BILLINGS — A month ago, Hunter Azure experienced one of the craziest two-day stretches of his life.
On April 9, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced it was postponing UFC 249 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Azure was slated to fight Umar Nurmagomedov in a bantamweight bout at UFC 249 on April 18.
On April 10, Azure’s girlfriend, Sage Pearce, gave birth to their son, Wilder.
“Having the fight canceled and knowing you’re not getting paid, all of those things mess with your mind. It bums you out,” Azure told 406mtsports.com on Friday. “But then having him born, it brings you so much excitement and joy, so it was just a lot of up and down with emotions.”
Those emotions became all positive last week, when Azure learned he’d be fighting for the first time since winning his UFC debut in September. The Poplar native will take on Brian Kelleher this Wednesday at UFC Fight Night: Smith vs. Teixeira in Jacksonville, Florida.
If UFC 249 had not been suspended, Azure would have spent two days with his son before traveling to California for the fight. The postponement gave him an entire month to be with Wilder at their home in Arizona. In the process, Azure’s perspective and motivation changed.
“Winning a fight’s the greatest feeling, like winning that UFC debut. You never think things will compare to that. But when he was born, that’s one of those high feelings you get,” Azure, 28, said. “Fighting isn’t just about me now. I’m fighting for our family, fighting for a better life for him.”
The UFC is one of the first sports leagues in the world to hold an in-person event since March. In order to return to action, the UFC put precautionary measures in place for UFC 249 (Saturday), UFC Fight Night: Smith vs. Teixeira (Wednesday) and UFC Fight Night: Overeem vs. Harris (May 16), which will all be held in VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville.
For the latter two events, no fans will be in attendance, post-fight interviews will be conducted in an isolated area instead of the Octagon and crew members will wear personal protective equipment, as was the case with UFC 249, according to ESPN. Fewer than 20 people will be allowed in the arena during each fight, and all will be required to follow physical distancing guidelines.
Anyone involved in the three Jacksonville events and staying in the host hotel will be tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, before they check in. Antibody testing (designed to tell if someone already had the virus) will also take place. Azure, who will fly to Florida on Sunday, said he has not been tested yet.
UFC 249 preliminary fighter Ronaldo Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for COVID-19, the UFC revealed Friday. Souza’s fight with Uriah Hall was canceled, but the rest of Saturday's event went on as planned.
The UFC has been criticized for returning so soon and for the ways it handled UFC 249, such as letting Souza pose for photos and bumping fists with UFC president Dana White before the test results came in.
The Souza episode, safety measures and health risks are all background noise to Azure right now. The 5-foot-8, 135-pound Poplar High School graduate and four-time Montana state wrestling champion is focused on Wednesday’s fight.
“I’m just glad that Dana White and UFC figured things out to get us to fight and get our jobs going again,” Azure said.
Azure spent months pestering his management team and the UFC to book another fight. He finally got one, only to see it pushed back indefinitely because of a global health crisis.
“It messes with your mind, but I knew I wasn’t the only one in this position. The whole world was, so I just tried to control what I could control and just take care of me being healthy and keeping my family healthy,” he said. “Get my workouts in and try to keep a positive mind and just know when things got rolling again that I was gonna be on one of the cards.”
Azure, who is 8-0-0 in his mixed martial arts career, will face Kelleher (20-10-0) in a featherweight bout on the UFC Fight Night preliminary card Wednesday. The event will begin at 4 p.m. Mountain time and will be streamed on ESPN+.
Azure and Pearce decided to name their son Wilder in part because it fits a family theme — Hunter, Sage and their cat, Nature, all have outdoorsy names. The fact that their son shares a name with a famous fighter, boxer Deontay Wilder, is coincidental, Azure said.
The baby will be at the forefront of Azure’s mind next week. Perhaps Wilder will help his father improve to 2-0 in his UFC career.
“My son brought so much more energy and joy to this family and my career,” Azure said. “I just want to be the best parent, best fighter. Just give him a good path.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the UFC was the only sports league in America to hold an in-person sporting event since March. That error has been fixed.