Jason High barely remembers the moment that changed his life last June. He has a left hand from current UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos to thank for that. It was a punch that wobbled his legs, sent him tumbling to the mat and ultimately cost him his livelihood.
In the fog of war as referee Kevin Mulhall stopped the fight and awarded victory to Dos Anjos, a confused High shoved the official as he attempted to explain what happened. UFC announcers never mentioned it on the broadcast. There were no injuries, and no sense of dread accompanied it.
It was a dazed fighter who was trying to process events. But for High, who fights Estevan Payan on NBC Sports Network Friday night, it was a momentary lapse that had permanent consequences.
"I didn't remember most of it," High told Bleacher Report. "The commissioner came up to me in the locker room and I wondered 'Is he talking to the right person?' I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I thought he had mistook me for someone else. I asked (manager) Mike (Kogan) 'what's he talking about?' And he told me that when I'd gotten up off the ground I pushed the referee. As soon as I got on Twitter I saw GIFs of it everywhere and thought 'Oh my God.'
"I thought when we appealed it they'd take into account that I'd taken a good punch and wasn't 100 percent. Anybody who's ever taken a blow to the head knows the next 30 minutes or so you can feel like you're walking around on a cloud."
No such nuance was considered in the aftermath. A favorite of fans on Twitter for his approachability and easygoing nature, High found himself in unfamiliar territory. Suddenly, the hero was wearing the black hat.
UFC President Dana White cut him from his contract without even watching the video. High, like so many fighters, wasn't a person as much as a cog in the UFC machine. Someone else would come in, and the machine would keep churning. That's the fight game.
"I'm not going to beg anybody for an opportunity and I kind of had to move past it," High said. "And now you can see there are a lot of fighters really unhappy with the situation over there. And I can see why. So maybe that's the silver lining."
Harder to take was the official adjudication. New Mexico suspended him for a year. That meant he wasn't just gone from the UFC—he was gone from fighting period. Already 33, High had to confront some hard choices about where his life was going.
"I'd be lying if I said quitting didn't cross my mind. I had a lot of time to mull it over," High said. "I did the math and realized I would be 34 before I got to fight again. It was definitely discouraging. When I was about a quarter of the way through it I wavered and thought 'maybe I should retire.' My manager and (partner) Ann (Gaffigan) brought me back from that cliff. They were both really, really against it. They were both vehement and that was encouraging."
Gaffigan knew from experience how hard it is to give up the sport you love. A runner who once held the American record in the steeplechase, she told High that he couldn't possibly walk away on anything less than his own terms.
"It would have been the worst time. Nobody wants to end their career like that," she said. "Imagine the conversations 'You still fighting?' 'Nah. I got suspended for pushing a ref and I don't know man, I just decided not to get back into it.' That sucks. He's been fighting for more than 10 years. It can't end like that. I feel like he hasn't really had the chance to show what he can do.
"I told him 'you can't go out like that. That's not you and you have a lot more to show people. You can push this down in the Google search results and let people see all the skills you haven't been able to show yet.' I know that 34 sounds so old for an athlete. But he takes good care of himself, he doesn't have any residual injuries, and he's still got a lot of hunger."
Instead of giving up, High decided to do what he's always done—work. Training at his own American Top Team HD gym in Lenexa, Kansas, he rediscovered his love for the game.
"He kept training every day because that's what he does. It's an outlet for these guys," Gaffigan said. "I don't train with him every day MMA-wise, but I do make him run on the track. And I can tell you, in terms of conditioning he's in the best shape of his life. But training without anything to look forward to is pretty tough. It's a daily reminder.
"People who don't know him that well would constantly ask 'when's your next fight?' And he'd have to decide how much he wanted to tell them. Because it's embarrassing. He's not the kind of guy anyone would expect would be suspended, and it was hard for him to have to explain himself. I think it's the hardest part."
The result, High says, is a fighter who is much improved—and a fighter who believes, after 23 bouts in 13 promotions, that he's ready to take a run at the top. Friday night will be his first chance in 17 months to show the world what he can do.
"I feel pretty good man. I hope I'm not the same fighter I was before the suspension," High said. "If a year's passed and you haven't gotten better, you aren't doing your job. My body feels great, and I'm confident in my technique.
"I want to be a world champion. And I really think at World Series I can do that. I thought I could do it in the UFC too. I can be in the discussion and be up there at the top of the division."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.