Perched above the ring after professionally battering a man for the first time in three years,
In the span of a week during the first month of 2007, Escovedo went from thinking a spider had bitten him on the forearm to coping with a bladder swollen to the size of a small basketball, and the fear that accompanies paralysis.
Three visits in as many days to Fresno-area hospitals accomplished little except making Escovedo aware of an uncomfortable allergic reaction to morphine. The spider bite? An ingrown hair, he was told. And muscle spasms were apparently responsible for the inability to walk. The pain, however, was so agonizing it could make a man cry who never did.
"Security almost threw me out because I decided they're not kicking him out anymore," recalled Escovedo's mother,
Escovedo, who turns 28 in August, learned at the last possible moment that a rampaging staph infection was shutting down his body, not poison from a Brown Recluse or Black Widow. When an MRI uncovered a blockage of his spinal cord, he was transported in the middle of the night to see a neurosurgeon. Any delay in treatment would provide Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) -- an easily transmitted drug-resistant bacteria known to cause skin, blood, joint and bone infections -- time to permanently bound "The Apache Kid" to a wheelchair.
Escovedo, who reigned as the first WEC featherweight champion before
"I'm in too much pain. I can't take pills and hope it works. Cut me open and I'll take my chances," the fighter told doctors.
Made from a scalpel and 17 staples, a zipper of a scar along his spine remains proof of Escovedo's war with MRSA.
So, too, are those shaky legs.
For athletes competing and training in close quarters, MRSA has grown particularly loathsome over the past decade.
Similar to other staph infections, MRSA is an "opportunist," said
Key to avoiding the trouble of stuffing gaping wounds with gauze are common sense preventions. Maintain good hygiene. Wash workout clothes rather than stuff them into gym bags (the moist climate can act as a breeding ground for bacteria). Stop sharing personal items like towels and razors. These and other simple steps should considerably lower chances of falling victim to staph. Yet, the ease with which it spreads, particularly for those in MMA's high-contact world, and its adaptability make MRSA a brutally tough foe to put away.
"It's dangerous," said
Even when symptoms remain barely visible, MRSA sometimes progresses so fast it can knock the healthiest person out of action before they realize what happened.
In the bout following Escovedo's return, his first fight at 135 pounds in 15 professional appearances, promoters put together a five-round middleweight championship. Brazil's
Eight months after Escovedo began his battle with MRSA, former UFC heavyweight champion
In some MMA camps, such as Las Vegas-based fight factory Xtreme Couture, the mere mention of MRSA is enough to reveal a cache of mops and bleach-spiked water. While maintaining clean training environments helps combat skin infections common to MMA gyms and wrestling rooms, being overly cautious about the environment won't matter if proper attention isn't paid to personal hygiene and skin-to-skin contact, Hageman said.
"It's a tough problem for a commission to oversee because all it takes is one person and it can spread like wildfire," said Lembo, who takes regular visits to licensed gyms where he supplies fighters with information on how to keep clean.
In response to the influx of MRSA, a growing industry of gels, soaps and lotions are currently being marketed directly to 12 million active wrestlers, jiu-jitsu players and martial artists in the U.S.
"We're not in wrestling season and we're setting records everyday for sales," said Sako.
Despite Sako's objections, CDC endorses basic soap and water.
A week after surgery, Escovedo started pestering his neurosurgeon about returning to training. The message back: take it easy kid, it'll be a miracle if you ever walk again. Forget fighting.
"They were so adamant, I really didn't think Cole would be able to walk," said Popp.
If there was something Escovedo could not do it was forget about fighting. As a practical matter, prizefighting was his only regular method of paying rent and buying groceries. In a deeper sense, fighting "is what Cole was born to do," said his mother.
The road to recovery started with basics, though it wasn't long before push-ups and jumping jacks could no longer hold Escovedo's interest.
Prior to battling MRSA, Escovedo had fallen in consecutive fights against Faber,
As MMA grew in popularity throughout California, Escovedo became one of the first fighters out of the state's fertile Central Valley to gain a following. Eleven wins in his first 12 fights promised big things, but three losses in five months put a halt to that.
Stepping back into the gym after surgery and a six-week rehab, Escovedo demanded that his first day include heavy sparring. "He said, 'Put me in, I have to see if I can do it,'" Popp said. "He fought real good. He fought through the rounds, but he had to damn near be carried out of the ring."
For a time this is how it went. Escovedo, embarrassed and ashamed that he needed to learn how to walk again, pushed the limits of a war-torn body.
"It would be like if I sent you a text message and you only got every other letter," Escovedo said. "That's how my brain was. It would send the message to my legs, my legs would only get every other impulse, so I'd be walking in a mall and my leg would give out and I would fall."
Hard training -- there wasn't any other kind -- sometimes meant Popp caught Escovedo hiding in a corner trying to conceal the fact that his legs wouldn't stop shaking.
"It's a real confidence killer," admitted Escovedo. "It makes me question everything I'm doing. But my coach tells me to push through."
Thoughts of a rematch with MRSA rarely enter Escovedo's mind. With education and prevention, it's fallen away from an everyday concern. Each training session ends with a proper scrubbing. In fact, he's under sponsorship to Athletic Body Care, which produces specialty soaps and cleaning products designed to battle bacteria and other nasty things floating around a gym.
Escovedo considers his case a cautionary tale, and a lawsuit filed against the hospitals and doctors responsible for what he called a misdiagnosis appears headed towards a settlement.
"The Reaper tried to get Cole a couple times," said Robitschek at ringside, her son's legs still weak from balancing on the ropes. "He hasn't yet."