Just over a year ago, Alan Belcher had one of the worst experiences a fighter can endure.
Belcher had just started to make his name in mixed martial arts, losing a fight to international star Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100 that many onlookers, if not most, thought he won. He followed that with a pair of impressive finishes and his name started showing up on lists of the UFC’s best middleweights.
He was in Brazil, working extensively on upgrading his grappling game, and preparing himself for the biggest fight of his career, against ground specialist Demian Maia. A win would have put him in the top rung of the middleweight contenders.
One morning, though, Belcher woke up and couldn’t see out of his right eye.
To this day he can’t pinpoint what happened. But he spent the remainder of 2010 under the impression that his fighting days were over.
"It might have been a punch that caused the initial tear and it got worse because it wasn’t treated," said Belcher, whose problems started a few weeks after he had choked out Patrick Cote in Cote’s home city of Montreal at UFC 113 on May 8, 2010. His 15-month ordeal, which included two surgeries, comes to a close when he returns to the cage to face Jason "The Athlete" MacDonald (25-14) on Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night in New Orleans in a bout that will air live on Spike TV.
Believe it or not, Belcher views his injury ordeal as a positive.
"It was a good experience because it made me a little more grateful for what I have, because it can be taken away at any time," said the 27-year-old Arkansas native.
"It gave me a more positive outlook on the whole thing. I had put too much pressure on myself to be champion, and to win every fight. Now I realize I’m just lucky to be paid to do this. Being able to have one good fight is awesome to me."
Belcher’s nightmare morning in Brazil came with no warning. He hadn’t been training stand-up and his first thought was that maybe something had gotten in his eye.
But he waited a day and things only got worse. He went to a local doctor, and before the week was out, his career was in jeopardy and he had surgery to repair a detached retina.
"Looking back, I was starting to see spots and I was sensitive to light," he said. "I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was thinking maybe it’s a bad reaction to some supplement I was taking and I let it go. Because of the tear, fluid was getting behind it, and the fluid detached the retaina. I wasn’t even doing sparing at the time. It was pretty scary. I never experienced not being able to see. …
"The first day, I just thought something had gotten in my eye. Then I went to a local doctor in Brazil, who advised me to get back home as soon as possible and have surgery. I left that night and the next day I was in a doctor’s office in Mississippi."
He had surgery the next day in Mobile, Ala., but that wasn’t the end. About a month later, the retina detached a second time and he had to undergo a more invasive surgery.
"Then it didn’t look good," Belcher recalled. "The doctors tried to be optimistic but I thought this was a sign that I’m not going to fight again. This is the end. I tried to stay positive and wait it out."
He stopped training and although he hoped for a different answer, Belcher was braced for bad news.
“I thought I was pretty much done," he said. "The doctor was more optimistic. For me, it was a little bit demotivating and it changes your whole way of thinking. I didn’t do anything for a long time."
It wasn’t until the start of 2011 that Belcher was able to start training. When that went well and monthly eye examinations showed no problem, he got the word he could continue his career in the spring. He targeted September for a return to the cage.
"I’m definitely ready to resume where I left off," he said, again taking the positive outlook on a long layoff, saying it helped heal his body and freshen him up. "I got to stop the yo-yo dieting, I got my body healed up, and had a break from the stresses of fighting. It was just a good mental rest, physical rest and a good experience."
MacDonald, 36, is a ground specialist who has bounced in and out of the UFC since 2006. Most of his wins have come through one form of choke or another, either the rear naked, guillotine or triangle versions. A favorite in his native Canada, MacDonald comes from Nova Scotia but now lives and runs a gym on the other side of the country, in Red Deer, Alberta. He’s coming off a triangle choke submission win in 1:37 on the April 30 event at the Rogers Centre in Toronto over Ryan Jensen. His role in UFC of late has been as a Canadian favorite working undercards on shows North of the border. This will be his first fight in the U.S. in nearly three years.
"Standing, anybody’s dangerous," said Belcher in evaluating his opponent. "There are no lucky punches. He’ll be trying to hit me hard and if I’m not careful, he can hurt me. But if you want to compare grappling and stand up, he’s twice as dangerous on the ground as he is standing. But I’m not taking him lightly anywhere.
"I think he’s a perfect opponent to show I’m the same fighter that I was, and I’ve even improved some. He’s a guy who keeps proving he can hang with the best guys and has a never-quit attitude. He’s not going to go away, that’s for sure.”
Unlike most fighters, who gain momentum through a string of wins, Belcher first turned heads in a losing effort. Belcher and Akiyama had the best fight on what is still the biggest-money event in company history. Akiyama, who had been a champion in Japan, ended up with a broken nose and a broken right orbital bone, needing surgery that night.
Belcher picked apart Akiyama for almost the entire third round, leaving his face a mess. But Akiyama did get a knockdown during the round, as well as a takedown late, which ended up swinging the fight in his direction, taking a split decision. Many that night felt Belcher had been robbed, and UFC president Dana White told the Japanese press he thought Belcher had won the fight – not the politically correct thing to say.
"It was a turning point, a new chapter, everybody was talking to me about beating one of the top guys in the world and getting ripped off, or if I did get beat, it was close against one of the best guys in the world," Belcher said.
He said he’s long gotten over the decision going the other way.
"That’s all part of the learning experience in being a fighter," he said. "It was a good lesson, not to leave it in the judges’ hands and always try to finish the fight. Even if you’re winning, make sure you’re winning a little better. But today, it doesn’t bother me at all."
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