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Travel a big part of punching ticket to the UFC

Featherweight contender Jeremy Stephens arrived in Calgary on Monday, five days ahead of his UFC on Fox 30 co-main event against Jose Aldo at the Scotiabank Saddledome, but unfortunately for the native of Des Moines, Iowa, a big storm arrived about the same time.

“It was a little rough coming in,” he told CBC News during a press conference Thursday. “We were probably about 20 seconds from landing and all of a sudden we just shot up. I was like, ‘oh man, there must have been another plane on the runway or something. Good thing we didn’t crash.’ I’m looking out [the plane window] to my right and see it’s gorgeous, then I look over to my left and you could see the darkness rolling in.”

Passengers were told the plane was gaining altitude to avoid the storm.

“They were like ‘we’re gonna stay up here … and we’ll land you guys here in a little bit if everything is clear.’ The next thing you know, we just start flying up even higher and [the pilot] is like, ‘we’re going to Edmonton.’ We ended up getting back a little later than expected but it was a good time.”

With UFC events held in cities around the globe and competitors hailing from all corners of the planet, travel is a big part of fighting for the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization.

Featherweight contender Jeremy Stephens had a bit of a rough ride flying into Calgary this week. (Dave Dormer/CBC)

The 26 fighters competing on Saturday’s card came from Canada, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and England.

Arriving early to get over jet lag and adjust to the local time, elevation and weather — imagine training in Argentina then fighting in Winnipeg in December — is as important as training for two months before the bout.

And most will fly home battered and bruised the day after being in one of the biggest fights of their lives, which can’t be comfortable.

Eddie Alvarez, known as the unofficial “most violent man in the UFC,” weighs in before UFC on Fox at the Scotiabank Saddledome. (Dave Dormer/CBC)

Eddie Alvarez, who grew up in a rough part of Philadelphia, and Dustin Poirier, who comes from a bad part of Louisiana, face each other at 155 pounds on the main card.

Both have been fighting professionally for more than 10 years, and it was fighting that gave each their first chances to be on an airplane.

“I didn’t fly until I started fighting, really. I might have flown once as a child. Then next time I flew was into Canada to fight somebody on a smaller show,” said Poirier. “And it was incredible then, I was so excited to fly and see places. But now it’s just part of it.”

Tecia Torres faces Joanna Jedrzejczyk this weekend at UFC on Fox 30. (Dave Dormer/CBC)

Poirier has changed up the way he travels for his last few fights, opting for an Airbnb over the UFC-provided hotel room, which he says makes life a lot easier in the final week of fight camp.

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“It makes it a lot more comfortable. I’m not being schooled around by the UFC or in the maze of all this stuff,” he said. “Me and my team have a full kitchen, washer and dryer, our own bedrooms. It’s much more comfortable.”

Most fighters travel with a team of around five to seven people, made up of trainers, coaches and sparring partners, and some even bring their own nutritionists.  

But cutting weight and thinking about your game plan doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for sightseeing.

“I have so much on my mind, it’s hard to really go out and enjoy the culture,” said Poirier. “I have such a big task at hand … even if I’m doing something else, that’s all I’m [thinking about]. I’m pretending to talk to you right now, but I’m thinking about whipping Eddie’s ass. That’s where my whole focus is.”

Family trip

Alvarez says he tries to bring his wife and children to his fights, so they can explore for a few days after.

“This one in particular, I’m going to bring my wife and my oldest out,” he said. “Sometimes we stay an extra day or so and check out the place. When I went to Tokyo and Russia, we stayed and checked some things out.”

With some time to kill on Wednesday this week, Alvarez and some members of his team went to Cowboys Casino, where luck was on his side.

“I threw down on some blackjack and did OK, won a couple hundred bucks,” he said. “We were in-between weight cuts. We had a couple hours and didn’t want to lay around the room, so we got out and played some cards … and had some fun.”

Despite this being strawweight fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s first visit to Calgary where she faces Tecia Torres, she was already a little familiar with the city, thanks to a family friend who lived here for a time.

“She is from my town,” she said. “She sent me pictures with the nice spots here [and] told me about the city.”

The former strawweight women’s champion and current No. 1 contender, Jedrzejczyk is one of the more popular stars in the sport, meaning fans regularly stop her in the street for photos, and her media schedule is always full.

“I wish I could stay longer, the bad thing is I have so many obligations going on,” she said. “I have to fly to Poland on Sunday, but … I wish I could extend my stay and enjoy the city more, but every day I’m trying to see something different. Every day I run to a different park. Yesterday I went to the Calgary Tower. I wish I could go to the Rocky Mountains.”

And it’s not just the fighters who have to travel.

Calgary will be the 23rd UFC event of 2018 and there’s 16 more scheduled until the end of the year.

While fighters will aim to compete at three or four of those, there’s a group of journalists covering the sport who will be at most.

MMAJunkie writer John Morgan — who calls Las Vegas home — has covered the sport full time for the past decade, and figures he spends up to 150 days a year on the road.

“It gets more old than people would realize,” he said. “On the surface, it sounds pretty awesome, you get to travel around the world. You do, but it just means you’re in airplanes a lot, you’re in hotels a lot, you’re gone from home a lot. I see my son on FaceTime a lot, so that part of it sucks, but there’s pros and cons to everything.”

Getting to sample various cuisines and experience other cultures is a pro for Morgan.

“If you can try local food, if you can find a local bar, if there’s a local drink or whatever the case may be, you try to find a little flavour of the city,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is show up somewhere else in the world and find the first McDonald’s.”