MMA the Morning After: The Reality of Recovering from Fight Night

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterSeptember 21, 2018

B/R

It's mid-August, more than five weeks since UFC 226, and Paul Felder still can't pick up anything much heavier than a spoon with his right arm.        

Felder sports a splint on his right forearm, the fallout from an ill-fated spinning backfist he threw at Mike Perry in the first round of their match in early July. The backfist missed Perry's jaw and landed instead near the top of his skull, breaking Felder's ulna, the long, thin bone that runs from elbow to wrist. Felder fought through the pain to a split-decision loss, but the injury kept him in the emergency room until 1 a.m. that night.

"It was not only broken," Felder says, "it was snapped in half."

Later, surgeons would put the bone back together with a metal plate. A month after the fight, he was able to return to doing cardio and lifting weights with his legs. But on this day, he still can't pick up anything heavy—or throw a punch—with his right arm. He won't get the splint off and begin a tedious rehabilitation until a week after his interview with B/R. He estimates it'll be another three weeks until he regains full strength and six before he can think about hitting something again.

"Mentally, I'm feeling more like myself again," says Felder, who also works as an on-air UFC analyst for Fox Sports. "I felt very not myself for a couple weeks after that fight. I was on a long win streak, so it was my first loss in a while. Plus, I took some big shots to the head, so I was a little bit out of it."

Felder takes a punch from Perry.
Felder takes a punch from Perry.Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Felder vs. Perry was a showcase fight on one of the biggest MMA cards of the summer, but most fans likely didn't think much about it after the lights went out at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Or about Felder. For him, that night was only Act 1. And now, finally, an end is in sight.

That is the strange reality of being a big-time MMA fighter.

Before bouts, their preparations are broadcast in meticulous detail on a variety of platforms, including all-access web series, social media and pre-fight publicity events. On fight night, audiences that sometimes number in the millions tune in to watch.

When it's over, the athletes disappear from view. Aside from the occasional emergency room selfie, fighters toil through the aftermath in relative obscurity. Weeks or months later, they reappear when new fights are booked, and the cycle starts anew.

Yet many fighters say what happens after the bout, while largely unseen, can be just as impactful as any fight.

It can also be just as dramatic.

                       

Like "Several Car Wrecks"

Ask MMA veterans how the sport affects their bodies, and their answers are nearly unanimous: It depends.

Fighting is a tricky thing. Athletes can spend months preparing for a bout, only to have it end in a few seconds or minutes. When fighters win by quick knockout or submission, they might wake up the next morning feeling no pain at all.

Other times? They aren't so lucky.

"I think the thing that stands out the most is just being so sore that I can't tie my own shoes," UFC lightweight Scott Holtzman says. "My wife will have to put my shoes on and tie my laces for me ... I can't touch my fingers to my thumbs. I had a couple fights where my hands swelled up like lunchboxes after."

FRESNO, CA - DECEMBER 09:  Scott Holtzman gets his hands wrapped backstage during the UFC Fight Night event inside Save Mart Center on December 9, 2017 in Fresno, California. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

When a tough fight goes the distance—15 or 25 minutes—it often results in painful and debilitating physical repercussions.

"It's really damaging to the body," says Dr. Beau Hightower, director of sports medicine for the Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA team. "I would liken it to being in several car wrecks. When fighters get up the next day, they oftentimes can't walk for a few steps, and then they're hobbling around."

Even if fighters avoid injury, it can take weeks or months to feel normal again. Hard-striking contests leave their hands, feet and elbows sore and swollen. Grappling-based bouts have their own kinds of soreness, usually in the forearms, shoulders, back and hips.

Hard shots to the head might put a fighter in a haze for a few days. They might suffer headaches and neck pain.

Body shots leave the ribs and abdominals aching. It might hurt to breathe.

Leg kicks? Yeah, those stick with them too.

"One time, I had my leg so messed up in a fight, I was urinating blood for a while," says former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, who's also an analyst for Fox Sports. "There was so much [bruising], and I was just rubbing the blood out of my leg. My body was filtering it so much that I was just urinating blood for like a week after the fight. It was crazy."

                  

The Difference Between Winning and Losing

Everyone agrees it's good to win.

Because of the way UFC contracts are structured, half a fighter's pay often depends on whether they do. Competitors who find themselves on protracted losing streaks also don't stay in the big leagues for long.

