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You have to be a real hardcore fan to have heard of Cristian
Binda
before last month. The ones that do know him, though,
will remember the wars he put on every time he fought. “Mano di
Pietra” — “Hand of Stone” for non-Italian speakers — started his
long MMA career back in 2006. His name is among the trailblazers of
the sport in Italy, together with Michele
Verginelli
, Alessio
Sakara
, and Ivan Serati.
Apart from fighting at the 135-pound weight limit when he is a
natural flyweight, perhaps too many injuries marked Binda’s
regional career. After his last couple fights, he decided to hang
up the gloves in 2018.

In the last month, though, the Italian pioneer’s name hit the
headlines after he
became the first MMA athlete in the world to test positive for
COVID-19
. Now, Binda sounds relieved while he is doing his last
days of hospitalization at the Lanzo Intelvi Hospital, about a half
an hour from the majestic Lake Como.

“I think I’m healed but my last swab turned out to be positive, so
there’s still a small viral load,” Binda said to Sherdog. “It
doesn’t give me any physical problems, but it’s still there and I’m
still contagious. It can worsen again, so doctors prefer to not
discharge me until my swab is fully negative. I eat everything they
bring me, three starters, main courses, and two sandwiches! I’m
training hard in the hospital gym, I’m just waiting for my swab to
turn up negative.”

Binda’s odyssey began on March 9. The same day, the Italian
government ordered a national quarantine as the cases of COVID-19
were skyrocketing. At the time, people could still do outdoor
sports activities, a liberty they would lose a few days later.

“I was bike riding that day and there was a gentle breeze. I
started coughing, but I didn’t worry at first because I blamed the
breeze. Plus, I suffer from acid reflux and have a hiatal hernia,
I’ve always had a bit of cough. In the evening, my body temperature
started to rise. The day after, I kept on coughing and had a
temperature near 100 degrees. During the first four or five days,
it stayed under 100. I was coughing like hell, but I breathed
normally. After a while, my temperature got worse, it went up to
103, my cough didn’t improve at all and my chest started to ache. I
called the numbers the Italian government set for the COVID-19
emergency, but they told me that they couldn’t help me. If I could
breathe, I had to stay home and take Tylenol. But I felt worse and
during my last day at home, I was sick for real.”

Locked in his own home, Binda couldn’t help but think about how he
got into a sticky situation like that. He doesn’t want to point the
finger against anyone in particular, given that he came to no
certain conclusion, but he came up with a couple of hypotheses.

“Before the national lockdown, I went out only to do grocery
shopping. I have a small fridge, so I had to go out once every two
days. But I will confess that I also went to my usual bar to drink
a beer and I used to stay there for half an hour. A friend of mine
who went to the same bar was taken by ambulance two days before I
went to the hospital. He was intubated and his life was in danger.
I have many hypotheses, but there are a lot of asymptomatic people.
We have to stay the hell away from each other. I was healthy, I
trained a lot and I was in good shape. I even started a
multivitamin treatment, but it hit me hard anyway. It could’ve been
worse; I’ve seen appalling scenes. I think I got at that bar,
talking to the wrong person, or perhaps doing grocery
shopping.”

Ten days after he got that troubling cough, Binda’s condition
wasn’t improving at all. In his way, the Italian fighter’s
toughness is reminiscent of when Randy
Couture

walked into an ER alone even though he had just suffered from a
heart attack
. Binda drove himself 30 miles to go to the
hospital.

“On March 19, I called a friend of mine, who is a surgeon working
in the COVID emergency department at Sant’Anna Hospital in Como. He
sounded alarmed after I explained my symptoms to him. He told me,
‘Go straight to the hospital. If you are not coming on your own,
tomorrow we’ll come and take you in.’ I went straight away. This
was the only moment when I felt worried. I gathered all the
strength I had, packed some things and I drove to the hospital by
myself.

“I was into the ER from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The doctors checked up on
me around 2 a.m. I did a general checkup, the famous COVID-19 swab,
a CT scan, and X-rays. From the scans, they know right away if you
are positive because the inflammation inside your lungs follows a
certain pattern. They treated me with pills and antiretroviral
therapy, the same kind used for HIV. Then they sent me to another
facility, where they treat the less urgent cases. I arrived there
with little fever, I had probably started to respond to treatment
they gave me right away. Two days after that, I didn’t have the
fever anymore, but I still had the cough and my chest still hurt. I
felt weak like a maggot.”

The Cage Warriors veteran imagined several scenarios that would
have followed once in the ER, but the drama of the reality exceeded
even his worst nightmares. Binda is reluctant to talk about what
followed his arrival in the ER. He didn’t want to go into many
details, but he sounded genuinely scared about that experience.

“I’d describe the place as one of Dante’s circles of Hell. It’s
hard for me to speak about it because I am very sorry for all the
people who were there. Everyone was getting intubated, everyone had
to put on that helmet to help them breathe and everyone was in
desperate condition. I stayed in a hallway with the ones who didn’t
need oxygen. They didn’t have enough space for everyone, so they
put us in a sort of garage for ambulances. We were all in line on
our gurneys waiting for our turn to take the exams.”

At the peak of his long career, Binda had the satisfaction of
facing fellow MMA veteran Masakazu
Imanari
in the main event of the first
Venator Fighting Championship
numbered event. One year later,
he won the Venator bantamweight championship at
Venator 3
— which still remains the most important event in the
history of Italian MMA. Turning 43 in September, there is nothing
that would convince him to wear his gloves for one more match. But
this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like the feeling of adrenaline
flowing through his veins anymore.

“I don’t think there will be a last MMA fight for me, I’m not
saying I don’t like it anymore, but I feel out of place. The MMA
world is full of young people who are building their future, and I
feel like the old man putting a hole in the ball of the kids
playing because they’re making too much noise. There are other
sports for old men like me!

“I’ll go skydiving, I got certified in August and when everything
is back to normal, I want to level up. My dream is to do base
jumping. Adrenaline is everything, without it, you can’t keep
going. You need these shocks in your brain like little daily
electroshocks to keep you alive.”


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