Sometimes the pressure to Stay Positive can be damn near tyrannical. If you want to keep the bad things out, keep smiling. Just keep swimming. Take the evil news and the evil thoughts and the evil feelings and bury them deep inside a cake.
Sure, there undeniably is solace, strength and comfort to be found on the sunnier side of the street. But if it comes at the expense of honesty, it’s little more than the dead end of a primrose path.
There is power and liberation in unvarnished truth, both for oneself and others. There are unique healing properties in the act of standing up and declaring it for all to hear.
Sometimes it only takes two simple words: this sucks.
Chris Beal is a tough dude. You don’t get to be one of MMA’s brightest prospects without plowing through some pain. But it’s a whole new world of hurt when a doctor’s visit that started with the hope of getting a bothersome knee drained ultimately ends with a grave realization: That is not excess fluid in there. It’s one of the planet’s rarest forms of cancer.
“I just broke down,” Beal recently recalled in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “I can’t even remember what I was thinking. The tears just started streaming down my face.”
That was 2009. Chris Beal was 23 years old and just starting out as a professional mixed martial artist in the bantamweight division. It’s hard to imagine the multiple levels of grief that must go through a supremely healthy young athlete when he is told he may no longer be able to rely on his body. Or worse.
“I was just jumping into the water,” Beal said of his fight career at the time. “Now I would be out, and I might never know if I could really do it.”
The fear initially began to build when the mysterious bump behind his knee remained mysterious even after a biopsy. A second “open” biopsy—requiring 20 staples to close—returned a verdict of fibrosarcoma, a cancer of the bones or connective tissue that, according to the National Cancer Institute, affects one out of every 2 million Americans. Beal, his doctors told him, was one of only a few hundred people in the United States to have it.
And just like that, in the span of one conversation, Beal went from the training gym to the cancer ward. First dance partner: chemotherapy. To this day, Beal sees the experience for what it was and has the courage to describe it as such: it sucked.
“The chemo hurt so bad I was on the floor crying,” said Beal. “I’ve never had pain like that before. I don’t know how to really describe it. I was weak. I lost my hair. At one point I almost wanted to lose my legs.”
The good things in life unquestionably buoyed Beal through the ordeal. When the chemo didn’t work, those same things carried him through oncology's version of the nuclear option: a surgery to remove the malignant growth, along with, in Beal's case, a pretty big chunk of hamstring.
“I have great friends and family,” he said. “You just keep your mind strong.”
Not long after the surgery, doctors pronounced him cancer-free. But what about his fight career? Eighteen agonizing months after the diagnosis, Beal stepped back in the gym.
“I was super happy just to run again, and I don’t even like running,” Beal said. “It gave me a whole new appreciation for the process. Even on days I don’t want to be there training, I still love to do it.”
In August 2011, Beal resumed his fight career. And what’s more, he found his old path, one that saw him back on the express lane to major-league MMA. He is 5-0 since his return and now 7-0 overall. The flawless record and Beal’s bruising style landed him a contract in January with World Series of Fighting. He expects to debut for the promotion in June.
Now 27, Beal, who trains at the Knuckleheadz Gym in Ventura, Calif., maintains that clear-eyed honesty about what he's been through, and what he's still facing. He’s not back at 100 percent, though he’s getting better every day. With the same matter-of-fact tone he uses to describe chemotherapy, Beal details one very tangible way in which the experience left him tougher.
“Because I got some of the nerves in my leg cut during the surgery, leg kicks don’t hurt as bad anymore,” he said.
As he talks about the weeks and months ahead, you can hear the thirst in Chris Beal’s voice for life, adventure and career. Striking in Thailand? Grappling in Brazil? The UFC one day? It’s all on the table. Shifting to the practical parlance of the near term, Beal said he realizes he needs more experience under his belt to be more attractive to the UFC. That's why he hopes to fight at least three times in 2013, even after fighting four times in 2012. He has some catching up to do, after all.
To help make it happen, he recently quit his job as a chemical technician for a metal plating company and is training full time, living mainly off of savings from previous fights. There are challenges, but the future is bright. Beal is staring both squarely in the face.
“I’ve been in some tough situations and made it through,” he said. “I don’t feel like there’s anyone or anything that can stop me. The sky’s the limit, so let’s touch it.”
The Beaten Path is a new article series profiling MMA prospects. Read the previous installment here. Scott Harris is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.