Go to a nice restaurant with UFC welterweight Mike Swick and odds are you'll get to meet the chef. It starts when he orders something off the menu and has to specify that he'd like it prepared without garlic or spices, on account of an esophageal condition that doesn't react well to many of the mainstays of the restaurant industry.
The waitress will act like she gets it, but once she leaves Swick knows that one of two things are likely to happen next. Either the chef will come out of the kitchen to double-check these instructions, ensuring that Swick knows what sort of bland experience he's letting himself in for when he shows up at a fine Italian joint and asks for garlic-free food, or else he'll face no further questioning on the issue, which means there's a decent chance that his special instructions will be ignored. And if that's the case, he'll know it soon enough. He'll know it when he's up all night with spasms rippling through his throat and his chest, making him feel like he's having a heart attack.
This is why the 33-year-old Swick doesn't eat out all that often. It's been going on for years. First doctors told him it was a result of a stomach disorder called dyspepsia. Then they decided that it was more likely an esophageal problem, and so two years ago he underwent a procedure designed to paralyze the muscles in his esophagus, and hopefully allow the pro fighter to eat like a normal human being again.
"That didn't do anything," Swick told SI.com in a phone interview this week.
It's been two-and-a-half years since Swick has stepped in the cage. Between the esophageal disorder that sidelined him for months and the knee injury that knocked him out of a bout last summer, he's faced so many setbacks that it's almost hard for him to believe that his scheduled return on the Aug. 4 UFC on Fox event will really happen as planned. He's been here before, right on the precipice of a return. But something always came up. In his darker moments, he wondered whether he'd ever make it back. Even with his bout now less than two weeks away, maybe he still does.
"I guess I'm just scared to death that it won't [happen]," he said. "I'm overly cautious now with how I train, and with basically everything. I mean, I'm driving the speed limit. I'm doing everything in my power to not get injured and not get hurt."
By the time he gets in the cage to face DaMarques Johnson, it will have been 910 days since his last fight. Not that he's counting or anything. Not that it's been driving him crazy as he watches his friends and teammates from the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., march off to battle without him.
"Sitting on the sidelines, watching the UFC, that's frustrating when you used to be a UFC fighter," said Swick. "I was always a fan, but I was a fan and a fighter. For the last two years, I've just been a fan."
At last, Swick thinks he might have his physical problems under control. He's managing the esophageal disorder with diet, he said, and has finally found the right mix of supplements and shakes and what food he can digest without searing pain, and now, for the first time in a long time, he's feeling "big and strong and fast" again. But a lot can change in 910 days, and Swick has no way of knowing yet how those changes will affect him on fight night.
For starters, there's ring rust. While he insists that "the difference between fighting and sparring is pretty close when you train at AKA," there's no real comparison between mixing it up with teammates behind closed doors and fighting in a cage for money on live network TV. He can't simulate what it's going to be like to be inside the Staples Center on that Saturday night in Los Angeles. He can't know for sure how it will feel when he hears them play his entrance music for the first time since February 2010.
A part of him doesn't want to know how that feels yet, he said. That's why, when he's heard his entrance music -- Tupac Shakur's "Ambitionz az a Ridah" -- in other contexts over the past couple years, "I made them cut it off." The most recent instance was just a couple weeks ago, while he and his teammates were at the gym, doing their cardio circuit.
"Everyone just pops in their iPods or whatever, and it came on. I got up and skipped it. Just, no. Not this close [to the fight]," he said. "That song motivates me because of where I came from. When I first started training in a small boxing gym in Houston, that's all they would play. Just a lot of Tupac. When I hear that, it brings me back to that small little garage boxing gym, where I was training with dreams of one day making something of myself, and it still motivates me to hear that."
And Swick has made something of himself as a fighter. Just the fact that he made it to the UFC via the inaugural season of
"I'll never take fighting for granted now," he said. "I'll never fight in the UFC again and not think it's the greatest thing ever. I'll also really fight every fight like it's my last. You never know. I think that's the big difference now. People ask what you'd do if you couldn't fight anymore, but you're always thinking, what could happen to me? What injury would make me never fight again? Well, I got to see it. I got to feel like maybe my career was over."
It isn't. At least not yet. When they play his music inside the Staples Center on Aug. 4, and when Swick finally gets to hear it again without feeling the urge to skip past it, that's when his career can begin again. That's when he'll know for sure that this time it's really happening.