So if they're limping around, icing their bumps and bruises and also have to load their aching bodies onto an airplane and fly home the day after a fight? It softens the blow to know they won. 

SINGAPORE - JUNE 20:  Jessica-Rose Clark (R) of Australia participates in the UFC Fight Night Open Workout at OCBC Square on June 20, 2018 in Singapore.  (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah - Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Suhaimi Abdullah - Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"If you win the fight, you can put up with it because you're like: 'F--k it. I'm going home with a fat paycheck,'" UFC flyweight Jessica-Rose Clark says. "But if you lost and you're hurting and you have to travel and you only made half your paycheck? The whole ordeal sucks. That travel is the really s--tty cherry on top."

But winning isn't a magic cure-all. It still hurts. In fact, many fighters say the bouts that hurt the worst were ones they won.

Holtzman says his most difficult fight was a five-rounder in the independent Xtreme Fighting Championships organization. In that bout, he defeated Roger Carroll by unanimous decision, but he says it took months for him to feel 100 percent again.

"I beat the guy up real bad," Holtzman says. "I barely got hit, but it lasted five rounds, and the next day—and probably for two or three months after that—I was sore. Just my knees, my elbows, my hands. Still to this day, I've never been that sore after a fight, even the ones I've lost."

                                     

"Fighters Are Our Own Worst Enemies"

For most, medical intervention starts immediately after a fight. Sometimes before fighters even leave the cage.

Ringside doctors typically get the first look after a fight ends. Backstage, all fighters are examined by the UFC's staff physicians. These are doctors who know the athletes and can provide friendly faces and steady care for those still processing the whirlwind emotions of fight night.

"They're good at what they do," UFC lightweight Michael Chiesa says. "Just judging by how you're walking, they'll ask you: 'What did you do to your left foot?' or 'What happened to your right hand?' They're pretty on top of their stuff. Fighters are our own worst enemies, so they're looking out for our best interests."

When fighters need additional care, the UFC's staff will either recommend a trip to the emergency room or refer athletes to their personal doctors back home. Hightower says an initial fight-night evaluation includes making sure vitals are stable and checking for signs of a brain malady like a subdural hematoma or internal bleeding elsewhere.

For most, the real work of recovery starts at home. Hightower says MMA causes a litany of injuries, but the most common are fractured hands, forearms and toes, as well as shoulder injuries athletes may not notice in the heat of fight night.

"Oftentimes, [fighters] don't realize how much damage there actually really is until the soreness goes away," Hightower says. "That can take up to two weeks. Then they realize that they have an injury."

The initial medical consultations are doubly important, Hightower says, because the UFC only pays for medical procedures on injuries that occur within 30 days of a fight. That makes it imperative that doctors diagnose things quickly and don't miss anything.

Fighters also typically receive standard medical suspensions from state athletic commissions, which are designed to prevent them from returning to training until their injuries are healed.

At Jackson-Winkeljohn, Hightower says healing can take many forms. It includes soft-tissue work like massage and manipulation to lessen pain so fighters can sleep. Compression recovery boots combat swelling, while a regimen of stretching, cold laser therapy and cryotherapy help heal soreness and minor injuries.

In the weeks after a fight, Hightower also monitors for serious conditions like rhabdomyolysis, where kidneys are overworked processing excess waste from the bloodstream.

Of course, individual fighters handle their recoveries differently. Some are cautious about returning to training, while others can't wait to be back in the gym, working out around people who understand the ups and downs of the fighting life.

As former Pride champion and UFC tournament winner Dan Henderson tells it, recovery from every fight is a little bit different.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08:  Michael Bisping of England celebrates his victory over Dan Henderson in their UFC middleweight championship bout during the UFC 204 Fight Night at the Manchester Evening News Arena on October 8, 2016 in Manchester, Engla
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"A lot of [the recovery] just depends on the fight," Henderson says. "... Obviously, if you get injured in a fight, it takes a little longer to come back from that. Honestly, though, after most of my fights, I felt like I could've fought again the same night."

(What was that about fighters being their own worst enemies?)

                                       

"Emotional Roller Coaster"

Nearly 10 years later, Julie Kedzie still remembers what it felt like to lose to Sarah Schneider.

Their fight was at an independent MMA event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 2009. It was one Kedzie knew she should win. Early in the first round, however, she made a mistake during a grappling exchange, and Schneider took her back.

