Update: Darrell Horcher was successful in his return to the octagon, 13 months after a motorcycle crash nearly killed him. He defeated Devin Powell via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) at UFC Fight Night 112 in Oklahoma City.
Horcher: "After going through the past year, I have such an appreciation for being back in the UFC and doing what I love.” #UFCOKC2017-6-25 23:50:38
The afternoon of May 25, 2016, was the first day Darrell Horcher could go for a ride in a long time. He had a few motorcycles to choose from, including a full-blown drag-racing bike he’d spent years custom-building, but he went with the graphite 2015 Kawasaki ZX-10R racing bike. It was the first bike he’d ever bought new.
He met up with a buddy, Kevin Morrison, and texted Matt Mayer, another good friend who trains in MMA with Darrell and usually rides with them. Mayer had just sold his old bike and was about to buy a new one, so he couldn’t ride with them, and Darrell wanted to rub it in his face.
Then, like he did before every ride, Darrell texted his wife, Daphney. Going riding. Will let you know when we get home. I love you.
He wore jeans, riding boots and a sleeveless T-shirt. No leather jacket—it was too hot for that.
He still wore a helmet, though. Pennsylvania law lets you ride without one, but Horcher always wore his, a matte black one with a face mask and neon-green spikes down the middle.
Life was good. At 28 years old, Darrell had spent seven years grinding through regional MMA promotions—with a stint in Bellator—and dreaming of one day landing a UFC contract. And finally, just last month, he got it.
He and Kevin did an easy hourlong loop along the rolling roads of rural Pennsylvania. Maybe 15 minutes from Harrisburg, in and around the Shermans Dale township, they’re not quite in the mountains, but still far enough away from people for Horcher’s liking.
Maybe five minutes from Horcher’s house, they hit one final open stretch on Shermans Valley Road, a highway in Loysville. They opened it up a bit.
Then there was a Ford Escape in front of them, appearing on the road like a glitch in a video game.
Kevin dodged it, barely.
Darrell hardly had a chance to hit the brakes.
He hit the front of the Ford, and his bike exploded into pieces. Shrapnel hit Kevin like a missile and took him down, sending him into the grass beside the road.
Darrell launched. He flew over the hood of the car and landed nearly 300 feet down the road.
Paramedics took Darrell to the hospital by Lifeline helicopter.
When Daphney saw him in the ICU, there was blood everywhere, his eyes were black, his nose was broken. His legs were in stints. A bone stuck out of his right forearm. Chunks of skin on his stomach and arms were gone.
Doctors told her that if Darrell hadn't been wearing his helmet, he'd be dead.
He drifted in and out of this world. He told Mayer, “Don’t get that new bike.”
And he told Daphney, “I’m sorry.” He repeated it many times. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
She was, too. Guilt tore at her. At the office for her engineering firm—she’s a proposal coordinator—Daphney saw the text he’d sent her but then got distracted with some work and never replied.
She’s never not replied.
Doctors said they had to run a CT scan to check his brain—they thought that if they put him under for surgery, he might not come back.
Darrell looked at Daphney and said, “I don’t want to die.”
That was the only time Daphney has ever seen Darrell cry.
He needed surgery to fix his broken forearm and legs, specifically his knees, which were destroyed.
When the surgeon came to take him, Daphney said, “You look tired as hell. There’s no way.”
He needs to be able to fight again, she said, and she didn’t want some exhausted, unmotivated general surgeon patching him back together.
Beneath the skin, Darrell’s kidney and liver were both lacerated.
Then there were his knees: He had bad damage to the MCL in his left knee and the LCL in his right—and he’d torn the ACL and PCL in both.
They said there was no way Darrell was ever fighting again.
But Daphney insisted harder.
The next day, they had different surgeons. That week, a trauma surgeon fixed his arm, and an orthopedic sports surgeon looked at his knees and scheduled surgery for a few days later.
He was in the hospital for a week. They put him on a painkiller so strong—Dilaudid—that they had to wean him off it by injecting him with pure morphine.
Before they released him, Darrell fought with a doctor. The doctor said that before he could go home, he had to pass a test: move himself off his bed, into his wheelchair, to the bathroom, out of the wheelchair and onto the toilet, back onto the wheelchair, then back to the bed.
