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DeFranco's ultimate survival tale

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

A few weeks after a snafu with the NCAA Clearinghouse had cost him a half-athletic, half-academic scholarship to Wagner University, as well as an internship at then-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office, Santino DeFranco found himself in a mixed martial arts gym in Arizona.

DeFranco was a wrestler and knew next-to-nothing about MMA. He showed up just to learn to grapple a bit and to stay in shape in anticipation of walking onto Arizona State's powerful wrestling team.

Things quickly spun out of control, though. Only five days after he showed up, DeFranco had his first fight. And the most overwhelming thought he had in the hours before that match was, "What the hell am I doing?" He was overcome by nerves and several times he nearly pulled out.

"I was scared to death," DeFranco said, chuckling at the memory.

In 2000, fear of an amateur MMA fight, in which his opponent was as fearful and inexperienced as he, was all DeFranco had to worry about.

The vagaries of life would soon catch up to him, however. It woudn't be long before DeFranco would learn what it was like to truly be afraid.

Fear, DeFranco would come to learn, was not having a highly fit, well-trained and athletic man full of testosterone standing across from you in a locked cage, looking to do you harm.

Fear was learning you have an aneurysm on the brain. Fear was learning your wife had something known as a cerebral cavernous malformation, which would require emergency surgery and would put her life at risk.

When the woman you love is being wheeled into surgery and you see her for what may be the last time, that is true fear.

"She was teeter-tottering between life and death and there was nothing I could do about it," DeFranco said, who may have saved his wife, Kindal's, life, by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after she had a grand mal seizure and was foaming at the mouth.

"Those hours she was in surgery, those were the worst hours of my life. Every second felt like days. You're just sick to your stomach, and you want to do something, but you're so, so helpless. I just had to rely upon the doctor and hope."

DeFranco had, for the most part of his life, relied on his guile, his instincts and his athletic ability to get what he wanted.

Nine years after walking into that MMA gym with no idea of what he was getting himself into, DeFranco will have fulfilled a dream of sorts. He was selected as part of the U.S. team for Season 9 of "The Ultimate Fighter" that will face a team from the U.K. in a series that begins next month on Spike TV.

It's the fourth time he's come close to landing in the UFC, but this is the first time he'll have the chance to fight his way to a contract.

First challenge

He would have been on Season 2 of the UFC's reality series had an MRI not revealed an aneurysm on his brain. He had never known he had it and had no issues prior to its discovery, but it would have been something that could have killed him had he gotten hit in the wrong area and it ruptured.

He'd interviewed to be on the show and was thrilled when he received a phone call from UFC president Dana White. DeFranco thought White was calling with the good news to tell him he'd been selected for the show.

"No way he would have been calling me to tell me I didn't make it," DeFranco surmised.

It turned out, though, that he had made it but wouldn't be making it. White was calling with the news of the aneurysm, which would medically disqualify him from competing.

He was 10-3 at the time and had a victory over Melvin Guillard, who would go on to become a regular in the UFC. He was optimistic about his career and the emerging sport, but he'd soon learn that he wouldn't make it, might never fight again and that doctors would need to perform surgery on his brain.

Doctors told him he was lucky. An aneurysm is like a balloon in the brain that, if hit and burst, could have either killed him or left him with severe brain damage.

"They found the aneurysm with a routine MRI during testing for the show," DeFranco said. "Everybody was like, 'Holy hell.' I'm lucky I didn't have problems. Usually, when people have problems, they've had a stroke or they're paralyzed or they're dead. They usually find it in people who are having major, major life issues. By the grace of God, I got lucky and they found it before I had problems."

There was a problem, though: He had no insurance. He couldn't afford the surgery.

He had to get a job, save his money and hope that his insurance would cover the sure-to-be astronomical bills.

Almost a year later, the company he was working for picked up the $90,000 tab.

If the surgery was successful, he'd eventually be fine after a recovery period and be able to live a full life. But the risks were enormous.

Doctors inserted a catheter into the femoral artery in his groin, that then went to his heart and from the heart to the brain. They inserted titanium coils and stents to hold everything in place.

"I was pretty freaked out going into the surgery because the catheters that they put into my brain are harder than the soft tissue and the arteries and sometimes they puncture the artery with the catheter as they're trying to get it in," he said. "We were freaking out and thinking there were going to be problems in surgery and everything you could imagine.

"I was with my now-wife, and we were both freaking out for days leading up to it. But we went to one of the best neurosurgery centers in the world, the Barrows Center in Phoenix. People come to this place from all over the world for surgery on the brain, so it made us a little more comfortable. But this is still your brain they're talking about and you never know. One little slip and it's over. It was a pretty freaky time in my life."

And it was for Kindal, as well. She was terrified and couldn't help, as hard as she tried, letting Santino know. She wanted to be brave so as not to scare him, but she realized the implications.

They'd planned to be married and have a family and a life that only months earlier seemed so filled with promise and so optimistic was now hanging by a very tenuous thread.

"I'd go to bed and just cry, because I was terrified," she said. "He was terrified. I was terrified. You just didn't know where this was going to lead."

Kindal was against her husband being a fighter – "I just couldn't bear to see him being beaten up," she says – and was relieved that he'd no longer fight.

"We dodged one hurdle, I thought, with the fighting, because I could see no way he would ever for one second think of being a fighter again," she said. "So I knew if we could get him through this surgery, things would be so much better because we'd be together and we'd just go on to live normal lives. But you never know what is on the other side of that bridge until you cross it. And the surgery was terrifying. The days before, oh, they were so, so hard."

