Blood, sweat, and even tears mark the extraordinary life of an MMA fighter. When faced with serious injury, even these elite athletes must display a special level of determination to make a strong comeback.
For a fighter entering the grueling process of surgery and rehabilitation, daily life changes drastically. A typical day is structured around multiple training sessions with coaches and teammates. He or she closely monitors everything put into their body and very little time is spent on anything that is not directly related to improving the fighter’s craft. For them, the gym is home.
Addressing an injury is necessary for a fighter wishing to advance his or her career. Unfortunately it often becomes a tedious process that requires they stop training entirely for an extensive period of time. With life suddenly flipped on its head, the fighter has little choice but to patiently wait- enduring a long battle that involves invasive surgery, grueling physical therapy, and the complete rehabilitation of strength, cardio and technique.
That waiting game proves to be the most challenging aspect of the injury comeback process for most MMA fighters.
“It felt like my life got set back. I just started working, going to doctor’s appointments and sleeping in. It didn’t feel like my life,” McCoy Martial Arts fighter, Luke Hunsaker said of his eight-month hiatus.
The 22 year-old amateur tore a meniscus in his knee because of complications in what doctors called “the ankle of a 65 year-old man.” Even after realizing he lacked lateral movement completely, Hunsaker continued training until coach Rick McCoy urged him to see a doctor. Reluctantly acknowledging he needed time away from the sport he lives and breathes, Hunsaker underwent surgery. His ligaments were sewn, bone fragments removed and the fracture in his ankle was repaired.
Hunsaker's stubborn attempt to overlook his injury is common among these extreme athletes. The uniquely tough “fighter mentality” and a staunch desire to stay in the game keeps many training, fighting and even winning despite severe injuries.
In 2013, then 26 year-old Mike Pope tore his ACL, but it wasn’t until after another two fights that he took care of the injury- a decision he now calls “ignorant.” Despite winning both matches, the Disciple MMA fighter was unhappy with his performance. "I felt like my skill set was going backwards,” the Pro fighter said. When a box-jump exercise caused his knee to give out completely, Pope finally pulled out of the fight he had been preparing for and saw an orthopedic surgeon. Describing the time as the lowest point of his career, he admits he knew the repairing of his ACL and meniscus was vital to his career progressing as planned.
“Athletically, I’m getting up there in age, so I figured handling it now was better than trying to come back from an ACL injury in my 30’s,” Pope said. Though he remained positive throughout the rehabilitation process, the 7 months spent anxiously waiting to get back on the mats proved to be Pope's greatest trial.
“When you’re used to being in the gym three or four times a day and then suddenly you’re not, you feel like you’ve fallen behind,” Pope explained. "I don’t like to feel like people are working harder than I am [and] not being able to get in there can definitely play with your head,” he added.
Still, taking time off to deal with an injury can bring unexpected benefits. "It teaches the 18 year old kid that he’s not invincible. It shows you your physical boundaries,” now Pro fighter, Reed Miller said.
Boasting a 6-0 amateur record, Miller accepted a Thai-kickboxing match in November 2012. A Bucket-handle Tear suffered during that fight resulted in his first loss. “It feels awful to have something like that cause you to lose,” Miller, who represents Vanguard Gym, said. The (now) 23-year old also credits the surgery that reattached his MCL and subsequent time off with helping his game. Citing improvements in flexibility and strength, Miller also said the time off helped him find his healthy fight weight: around 145 pounds.
Despite admittedly struggling to find the patience for his lengthy comeback process, Pope too found something to appreciate in taking time away from fighting. “You put a lot of things off as a pro fighter. I don’t want to say you’re not enjoying life, but you’re definitely not doing what everyone else is doing. The break gave me time to relax and time for the people that I had to push aside while training," he said.
But after 13 months off, Pope is more than ready to return to fight life. He’ll do just that in a big way on September 25th, when he faces Julio Arce, vying for the Ring of Combat Bantamweight Title. Having successfully sent over 100 fighters to the UFC, the promotion is providing Pope an opportunity he said is too good to pass up.
"I want to show everyone that I'm coming back not only stronger, but better than before. I want to make a statement: This injury wasn’t a career-ender for me [and] winning my very first world title right off the ACL surgery would certainly do that,” he said.
It’s easy to wonder how one fervently pursues such a demanding sport, especially after experiencing the depths of its potential for physical damage. Yet it should be less than shocking that a group of competitors who give and receive vicious blows almost daily are only mildly concerned with physical pain they have, or may endure. Hunsaker, Pope and Miller unanimously agree that the most difficult part of the entire injury and rehabilitation process was biding time until being able to push their human limits once again.
"I never once considered calling it quits. They’d have to take my leg and even then I still might try to fight,” Hunsaker half-jokingly said.
A truly rare breed of athlete, with unique determination, MMA fighters exist in a world of their own. Though the average person may never fully comprehend the mentality driving these fighters, witnessing their art is a true spectacle.
"This sport isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. It’s going to be me or you,” Hunsaker, who returned to training just four weeks ago, said.