While trying to escape, Kedzie turned the wrong way, scraped her face along the chain-link around the cage and let Schneider secure a rear-naked choke. She lost via submission in just two minutes, one second.

"I had cage imprints on my face after that," she says. "I remember my sister was in town, and I had a one-room apartment. She had my bedroom, and I was sleeping on the couch. I was just crying and crying and crying all night. I remember waking up the next morning and thinking: Well, s--t. That sucks. But what do you do?"

Another near-unanimous truth among MMA fighters: The fallout from a big fight isn't strictly physical. It can hurt emotionally too. And once again, it doesn't always matter if you get your hand raised at the end.

"I would always get depressed after my fights," Evans says. "Win or lose, I would get depressed. It's something that psychologically happens after you have your fight and go through that emotional roller coaster."

To understand how depression sets in after fights, you have to look at the boom-and-bust workflow of the typical fighter.

For eight to 12 weeks before a fight, the task is all-consuming. A fighter trains, diets, does media and shuts off family and friends, all with the single-minded focus on beating their opponent.

Fight night passes in a blur. Maybe the bout takes 25 seconds; maybe it takes 25 minutes. Maybe they win, maybe they lose. The only sure thing is that when it's done, it's done. Everything disappears, including the lights and the attention but also the structure that has insulated the fighter's life for weeks and months. Many say it can be a lonely feeling.

Julie Kedzie before her fight with Miesha Tate in 2012 (left) and on her way to surgery for a torn labrum after that fight.
Julie Kedzie before her fight with Miesha Tate in 2012 (left) and on her way to surgery for a torn labrum after that fight.Getty Images, Courtesy of Julie Kedzie

"For weeks, you're building up the fight, and then you fight and—boom—it's all over," Holtzman says. "It's almost like an hour after the show, the tumbleweeds are rolling through the parking lot. It's like a circus packs up, and it goes, and it's all over. You're like a rodeo clown. The UFC is all packed up and onto the next town."

Fighters like Clark say they've made changes in their lives to combat depression. She says she sets goals that have nothing to do with the outcome of the fight. That includes going right back to running or strength-training as soon as she can. She also focuses on her job coaching others at the gym in order to provide some structure after a fight is over.

"I used to take two or three weeks off, just to get drunk all the time and be sad," Clark says. "Because, what do you do? You have nothing else. All of a sudden, there's nothing to work toward. Now, I don't drink anymore, and I've realized the way for me to combat that depressing phase is to set other external goals."

                                   

"Like a Junkie for That Feeling"

Fighters mark the passing of a big fight in a variety of ways. As the emotional and physical recovery begins, most say they need to decompress, to live as normal people for a while and spend time with family and friends.

"The first thing I want to do is just get home," Clark says. "I want to get home to my house, to my bed, to my dog, you know?"

One constant in the process? Food. Lots of the tasty food they denied themselves during training camp and while making weight.

"There's usually some kind of dessert that I've been dreaming about for eight weeks," Felder says. "I'll stock the house with absolute junk for about a week. I like to go out with my brother and get cheeseburgers. That's usually the first order of business. I'll take my daughter out to get cupcakes."

Chiesa admits, "[I'd] be a liar if I said I eat great outside of camp." Holtzman says he always looks forward to sitting in his recliner, sipping coffee and maybe going out for hot wings and beer.

Clark says she'll invite a couple of close friends over and cook them a quiet dinner as a way to let them know she appreciates them and to reconnect after the "switched off" feeling of her fight prep.

Perhaps the most unique post-fight celebration belongs to Kedzie, though.

"Honestly, you know what I would do?" she says. "For a win, I'd go to the mall, and I would say, 'Find me a pair of jeans that make my ass look great.' And I would buy a pair of jeans that made my ass look great."

After some time to recuperate, however, it's time to get back to business. Either a fighter's bank account demands it, or UFC matchmakers call with another bout or they are compelled by a force they can't quite explain.

Then it's time to do it all over again.

"If you win, it's such a rush, and you feel great," Evans says. "That stays with you. There have been times that I've been so emotionally high after a fight. I don't drink alcohol. I don't even really eat food. I'm not even hungry. I'm not really sleepy. It's just this euphoric drug, and you just feel amazing. You're higher than any drug could ever make you. That's the most addictive part of fighting, because you start chasing that feeling. You become like a junkie for that feeling."

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