Back in business

DeFranco survived the surgery and soon began plotting his return to MMA. By that point, the sport had become as much a part of his life as breathing and he couldn't conceive of giving up a career in the sport if he didn't absolutely have to do so.

He talked about it with his wife, who was stunned that he had even an inkling of fighting again.

No, she said.

Please, he begged her. This is what I was meant to do.

Kindal didn't like the thought of him being a fighter when she believed he was 100 percent healthy and he had not had brain surgery. The thought of him fighting post-surgery nearly made her ill.

"There was just no way I could agree to that," she said.

But Santino begged and pleaded. He is a charmer who knows how to get his way. Only a short time after they were married, he begged her to get pregnant, but she wanted to wait. He'd begged and cajoled and asked. One day, finally, he came home with a gift.

Flowers.

Well, it was two gifts: flowers and prenatal vitamins.

"He's a hard guy to say no to," she said. "He's persistent."

And he wanted to fight so badly. It gave him hope, provided a goal to shoot for in those dreary and depressing post-surgical days.

Finally, he'd come upon the answer: If I am cleared by a neurosurgeon to fight, would you support me, he asked.

She couldn't say no to that, though she never in her wildest dreams believed he'd be cleared to fight. OK, she told him. If you get cleared, I'll support your fighting career.

Two days later, when she was at work, she received a fax.

But this was no ordinary fax.

This was from her husband's surgeon. It cleared him to fight. She was trapped. She had said yes and couldn't go back on her word.

Santino, though, wasn't over all of his hurdles. A punch to the nose is enough to scare off most guys from a fighting career. He now had to worry about the many ways his head would be slammed, kick, punched and mauled and what the consequences of that could possibly be.

"When I first got back to fighting after I was cleared, I was scared to death," he said. "If someone hit me in my head in sparring, I'd go, 'Oh man, my head! My head!' I would freak out. I've been cleared for about a year, a year-and-a-half now and I'm just now getting to the point where if I get my head hit, I'm not freaking out, running around thinking I'm going to die.

"Even to this day, I run around, I train, I spar, I fight, and still there are times when I ask myself, 'What the hell am I doing? My head is going to pop.' Rationally, the doctors have assured me that I'm at no more risk than anyone else. But emotion and craziness get into your head and it's hard not to ask yourself, 'What the hell are you doing, man?' "

He had lost out on a chance to be on Season 2 of "The Ultimate Fighter" when his aneurysm was discovered. Then, he lost a shot to fight in the UFC only four days after he was cleared to fight. The UFC offered him a fight against Din Thomas, but he'd done nothing training-wise for more than a year and he knew the risks in that.

"That fight would have probably been riskier than my surgery, because I literally had done zero training at that point," DeFranco said.

He got his third chance when the UFC called again and asked him to interview for Season 8. His buddy, Efrain Escudero, was also interviewing for that season.

But life again put a roadblock in front of his dreams.

Another curveball

Santino and Kindal were at a family gathering at his sister's home when he noticed something odd about her. She'd been having memory problems for several days, but things seemed to be intensifying.

"She didn't feel well that day [in 2007]," he said. "She was having a memory problem and overall wasn't feeling well. I told her let's go and just sit down and I assured her 100 percent that she was having an anxiety attack."

This, though, was no anxiety attack. Literally seconds after DeFranco assured his wife it was simply an anxiety attack and that she'd be fine, she collapsed into a heap and went into a full grand mal seizure.

"She'd stopped breathing, was turning purple, was completely convulsing and was foaming at the mouth," he said. "It was the scariest thing to ever happen to me in my life. It was terrifying. I was giving her mouth-to-mouth. Every time I blew, she turned a little less purple, so I kept doing it until the ambulance got there."

After six days in the hospital, tests finally revealed that she had a cavernous malformation on the brain, a vascular condition that was causing bleeding on her temporal lobe. It would require delicate surgery to correct.

"It was much more invasive surgery than I had had," he said. "My surgery was bad and I couldn't do a lot of stuff and I had to be on blood thinners, but she had part of her brain removed."

His fight career again seemed to be on hold when he had to deal with his wife's surgery, in December 2007. He was, he recalled, a quivering mess.

Nothing could prepare him for the sight he would see when his wife would eventually come out of surgery.

"I would rather fight B.J. Penn, Fedor [Emelianenko] and Wanderlei Silva all at once than to see her go through that," he said. "You could stick me in the middle of Iraq and have little Iraqis shooting bombs at me and I'd be happier about that than seeing what happened to Kindal.

"Hands down, seeing her go through the seizure and have the surgery was the worst thing I'd gone through in my life. I had something bad happen, but she had something really bad happen."

And now, they insist, it's time for something good.

Redemption

DeFranco frequently thinks back to those days in the early part of the century and wonders where life would have taken him had the paperwork snafu not occurred and he had been able to remain at Wagner and fulfill his internship with Giuliani.

He can't help but dream about what he might be doing or the people he may have met along the way. But he'll finally get to fulfill his dream to fight in the UFC. Winning a UFC contract, he said, is a life-altering event. He's had so many near-misses that he believes it's time things finally turn his way. Kindal DeFranco, who is now doing well, still doesn't plan to watch her husband fight. She, too, though, is excited by his chance to appear on TUF 9 and the possibilities that lay ahead. "Few people will ever realize what Santino has gone through to get where he is," she said. "I do. I know how much this means to him. I know better than anyone how desperate he was for this chance. And even though I don't like fighting and don't really want to see that, how could I stand in the way of something that was so important to someone I love? He was willing to sacrifice just about anything to get this chance. If anyone deserves it, it's him."