I can’t move my neck.
Luckily, I can still move the rest of my body, which — considering I just underwent a five-hour surgery to repair all of the torn ligaments in that neck and now have two tiny titanium rods to hold my spine upright — is nothing short of a miracle.
The nurses tell me that the extreme swelling of my throat is perfectly normal, but I am not sure they realize how hard it is to swallow my pain pills. Then again, it’s much harder to swallow my sudden new reality.
Let me try to explain.
On Sept. 4, I drove from my home in Jefferson City, Mo., to Columbia, some 30-plus miles way, to fight for an amateur MMA welterweight title at the local Knights of Columbus. Before the bout, I did what I always do: Smile, listen to music, dance, dance some more, and think about how lucky I am to do something that makes me feel so alive, to do something that pushes me to better every single day.
My opponent’s name was Albert Lee. We stepped into the ring at precisely 10:30 p.m.
What happened shortly thereafter was not the grotesque, shocking event you have probably been waiting for me to describe. It was all pretty routine, actually.
In the second round, I moved in for a takedown, grabbing Lee’s leg, and shifting his momentum into me and toward the mat as one. I can still see a certain group of marks and scuffs on that mat in my mind’s eye — the area where the front of my head landed squarely with a thud. I knew instantly that “something” had happened, but the adrenaline coursing through my veins somehow allowed me to continue for another two rounds.
Albert won the fight by decision. The result is the last concrete detail about that night I can remember. It was the second time I’d lost a title fight in my young career as a mixed martial artist, but it was undoubtedly the biggest loss I will experience in my life.
I am not unique as a fighter. Just another young man attracted to the glory of combat. Just another hungry athlete dreaming of a future built upon the back of his peak athletic ability. Just another fighter transfixed by the explosion of MMA and its stars’ mainstream arrivals; wondering if he might someday achieve those same heights.
That was me — my head perpetually in the clouds — and I loved every minute of it. Nothing could stop me, it seemed, until the ground did. I was invincible, until I found myself strapped to a board inside of an ambulance.
On Sept. 10, six days after the fight, I walked into a local doctor’s office without an appointment. My neck felt tight and sore, which wasn’t entirely unusual given the physicality of the match, but deep down, I knew that something was wrong. After a few initial scans, the mood in the patient room became anxious. I could see it on their faces, in the way the were looking at me, almost incredulously.
They told me I needed to get to University Hospital in Columbia immediately, and I was relieved. That’s fine, I can drive up there, no problem, I thought. Instead, I found myself strapped down in an ambulance, panicked, in complete disbelief. What the hell is happening?, I asked myself. I was just walking around, I had been functioning fine since the fight. Wasn’t I? Whatever, this can’t be that serious.
When we arrived, I was met by four “specialists” and their boss’s boss, someone of great medical importance from the looks of things. I smiled at them. My warmth was not returned. “We need you to understand how serious this is,” one of them said in a stern, monotone voice without even a hint of emotion. I wasn’t smiling anymore.
When we reached my room, they informed me that I should consider myself lucky; that I had inexplicably and narrowly escaped death. They went on, amazed by the fact that I was even able to walk, and that they had never heard of a patient holding their head up with just one neck ligament intact.
They told me that at the moment of impact, the discs at the front of my throat had imploded and all but one of the ligaments in my neck had been torn. They told me I was centimeters away from life as a quadriplegic. Then they said those five words that I will never forget. “You will never fight again.”
I tried not to panic as my brain tried process what I had just heard: paralyzed, dead, miracle. They placed in a hospital room and told not to move unless I absolutely had to. I was initially allowed to go to the bathroom by myself, but that “privilege” was quickly revoked for whatever reason.
The night before my operation, I posted to my Facebook page, “Tomorrow I will have surgery, today will be yesterday, my dreams are not over tomorrow, tomorrow is the first blank page of a new book and I will write a good one. Let nothing take your joy away ... nothing.”
The next day — now 10 days after the moment of impact — the surgeon took a scalpel to my throat in an effort to repair the damage that had been done. Typically, neck surgeries are performed by going in through the back, on account of all the blood vessels and muscles at the front, but in my case, the damage was so extensive, that wasn’t an option.
After a week of being confined to the hospital bed, with the back of my neck literally bleeding into the pillow, I was still trying to make sense of it all. I was digging deep into my thoughts and emotions. I wanted answers about why this happened, and, more importantly, what would come next.
I kept thinking about my mom, who so often said to me, as only a mother can, “Laree, this is so dangerous. Can you please do something different?”
She was right; MMA is a dangerous sport. I always knew there were risks when I began training a little more than a year and a half ago, but there are always risks in anything you do. Sure, I never expected anything horrible to happen to me, but I would be lying if I didn’t at least admit that I knew it was a possibility.
Contrary to popular belief, fighting isn’t (only) full of meatheads with no regard for their own or their opponents' well-being. Typically, fighters experienced some sort of motivating experience that fueled their dedication to the sport.
I was no different. In fact, there was one little boy, in particular, who inspired me. My first fight was in January 2014 at Battle of the Beach in Lake Ozark, Mo. I knocked the guy out in 57 seconds. David Tate was his name. After the fight, a group of little kids surrounded me outside of the cage. One little boy had a cast. “Can you sign my cast?” he asked me.
Sure, Kid, but this is only my first fight!, I thought. This is only amateur fighting. Still, that little boy was over the moon to meet me. I signed his cast and he replied in that excited, high-pitched way only a kid can, “You’re so awesome. You did a great job. We’ll be watching!”
People were watching. People cared. That’s what we athletes live for. It’s about more than sport. We crave the emotional payoff. Or at least, I did. That’s why it was worth the risk, even if I didn’t go as far as I wanted to as an MMA fighter.
It’s been almost three weeks since the surgery, and apparently, I’m recovering at an unusually fast pace. People with the type of injury I sustained usually take at least five weeks to progress to where I am right now. I’ve been released from the hospital, and I have even been given limited clearance to return to work. I have also been giving a lot of thought to returning to the cage. That's not to say that I will try to fight again. Just thinking about what that would mean, the risks it would create, what it would put my family through — those are pretty strong deterrents.
With any luck, I will soon find something other than fighting to give me a sense of purpose; something that will challenge me to be a better man. Maybe something safer than fighting, so mom can finally take a deep breath. I also keep thinking a lot about that kid in the cast now, now that I’ve been the one who was laid up, lucky to be alive. I want to thank him for that special feeling he gave me that night. I want to thank him for inspiring me to be my best, for me to be my true self.
To be a fighter.