Imagine you are a mixed martial artist.
You work every day with one goal in mind: the UFC Octagon. You belong there. You sense it. Every step you take, every bite of food you ingest, is done with the UFC in mind.
You're invited to participate on The Ultimate Fighter.
It's not quite the UFC, but it's close. If you're really the trained beast you claim to be, you'll be in the UFC soon enough.
Now imagine you went to tryouts, made the cut and received a fight to get into the TUF house. Your dream is coming true.
It's worth nothing, by the way, that you tried out for the show just three days after after a five-round, championship war at a local NAAFS event against an opponent, John Hawk, who had previously beaten you. You took him to a decision this time, and your hand was raised. You defied the odds and the pain, and now you're moving closer to your ultimate goal.
In the fight-in fight to earn a spot in the house, you dominate your opponent. You smash him with punches. You rock him. You take him down at will.
And just as you secure your favorite position, the spot where you are at your best, your knee explodes.
This isn't just a story to cause you agony and distress—this actually happened to 29-year-old Ohio-based light heavyweight Josh Stansbury during Season 19 of the UFC's hit reality TV show.
Taking on Irishman Chris Fields in his fight to get into the house, Stansbury experienced huge success, battering his foe with heavy shots and completely controlling the action inside the cage. He knew he belonged inside the legendary, eight-sided cage and he was on the verge of realizing his lifelong dream.
That all changed when his knee gave out when passing to side control—his favorite position—forcing him to concede victory and bow out of the competition.
"When I take someone down and get on the side, I feel like I can hold anybody down," Stansbury told Bleacher Report. "When I took him down, it was like, 'Yeah!' you know? It was like, 'Yes, here I am, I'm getting ready to get off on him!' and it just, when I went to push off my leg to pass to the other side, it felt like it (my knee) popped out for a second."
The opportunity of a lifetime vanished, and instead of entering the field of combatants for Season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter, Stansbury was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where Dr. Albert Lin took care of his knee and got him ready to start training again in short order.
Thankfully for Stansbury, the UFC covered all costs of the surgery, and Lin and the surgery team did an excellent job, making the 5-2 light heavyweight stronger than ever after correcting a bucket handle tear in his meniscus.
Still, "what could have been" eats at Stansbury as he watches the 19th season play out.
"You finally feel like you're there, and it wasn't just the fact that I was there. I felt like I could compete. I felt like I could've won that thing, and I'm telling myself that in my head," Stansbury said. "I take this guy down, everything's going my way, and then: Boom! I go to post on my leg, and that happens, something so freak like that. It's just crazy. I wasn't beaten up. Wow. How can I…It was unbelievable to me."
Stansbury previously ran into trouble with his knee in high school as a wrestler, tearing his meniscus on senior night just before the state sectional tournaments. Since he was ranked fourth in the state that year going into the tourney, Stansbury elected for a quick cortisone shot to get him through before receiving a scope shortly after, in 2003.
This, however, did not fully fix the problem, and the injury reared its head at the most inopportune time, leaving him without a spot in the TUF house and without a chance at a slot on the UFC's roster.
On top of this, Stansbury's fate on the show was sworn to secrecy, and he could not tell anybody from his hometown what happened, something he found incredibly difficult upon coming home.
"Everything happens for a reason, but at the same time, when I came home, that's when I found it to be the toughest. You have friends and family coming up, saying, 'Hey, I upgraded my cable just so I could watch!'" Stansbury said. "And I'm just like, 'Man, you might want to wait until after the first show!' But I couldn't really say that. I didn't want to hype myself and create all this false hype, you know? So I just told them they had to tune in and just try to sell that first show."
Making all this even more difficult to stomach, Stansbury's dream and his journey on The Ultimate Fighter truly could have been something special for the Ohio-based fighter, for the UFC and for the fans. Going into the competition, Stansbury had already fought current show front-runner in the 205-pound division Dan Spohn twice in his career, splitting the matchups via guillotine choke. While Spohn tapped Stansbury in his second pro fight, "The Sandman" fired back at Bellator 71, catching his foe with the same move after landing a heavy punch early in Round 1.
Now, the rubber match between the two Ohioans will not happen in the finale as Stansbury expected it would, and he has come to realize this is just another lost opportunity. Add in the lack of fireworks from the current cast of fighters, and the entire situation is a burden that becomes heavier with each passing episode.
"To be honest, when the show first came out, it didn't bother me as much," Stansbury said. "I watched Spohn fight and stuff, but it's at the point now where the last couple shows, the light heavyweight fights have kind of been boring, and it's just like…it's bugging me. It eats at me. I feel like I belong in there. I felt like, in my fight, I was in control."
And that whole "boring" element of this season's fights? Stansbury thinks he could've changed that, too, and he'd have emerged as the show's "man to beat" by now if his knee had complied.
"I truly believe that if I was there, I'd be the front-runner right now," Stansbury said. "With my striking style and my wrestling background…And I can box, man. I'm gonna touch these guys, and I have punching power, you know? I feel like I could've changed that (the ratings and perception of the show). My definition of finishing a fight is not going out and laying on somebody and being safe. My definition of being safe is going out and trying to knock them out, not take them down and lay on them. It's just different. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise; they're not getting good ratings and getting some backlash, so maybe everything happens for a reason."
Now, Stansbury has moved on, training at Fight Club Pittsburgh, his home base of Team Impact in East Liverpool, Ohio, and the esteemed American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida.
At American Top Team, Stansbury said the training is "leaps and bounds" ahead of anything he can receive locally, and he enjoyed his time sparring and training alongside killers like former Olympic wrestler Steve Mocco (whom Stansbury described wrestling with like grappling a bear) and UFC heavyweight Todd Duffee.
Now, the next step for him is obvious, and it's one he eagerly anticipates.
The UFC needs to call. In his mind, he deserves a second chance. He's absolutely at the level of the light heavyweight fighters currently on TUF, and he needs his chance to definitely prove this fact.
"If The Ultimate Fighter did anything for me, it boosted my confidence. It kind of made me believe that I belong there in the UFC," Stansbury said. "As of right now, I have nothing. When I was leaving The Ultimate Fighter, it was all positive. I still haven't heard anything negative, it's just basically unknown right now."
The positive vibes Stansbury mentioned came from producers of the show and from Frankie Edgar's coach, current World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes. Stansbury said Moraes helped him warm up for his entry fight against Fields, and the 135-pound Brazilian made it a point to see Stansbury after the fight and tell him he belonged in the big show.
"Marlon Moraes, he was like, 'Man, you're really good. They'll bring you back,'" Stansbury said. "I left there really confident that they were gonna bring me back. I'm still confident that they are. I don't want to count my chickens before they're hatched, but I hope I did enough that they'd consider bringing me back."
For now, Stansbury uses Season 19 coach Frankie Edgar as inspiration for his return to the Octagon. Edgar famously missed the cut to make it into the The Ultimate Fighter house for Season 5, and he later went on to become a UFC champion.
While Stansbury is not putting himself at the UFC championship level just yet, he feels the potential is there, and he feels he belongs; he just needs the chance to showcase his worth and fight a full fight with two functional knees to prove it.
"I feel like once I get in there and I actually get to fight and prove myself, I feel like I fit in with the UFC," Stansbury said. "You always dream of it. Any fighter, I don't care who you are, even if you've had one amateur fight or if you're a veteran, your dream is to make it to the UFC."