Anthony Rocco Martin doesn't mince words when it comes to his return to the cage after two long years away from competition.
The 15-time UFC veteran saw his tenure with the promotion come to a rather unceremonious end following a June 2020 loss to perennial contender Neil Magny, and as Martin readies to compete again for the first time since that loss, he admits it's not exactly a glamorous story to tell.
"It doesn't feel real, really, right now," Martin told MMA Underground. "I'm just trying to get back in there and just have those feelings come back. It's been a long two years – long two years with a lot of sh-t going on in the background. A lot of just ups and downs, mostly down, so now it's just like I need to get back in there for my own personal sanity."
After the UFC declined to renew Martin's contract in 2020, he began to seek other promotions in which to ply his trade as a mixed martial artist. However, that pursuit was put on hold when a nasty case of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) wreaked havoc first on his knee but then his entire body.
"It just went into the bloodstream," Martin explained. "It went into the joint, and then I was kind of like, 'S---.' I was on that PICC line for six weeks. The first few weeks of it were absolute hell. I was having hallucinations and all kinds of sh-t, so it's kind of wild, where it's kind of hard to explain.
"I still have a lot of pain in the knee and stuff, but I'm able to push through it where really I don't even feel it during training at all. It's just always afterwards, you know, it's after training, so that's where maybe that's my age, as well. I don't know, but I think it's more just it ate a lot of my muscle away at that time, and then I was just doing tons of rehab and even afterwards, I ended up having another surgery on the knee because it just wasn't healing properly."
A professional fighter who was considered to be among the best welterweights in the world at the time was now forced to use a walker to get around in his daily life. It wasn't exactly ideal for Martin's mental well-being.
"I was just in a weird situation the whole time where I started going on antidepressants and then I started doing Percocet a little bit to try to make myself feel happy because the situation I was living in was just making me more depressed," Martin said. "Obviously not signing a new deal at the UFC, feeling kind of wronged on that end in a way, and just feeling wronged with the management. The living situation I was in down there was just like one of the weirder – I mean, there's no way anyone could be happy with themselves, you know? So it's kind of like I was personally degrading myself a lot, and then it was just turning into disaster. Then there's a feeling, 'Oh, I'm going to move back. I'm going to leave the situation. I have to walk away from it before it's just I'm going to commit suicide or something.'"
Martin returned to his longtime home of Minnesota to try and rebuild his personal and professional life. This past November, however, an ill-fated trip to Las Vegas to see a friend compete at a UFC event ended with Martin in police custody.
"I was sober for like maybe four days or five days before that, and then I land there and then I'm going through other personal trouble back home in St. Cloud and like a dumb ass, I get off the airplane and start plowing liquor," Martin said. Honestly, I don't really remember too much of the situation. I remember being blackout drunk, and I remember the one security guy was asking me if I peed in the hallway or something like that."
Martin doesn't recall much of what happened next, though a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department mugshot serves as a stark reminder of what followed. Fortunately for the veteran fighter, the charges against him were eventually dropped. The incident didn't provide Martin with an instant wake-up call, but things continued to spiral downward until he had no choice but to address his issues.
"Ten weeks now ago, I f------ got drunk and just like have these suicidal thoughts, have all these other crazy thoughts, where I'm like, 'Listen, it's time to f------ stop drinking," Martin said. "I haven't had a drink since then. I need to stop drinking, and that's kind of the main thing because it just leads to one thing to the next.
"I'm always fine. I'm the nicest person all the way until I hit this blackout stage, and then it's like the demons come out. You turn into a sh-tty human, and you think you can control it, like, 'Oh, I won't get blacked out. I won't be a dumb ass,' and then you just don't give a f--- and then you're a moron, so there you go."
While his sobriety has only been short-lived thus far, Martin said it's made an immediate impact on his quality of life, including his relationship with his 4-year-old daughter. Martin admits there is still much work to be done, but he believes things are moving in the right direction.
Now it's time to start making moves in his professional life, as well.
On Friday, Martin (17-6) returns to the cage in his first post-UFC contest, facing Tyler Vogel (8-5) in a middleweight matchup at CES MMA 68 at Veterans Memorial Arena in West Fargo, N.D. The card streams live on UFC Fight Pass, the UFC's online streaming service.
At 32, Martin still has plenty of time left to pursue his goals in the sport, but right now, he admits he's not exactly sure what those are.
"Right now, [the goal] is to find a way to be happy," Martin said. "I think happiness is just having goals. Right now, my goal is just fighting."
Martin doesn't necessarily expect full resolution based on the result of his fight. Sure, a win would help. It always does. But Martin has learned during the two years away from the sport that fighting will always be at least some part of his life, but it's not the only thing. It can't be.
"The No. 1 thing is just to find my path," Martin said. "That really is the main goal, just find a path in life and just keep moving forward."
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