Darrell barely made it halfway to the bathroom. Everything hurt. Every limb. Every inch of his skin. Every cell in his brain. “You want me to do this,” he said, “but physically, there is nothing about me that works. What do you want me to push off with? What do you want me to stand up with? Nothing works. I will never do this myself. When I have to go to the bathroom, there will be somebody there to help me get up. I will use my walker and I will go to the bathroom.”
The orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Robert Gallo, says that after double knee surgeries to repair damage like Darrell’s, most people need about two years just to get back to normal.
There is no time frame when it comes to recovering enough to once again fight in the UFC.
Gallo expected Darrell to be in a wheelchair for weeks, and then he’d need a walker and crutches to move around for much longer than that.
So no, Gallo did not expect that, by early 2017, he’d be clearing Darrell to fight.
“His will to get back to that level enabled him to do just about anything,” Gallo says. “As long as he had a leg, he was going to get back.”
It began as soon as Darrell got home from his last knee surgery. He and Daphney and Kevin and Matt were having a hard time figuring out how to get him through the door in the wheelchair.
Finally he said, “Forget this. I’ll just walk.”
He had them bring him the walker and they held his arms some, but fresh off surgery on both his knees, Darrell walked through the door.
The first few weeks, he slept almost 24 hours a day. The Percocet and Vicodin knocked him out a few hours at a time.
And he had help. Kevin and Matt hung out almost every day and cooked and got him whatever he needed. Kevin’s girlfriend, Lindsay, was a registered nurse. She came over every morning to give him a shot—blood thinner, so his blood didn’t clot—and she had to help him shower so that he didn’t make his wounds worse.
For a while he couldn’t eat more than Jell-O. He lost more than 30 pounds of muscle mass, down to 150 pounds even with his legs in braces.
The couple hours a day he was awake, he watched DVR’d fights and shows, mostly Kingdom and Big Bang Theory, and played the Xbox Daphney surprised him with one day, mostly UFC games and the new Halo.
He refused to wallow. Within a month-and-a-half, he kicked himself off the painkillers. “I wanted to feel things,” he says. “I didn’t exactly want to feel the pain, but I wanted to feel my body healing. I wanted to feel that I could get up and move around. If I’m just sleeping all day, I’m going to just wither away to nothing on the couch.”
Especially not when he’d just gotten everything he’d been working for.
The UFC had called him in early April. It wanted him to fight No. 2 undefeated lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov in Tampa.
In nine days.
Darrell said hell yeah.
He was completely out of shape. He was eating pizza with Mayer when his manager called to tell him the news. Training had been put on hold for months as he waited for his broken forearm to heal. He broke it in October, defending his regional lightweight title. (Broke it in Round 2. Kept fighting. Knocked the other guy out in Round 3.) Doctors put a metal plate in there to fix it, and he was about to have surgery to take it out.
He kept the plate in and dropped 25 pounds in a week. All he needed was one punch. A 5'9" “athletic freak” in Mayer’s words, Darrell usually walks around at about 180, stronger than most lightweights—and he hits as hard as a lightweight can.
Same as before all of his fights, Daphney was freaking out in the moments before he walked out. Doubly so for this fight. She was happy he finally made the UFC, but did it have to be on nine days’ notice, when he hadn’t been training—and against Khabib, of all people?
Then Darrell’s walk-out music came on. “Miracle,” an angry battle anthem by nu-rock band Nonpoint. The electric guitars swelled and the singer’s growling lyrics went along with it, and she could breathe again. “Get a doctor or a priest / Not an animal, I’m a beast. ... You need a miracle.”
Darrell didn’t win, of course, but he went out swinging. He stunned Khabib with a body shot that rocked him back late in Round 1, but Khabib survived, and Darrell was gassed, and Khabib knocked him out in Round 2.
Best loss ever, because it got him a UFC contract.
A month after the fight, he got the plate out of his arm, and the staples holding his arm together came out a week after that. Two days later, doctors said he could start training again—and yes, he could ride his bikes again too.
That was the day he crashed.
The Ford had pulled out of the parking lot of a veterinarian’s office. The parking lot exit had huge bushes around it, and the driver simply didn’t look carefully enough.
