City Kickboxing star Brad Riddell has hit out at the "inequality" of the New Zealand sporting scene as he prepares for more than two months away from home in his attempts to crack the top 10 of the UFC's stacked lightweight division.
Riddell [10-1] will fight former Tiger Muai Thai teammate Rafael Fiziev [10-1] on Dec. 5 -- a card that will also feature Australians Jimmy Crute and Jake Matthews -- in a bout the Kiwi says will be a "helluva war" given the fact the two fighters know each other so well.
What Riddell doesn't know, however, is when exactly he will be able to return to New Zealand, or perhaps even if he will at all. Unable to secure a spot in New Zealand's Managed Isolation and Quarantine [MIQ] system for either December or January, Riddell has joined the chorus of Kiwi athletes hitting out at the nation's COVID-19 management plan.
New Zealand's MIQ operates via a lottery, with citizens entering into a "room release" for a hotel booking when they are returning from overseas. The latest room release took place on Oct. 12 (NZT) for approximately 2,900 rooms across November, December and January.
Again, Riddell was unsuccessful.
"It's just a pain in the arse," Riddell told ESPN. "I'm not really an advocate of lockdowns and quarantine so I'm not gonna lie and say I like it and it's necessary because I don't think that. I think we're at the point now where it's time to just carry on with life.
"And I feel like we should be following Australia's plan, not so much for the lockdowns, but in how they allow athletes to train and still compete, and allow them to come back into the country with no hassle. The system here is a bit of a joke to be honest; I can't get home after my fight, I've got to take my family to America and I have no voucher home yet.
"So we have no idea when we're coming home. We missed out on December and January, all the vouchers are gone, so I'm looking at being in America or overseas until at least February...and then we've got media reporters following us around trying to ruin our attempts to train."
UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya recently alleged local reporters had staked out Dan Hooker's Combat Academy gym in a bid to catch the Kiwi lightweight training, after City Kickboxing been shut down across town for breaching Level 4 restrictions.
"I think you guys [the media] don't realise that inside that cage, it's not like a team sport where you have other people to rely on, other people's fitness or skills. You've only got yourself to rely on; it's dangerous, and if you go in there underprepared you get hurt.
"And this is our money, this is how we feed our families so it's testing times. But fortunately we're made of tougher stuff than the New Zealand Government and these reporters, so they can keep trying but they're not going to break us."
The plight of the City Kickboxing Fighters was recently highlighted by lightweight Dan Hooker, who had to wait until the last minute to secure his visa to travel. With Auckland under Level 4 restrictions, the U.S. Embassy was not processing visas. However, Embassy officials then opened up especially for Hooker to allow him to travel at what was basically his last opportunity to do so.
Ahead of his fight with Haqparast, Hooker and CKB coach Eugene Bareman both spoke of potentially shifting to the U.S. on a permanent basis, such had become the trials of training out of their Auckland base.
Riddell also pointed to the recent example of All Blacks rugby players Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, who were granted MIQ spots in the lottery at short notice, which allowed both players to return from the Rugby Championship in Australia almost immediately after it was decided they would not be part of the team's squad to tour the U.S. and Europe.
"It's starting to sort of head that way; we'd like to not think that, but just the inequality of the sport scene here, it's just starting to seem that way," Riddell replied when asked if he and the CKB team felt like some in New Zealand didn't want the sport, nor his gym, to succeed.
"There are a lot of rooms for all the sports teams that are well known, like the All Blacks, they can just come and go as they please; two more All Blacks just got vouchers to come back into the country once they decided to come back because apparently it was in a lottery.
"But that's just hard to believe when we've sat on that MIQ website for hours on end trying to get vouchers for months; me and my wife have contacted the government, [and] New Zealand Sport, so has Eugene [Bareman] and everybody else [CKB fighters]; it's come to blows, we're having to approach them on social media with all of our larger platforms and call them out for this.
