Throughout Corey Hill's brief career as a mixed martial arts fighter, there was one constant for his wife, Lauren.
She didn't attend his bouts in person, instead preferring to remain at home caring for their three children. Their routine was that about 20 or so minutes after his bout ended, the telephone would ring and Corey would call to say he was fine.
Things were different on Dec. 10, 2008, however. Twenty minutes after she figured his fight would be over, the phone hadn't rung. Another half-hour went by with nothing. Lauren Hill began to get a bit anxious.
"I knew his fight was supposed to start around 6:15 and here it was 7:30 and he hadn't called me," she said. "The other fights he had, the latest I heard from him was 20 minutes (after). Corey would always call me right away and when he didn't, that's when I kind of got a little bit nervous."
After another few minutes went by with nothing but silence, she was excited when the telephone finally rang. But the voice on the other end of the line was not who she expected.
It was her mother-in-law, Elnora Hill, on the line rather than Corey, her husband of nearly five years.
"I didn't get that much information, because she just said Corey had broken his leg and they were carrying him out on a stretcher," Lauren Hill said. "It was awful. It was just awful news to get. But I didn't know how bad things really were."
Corey was fighting Dale Hartt that night in an Ultimate Fighting Championship event at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C. Hartt had just checked a leg kick from the spindly 6-foot-4 Hill, who at 155 pounds is built like the Mini Me version of former NBA star Manute Bol.
"He went down and I honestly didn't know what had happened," Hartt said.
For a few dizzying seconds, Hartt didn't know either what had happened or what to do. But now, more than a year later, he says he will never forget.
Hill fractured the tibia and the fibula in his right leg when he kicked Hartt's leg. Hill's shin snapped the way a baseball bat cracks when a 96 mph fastball bores in on the hitter's fists.
Hartt followed Hill to the mat, as fighters usually do when they score a knockdown. But he didn't throw any punches. He heard the referee shouting and could make out Hill moaning, "My leg! My leg!"
Hartt looked back and saw Hill's right leg bent into a V-shape at about mid-shin. "When I finally saw Corey's leg, I was like, 'Holy (expletive)!' " Hartt said. "It's one of those things, when you see it, you'll never forget it. I'll be 90 years old on my deathbed and I'll still remember that."
Hill underwent surgery and had a rod inserted into his leg, which was held in place with pins at the ankle and the knee.
Many who saw the injury, one of the most gruesome in the 16-year history of the UFC, wondered not whether Hill would ever be able to fight again, but whether he'd walk without the aid of a cane or a crutch.
"It was pretty bad," Hill says, chuckling, a year after the injury. "Kind of messed up plans for Christmas, I'd say."
The long road back
A second Christmas is at hand since the injury and it is a much different Corey Hill than the angry, disillusioned worried young man who was a prisoner in his own bed in the weeks after his injury.
He's bright, optimistic and filled with hope, looking eagerly at the future and dreaming of one day handing the UFC lightweight championship belt to his wife.
Hill has already gotten a present and he doesn't have to seek out a gift-wrapped box under the tree to get it.
He'll fight Mike Dizak on Jan. 23 at the Raging Wolf VI fight card at the Seneca Niagara Casino Hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
For Hill, stepping into the cage once again will be the ultimate redemption, a story of courage and determination that turned a potential tragedy into a fairy tale.
He was told unequivocally by multiple doctors that his fighting career was over. Friends questioned why his wife would have ever allowed him to compete in mixed martial arts. There were more than a few who shared the notion that walking normally again would be a challenge.
Hill, though, was undaunted. He knew that somehow, some way, despite the excruciating pain, despite the fact he was bedridden, despite the fact his leg had essentially split in half, that he would find a way back.
"I had these people who are very smart, who went to college and have advanced degrees and have become doctors, and they're supposed to always be right, and they're telling me that there's no way I'm going to fight again," Hill said. "But I was like, 'Whatever. I'm not listening.' I was scared, I'll admit that. There were a lot of negative things going on, but I wasn't only scared, but I was stubborn.
"And I said, 'This is not going to be the end of Corey Hill. It's not going to end like this.' Doctors are telling me I'm not going to fight. Well, I don't know if they say that for motivational reasons, or if they really mean it at the time, but it was great motivation for me to hear doctors say, 'You'll never do this. You're never going to fight.' I was like, 'Oh yeah? Watch me.' I'm a competitor and this was my dream. I wasn't quitting that easily."
The power of family
In the first two weeks after the injury, though, Hill was all but convinced he would quit. It was his wife, who was so horrified when she learned of the injury, who wouldn't let him entertain thoughts of quitting.
Hill, 31, was tormented by the pain in his leg and unable to do even the most basic bodily functions without assistance. Yet, his wife wouldn't stand to hear him talk of giving up.
"Once I got over the initial shock of it, I just knew that Corey and I would find a way to deal with it and get through it," she said. "There were tough times, but tough times are part of life. Corey is such a wonderful, good, kind person. And I knew things could have been way worse than they were.
"Corey had always been like Superman to me. He was always there and always came through. In the 11 years we'd been together, he'd always done everything in his power to support me and take care of me and our family. I'd never seen him as happy as when he was fighting, so I knew I had to do what I could to help him get back."
