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Why injuries may have been a blessing for UFC up-and-comer Ryan LaFlare

Ryan LaFlare

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Ryan LaFlare, 30, has been fighting professionally for nearly six years. (Getty Images)

Ryan LaFlare heartily laughs off a suggestion that he's a great athlete.

This from a guy who is undefeated as a professional mixed martial arts fighter, who was a high school and collegiate wrestling champion and who briefly considered turning professional as a lacrosse player after starring in college.

Yeah, no doubt, the poor guy was born with no athletic genes whatsoever.

"I wouldn't go so far as saying I'm so athletic, because to me, athleticism comes through hard work," said LaFlare, who will face John Howard in a welterweight bout Friday at UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi. "I work as hard as I can and I push my body to the limit.

"God-given talent is only going to take you so far. It's not going to give you that extra push when you need it in the third round."

LaFlare, 30, has been fighting professionally for nearly six years, having turned pro on June 27, 2008, in Atlantic City, N.J., on a Ring of Combat card. But for all of his success, he didn't make it to the UFC until last year.

He missed all of 2011 and 2012 because of a series of significant injuries that made him wonder whether he'd ever be able to reach his dreams. He opened a gym, Long Island MMA, while he was sidelined and it accounted for most of his income.

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Ryan LaFlare, right, says he improved his technique while he wasn't able to fight. (Getty Images)

It was frustrating, though, for him to go to his beautiful new facility and see others preparing for fights and not being able to do so himself.

But LaFlare is one of the few athletes who say good came from serious injuries to his knee and his wrist, even though they cost him more than two years of his career.

"I think the injuries are the best thing that happened to me," he said. "I really got a chance to study the sport and learn it at a different level. When I was fighting, I was going at it so hard, I was just pushing, pushing, pushing and was killing my body, basically just using my athleticism to fight. I didn't have as much technique. But when I was hurt, I really had to settle down and learn the techniques, because my body wouldn't let me go as crazy as I did when I was younger.

"I got to take those two years and learn a lot about the sport and learn jiu-jitsu. I got my purple belt in jiu-jitsu. When my knee was messed up, I got to work on my boxing a lot. When my wrist was messed up, I got to work on my kicks a lot. So when I came back, I came back as a lot smarter fighter."

He laughed out loud when he was asked if he's physically at 100 percent. LaFlare has sacrificed his body for his athletic dreams for years, and as a professional fighter, there is no such thing as 100 percent healthy.

Some days are better than others and LaFlare, like most fighters, makes do with what he has on a given day.

It's one of the hazards of his career choice, but no one wants to hear about injuries when the bell rings. He's judged, as his peers are, by what he does when the bell rings, and injuries aren't part of the equation.

"I've accepted a long time ago that my body is never going to be 100 percent," LaFlare said. "That's just a part of this. My way of dealing with that is to take one fight at a time and put everything I have into that one fight."

He knows a time may come when his body will no longer allow him to do the things he wants to do.

Before he hit the big time, he wondered if he'd ever make it. He wasn't concerned because of a lack of confidence in his body, but rather because he wasn't sure if his body would hold up.

"It's surprising how my career has gone," LaFlare said. "I started off 6-0 and I had the six fights relatively quickly, and then I just got plagued by injuries. I tore ligaments in my [right] wrist and I only was able to squeeze 30 pounds of pressure. In my left, I was able to squeeze 140 pounds. I had a 30-, maybe 40-pound squeeze in my right hand.

"I knew if I wanted to fight in the UFC against the best guys in the world, that wasn't going to cut it. I had to get my wrist fixed. My wrist got fixed, I signed with Strikeforce and as soon as I signed, I tore my ACL [in my knee] and that put me out another year."

He isn't putting any extra pressure on himself for his bout with Howard, even though he's been extraordinarily impressive in his three previous UFC fights and garnered the attention of the UFC brass.

All he wants is to be able to perform as well as he can Friday.

"I don't look at one fight as more important than the next, because the next fight is always the most important one," LaFlare said. "You're only as good as your last performance. This is a tough business and we're at the top level fighting the best guys in the world, so you have to be able to answer the bell each time out. There are no easy fights once you reach this point.

"The UFC is going to continue to test me with different types of fighters and it's up to me to step up."

And he'd be one of the few fighters to tell you he's more prepared for that step up because of his injuries.

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