in his first bout working with Fortis MMA coach Sayif Saud. Before that, he went 1-4 in five fights dating back to November 2015. He changed gyms multiple times before he found a home at Fortis.
Fortis has been closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hall has continued forging a bond with his strength coach, Michael Scaccia, and Saud. "He told me the truth, that I can't do this forever," Hall said of Saud. "It was different when someone else said it. But at some point, I'm going to have to hang up the gloves, but it's that legacy I want to leave behind."
As soon Hall found out the April 18 event was canceled, he immediately texted UFC president Dana White to say he would be ready to fight at the next opportunity. "If I'm on deck," Hall said, "there are opportunities I can take."
Saud, right, gave Hall the option to end his fight camp, but Hall refused. "[The cancellation] didn't change my mentality," he said. Because of social distancing, Hall has limited his grappling training to one-on-one sessions with Saud.
“But at some point, I’m going to have to hang up the gloves but it’s that legacy I want to leave behind.”
Hall's then-girlfriend, UFC bantamweight fighter Bea Malecki, introduced him to Saud and Fortis MMA in 2019. "Saud, he has a very strong personality, but he's a really good guy and cares a lot about his athletes," Hall said.
The 35-year-old Jamaican-born fighter, who was training at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas at the time, said the environment at Fortis is what sold him. "The intensity, the group camaraderie, it was one of the best things I've ever experienced," Hall said. "I knew I had to hold on to this."
While isolating in the gym, Hall plays video games to ease his mind. It connects him to his youth, when he learned to fight by mimicking the characters in Tekken 3, a game released for PlayStation in 1998. "I had to record myself playing video games [on a VHS tape] and had to rewatch them," Hall said. "That's how I learned how to fight. My dream is to be in that game."
Hall moved to New York from Jamaica when he was 13. "We didn't wear shoes, and to us it wasn't a big deal," Hall said. "I got into fights. I'd cut class, my mom found out, and I started to cry. I didn't want to go to school." His mother enrolled him in martial arts when he was 16. "When the bullying got out of hand, my mom put me in martial arts and I was excelling so fast. They wanted to know where I learned all this stuff," Hall said. "I was embarrassed to tell them."
Most of Hall's training at the gym takes place with the lights off, a practice he jokingly refers to as "ninja stuff." It's a technique that helps heighten Hall's awareness and focus. "Ninja stuff is more for the mentality," Hall said. "It's mind-boggling what's happening [in the world] and you just have to stay focused."
Hall said he is not worried about getting sick, but he's also not being naive about it. He's noticed a heightened sense of awareness when he goes on conditioning runs outdoors in the Dallas area. "Why am I giving this thing power that I shouldn't give power?" Hall said. "I can be clean, wash my hands, just do the basics and not worry."
Living in a gym is nothing new for Hall. From ages 22 to 25, he worked as an instructor at a local gym in Queens, New York -- a position that did not pay him enough to live on his own. He slept in his office until his sister, Belinda Fugalli, moved and left him the keys to her apartment. "I was trying to make it," Hall said.
"When I get a little discouraged, I'm like, 'Man, I can't forget where I came from.'" Hall said. "It's a motivator to remind me that I should be excited and to count my blessings. I was homeless. No place. No car. But I learned from that."
One of Hall's sponsors, Icon Meals, is taking care of Hall's food while he's at the gym. He doesn't have to worry about grocery shopping or preparing meals, but because of the changes to his training routine, he's not burning as many calories as he usually would. That means lots of chicken, turkey, rice and broccoli. "Man, when you're eating healthy, there is no favorite meal," Hall said. "It's boring. It's not for you, it's for your body."
Being in the gym by himself can get lonely, especially since Hall has limited physical contact with his coaches at this time. He's maintained communication with his team through phone calls and text messages, which has helped keep him motivated. "It's easy to get distracted," he said, "but I'm on that path again and surrounding myself with the right people."
Hall's decision to remain in the gym and keep training has paid off with a spot on the new UFC 249 card. The uncertainty surrounding the fight in the past month has muted the excitement Hall typically feels before a bout, but he said he's looking forward to leaving VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville with a victory. "I'm trying my best, there's just been so many ups and downs," Hall said. "It is what it is. It's business. I'm not crazy about it. I just want to get in there, get out."
Written by Anthony Gulizia