"I just feel like it shouldn't be the way we have to go. We're going away and representing the same flag that the All Blacks and stuff are, and we take far [fewer] rooms on the way back than they do. So I feel like we should be treated the same."
ESPN does not suggest the All Blacks did anything untoward to gain the MIQ lottery places at short notice, but Riddell's frustrations are clear. They echo those shared by surfer Paige Hareb and triathlete Hayden Wilde, and thousands of other Kiwis across the globe.
"All you can do is what we're doing now, which is to keep trying to bring some eyes to it and to create a little bit of public pressure. It helps us out but other athletes, too, there are other athletes in New Zealand that aren't MMA fighters that are from smaller sports and are having the same problems, too.
"Those guys unfortunately don't have the same platform social media wise to bring the attention to it, so we're doing it for them as well because they deserve the same treatment as they're representing that flag."
Riding a seven-fight win streak and undefeated through four bouts in the UFC to date, Riddell sits just outside the top 10 lightweight rankings in what is one of the deepest divisions in the promotion.
Fiziev is ranked a couple of spots lower, though Riddell sees the Dec. 5 showdown as being worthy of star billing regardless.
"In my opinion, Rafael is already worthy of top four, top five, he's a really good fighter everywhere," Riddell said. "I spent quite a lot of time with him [at Tiger Muai Thai] in Thailand, so me and Raf, it's a huge jump and it'll bring a lot of eyes to me as well.
"It's definitely not going to be an easy fight, it's gonna be a helluva war. But I'm definitely looking forward to it and he was the only option. I didn't go looking for Raf and he didn't go looking for me, there was literally nobody above us in the rankings who wanted to fight, they just wanted to wait and try and get someone higher ranked, so that's why me and my friend have ended up having a fight.
"He's good, obviously, he's very physical. He's aggressive, he's got some good power in that first round and is pretty dangerous. And he's pretty hard to take down from memory, I don't think he's been taken down in the UFC so far. Like all of them, you're got to be cautious, you've got to be careful, but I'm just going to bring my firepower in there and see how it goes."
Riddell also reserved special praise for teammate Hooker, both for the nature of his triumph over Haqparast and his willingness to throw down with Makhachev.
"That was awesome, when all that sh*t was going down I was like it's lucky it's happening to Dan because he's one of the very few people that can actually overcome something like that and carry on," Riddell told ESPN.
"Everyone thought it was incredibly hard and it wasn't going to happen, but I was like I reckon Dan can pull this off and win this fight. And sure enough he did, he had an awesome display against Nasrat, coming off his losses. And I know that Nasrat had some unfortunate family passing, his mother died, so it was also a very hard fight for him, and he also had a visa problem.
"So it was just a strange situation for both of the guys, Dan and Nasrat, but Dan fought awesome and it's even cooler that he's jumping at the chance to fight Islam. Nobody wants to fight Islam, but Dan will go and do it because Dan is nuts."
With nearby Australia - or at least states within the country - shifting towards home quarantine, it may be that New Zealand treads a similar path in the future, though the country's vaccination rate is at this stage about 10% lower than their western neighbours.
The New Zealand Government has announced a "self-isolation pilot" program will begin from Oct. 30, but only for up to 150 people.
Riddell has already dealt with the reality that he will be away from home over Christmas - he will take his family to the U.S. with him - and well into the new year, and he has given serious thought to making the shift overseas full time.
"Everyone's curious about that," he said with a laugh. "To be honest, I was speaking to Volko [Alexander Volkanovski] about moving over there, just so we don't waste our prime years of our early 30s, that's when you're at your physical peak to have a good fist fight.
"So we were thinking about moving over there [the U.S.] just to be closer to the action in our prime time and it turns out Eugene was thinking the same thing. Obviously we would much prefer to stay in New Zealand because everyone has family ties and stuff like that here, and we've always fought out of New Zealand mainly. But the way it's looking, it's looking like we're moving.
"But I don't want to, to be honest."