Darrell hit the Ford so hard he totaled not just his bike—that’s a given—but also the truck.
They were going so fast the police charged them for reckless driving, writing in their report that they were traveling “at excessive speed.”
That’s how Darrell tackled his recovery, too, though. With excessive speed.
During physical therapy with Dr. Gallo, he was relentless. “I’d say, ‘Here’s where most people get,’ and he wasn’t OK with that,” Gallo says. “He kept working. Goals I would have for most people—he wasn’t satisfied with those.”
In September, as soon as Gallo told him his arm was healed enough for him to do something, if he wanted, Darrell made Matt start working mitts with him as he sat on the couch.
In October, Gallo said his arm was totally clear, so Darrell started struggling his way to the small home gym in his basement.
Just getting down there and back wore him out. But he knew that’s what he needed. “Keeping my body moving is going to keep my body healing,” he says. “It’s rejuvenating. And then, when I sit down and relax, that’s when I can recover.”
Down in the gym, he and Matt did more mitt work, movement drills, shadow boxing, heavy bag work. Slowly but surely, Darrell convinced Matt to help him use the bench press, and then the squat rack.
Everything still hurt. But the more he focused on his craft, the less he felt the pain.
Darrell was soon spending four or more hours a day working out.
“He was always working at the margin,” Gallo says. “Always going at the very limit of what I would let him do. He wasn’t in the middle. He was always at the second standard deviation above the curve at what he should be doing. Always trying to get ahead. ‘How far can I push this?’ He was smart. ‘When can I start riding the bike? When can I start sparring? When can I start doing moves, stunts?’ Always at the margin.”
In November, he convinced Matt to spar with him.
If Matt had any doubt left, that convinced him that Darrell really was badass.
It was also fun. “He always beats me sparring,” Matt says. “He’s always the top dog at every single gym. And he can always beat me up. I try to give it back to him, but that doesn’t usually happen. So yeah, I had to give him a lot of crap.”
Come January, Gallo cleared him for light grappling.
For about a month, Matt says, “I could just tip him over.”
But by the end of the month, Darrell’s knees were back. “And soon as he got his knees back,” Matt says, “he cuts you off, and then he throws those bombs at you.”
At the end of February, Darrell wanted to test himself. He entered a local grappling tournament. He’s only a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, but he competed with the purple belts—one level up—and finished second.
At his next appointment with Gallo in March, he was fully cleared.
In April, his manager called.
He already had a fight: Devin Powell, June 25, at UFC Fight Night 112.
He texted the news to Daphney.
She texted back immediately: “Is this real life?”
As Darrell has trained, spending eight weeks away from her to do his fight camp at Curran MMA in Chicago, Daphney needed him to take his turn comforting her.
He understood. The crash put him through hell, but it put Daphney through hell twice—for him and for her. For reasons she doesn’t understand, she still has the belt he wore the day of the crash, a green Under Armour one. Darrell’s dried blood still covers it. She’d started therapy and gotten two anti-anxiety pill prescriptions.
He’d say, “I need just to see—can I still physically do this?”
His spiked helmet from the crash still hangs in the garage, still cracked and broken, the face of it long gone. Daphney's never letting him get rid of it. He needs to remember what happened.
He’ll never ride again. They’ve both established that. They sold his motorcycle before he even left the hospital.
Maybe one day, a long time from now, he’ll ride on a closed track. “Where nothing stupid can happen,” he says.
It’s sad. Next to Daphney and MMA, motorcycles and his rides around rural Pennsylvania were perhaps Darrell’s greatest love.
In the loss, however, he was also given a gift. One weird thing he doesn’t like about himself—and that he doesn’t like to admit, being a badass fighter and all—is that before every fight, he gets so scared that he nearly has panic attacks. It comes on, sudden and blinding, like a Ford appearing in the middle of the road. He always manages to pull it together—to hit the brakes in time, to get past it, to survive—but he can’t help but wish he wasn’t like that.
Coming off this crash, he can’t help but wonder if the lingering aches and pains will make that fear worse.
But he also can’t help but think, What is there to fear?
What else is there to say with another man trying to hurt you? “You can’t break me. You’re going to punch me with your fists? That doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t hurt like getting hit with steel. What are you going to do to me? You’re just flesh and bone, man.”
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.