And she did her part by refusing to allow him to say "no," and by essentially becoming his surrogate mother.
Hill said the desire came back as his wife attended to some of life's most intimate details for him. He didn't make life easy on her, but she never flinched.
"If you want to know the truth, I was an ass," he said. "I was like a little baby. I whined. I yelled. She literally had four kids to take care of: The three we have, plus myself. I was a baby. I couldn't get to the bathroom. I had to stay in bed and pee in a freaking bucket for almost four months.
"This sounds gross, but there were times when I urinated on myself because my bucket was too far and I couldn't get to it. She came home to some bad scenarios and it never fazed her."
She inspired him to work harder than he thought he could. She insisted that the only thing that could prevent him from returning to fight was if he didn't care enough to go after it. Hill gradually began to change his attitude. There were days when he was at physical therapy when he questioned himself and his morale would sink.
He let his mind drift to a life without the fight game.
"I'd cry with my wife, I'd cry with my kids," he said. "It would be 3 o'clock in the morning and I'd be laying there with a leg in so much pain. There were stress and financial problems and everything was building up. I was physically drained and the pain was getting to be too much."
Change of perspective
Hill was leaving physical therapy and he passed a 70-year-old man in a wheelchair whose legs were amputated at the knees.
He said he saw the wheelchair-bound man at a time when he was at one of his low points, feeling sorry for himself. His wife, who had stayed at home taking care of the kids when he was fighting, had gone back to work as a hair stylist. The family's financial situation was a wreck. Their lifestyle was cut back dramatically.
Corey Hill walked out of therapy that day pitying himself. And then he saw the double amputee in the wheelchair.
"I saw him and as I limped to my truck, I said to myself, 'Who the hell am I?' " Hill said. "I think I realized at that moment that things could always be worse. I said to myself then, 'OK, Corey, it's time to end the pity party and quit crying about the pain.' There are some people who don't have a choice. He didn't have a choice. He was in that chair and couldn't do a thing about it. I had a choice. I could suck it up, work through the pain and make myself better, or I could quit. I didn't have to fight. I had a choice. I chose to fight. He didn't have a choice. And that's when I really had a turnaround.
"I saw this guy and I was like, 'I'm complaining because I'm limping and I'm in a little bit of pain and this guy was in the wheelchair and he was always going to be in the wheelchair.' And I saw how happy he was, how at peace he was with things and how he just found a way to get through every day and I knew that was the direction I should be going."
His father, Bill Hill, was an athlete who played college football at Florida A&M and attended a Kansas City Chiefs training camp. He gave his son much of his competitive streak.
He had his doubts, too, about whether his son should fight again, but he wanted to be supportive.
"I've seen a lot of injuries in my time and maybe if Corey had a real traumatic brain injury, I'd feel differently, but broken bones can heal," Bill Hill said. "From a father's standpoint, I wanted to see him get his degree and go on and do something and become a success. But Corey has an incredible determination and when he sets his mind to doing something, nobody can change it. And he was determined he was going to fight. The way I saw my role here was to support him and be there for him. That's what I did."
As he worked, encouraged by his family's unconditional love and support, Corey gradually began to feel better. He was able to gain much of his lateral movement and quickness. His strength began to return.
The entire family was reed-thin and Corey was no exception. He used to walk around at 160 pounds and would cut just five pounds to make the 155-pound lightweight limit. After he healed, though, he looked at everything: How he ate, how he trained, how he took care of his body. The injury has changed him, he says, in many ways, most of them positive.
He would spend an entire day in the gym and eat only twice, many of which were puny meals.
"I realized I was treating my body horribly," Hill said. "It was like I was driving a car without oil."
He's eating more and supplementing his diet. He'll be bigger and stronger when he returns to fight.
And after fits and starts in the early days after the injury, he's now regained his enthusiasm for his job. He's even allowed himself to watch the Spike TV broadcast of the fight with Hartt.
He didn't watch the tape of his fight with Hartt until Nov. 2, about 11 months after the accident. He still won't watch the slow motion replays.
"As a fighter, you know there are all sorts of risks, and they're scary, but you have to repress that and go out and be confident," Hill said. "I just can't watch that slow motion, though. The fight itself, in normal speed, it's not bad. Slow motion? Nah. I don't think so. I don't need to see that."
He's a wrestler and wrestling is always going to be his base. He won't kick, he says, "unless it's a 100-percent, surefire bulls-eye that even a three-year-old can make."
And he knows there will be plenty of thoughts swirling in his head on the night he walks back into the cage.
But he already knows one conversation he wants to have when the fight is over and, win or lose, he walks out of the cage under his own power.
"I want to talk to my wife and tell her, 'We did it,' " Hill said, bubbling with enthusiasm. "And I meant that very much when I said we. This has been a team project. Without her, I wouldn't be here. I'd be limping around somewhere probably doing who knows what. But by her being so strong and so understanding and so supportive, I'm able to do what I love to do again. When that fight's over, the first thing I plan to do is to tell her, 'It's over and we finally did it. Together. We did it together.' "