Escovedo travels hard road to UFC debut

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For most of his life, Cole Escovedo has been a get-things-done type of person. He's the first to admit that not all of the things he has gotten done in his life have been good, but he's clearly a doer.

When his cat was stuck in the branches near the top of a 40-foot pine tree, Escovedo kicked off his shoes, shimmied to the top, popped the cat into his shirt and made his way safely back to the ground.

But as 2007 dawned, Escovedo's life spiraled out of control. A one-time World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion, fighting seemed out of the question. Walking normally was going to be a challenge. Survival, just living, was the short-term goal.

A tiny sore on his left forearm, which he thought may have been a spider bite, an ingrown hair or possibly a pimple, was robbing him of everything that he held precious. This is a guy who fought professionally for a living, who once drove a race car and jumped out of a plane at 30,000 feet.

As 2006 turned into 2007, however, getting from the living room to the bathroom without the aid of a walker was nearly impossible. Escovedo had contracted a staph infection that seemed certain to end his fighting career, finish life as he knew it and perhaps end his life, period.

He was 25 at the time and 11-4 in a mixed martial arts career that had seen him win the WEC featherweight title and compete against luminaries of the sport such as Urijah Faber and Jens Pulver.

Life was never easy for Escovedo, whose father, Larry, was convicted of rape, kidnapping and other charges in 1995 and was sentenced to 68 years in a California prison.

Larry Escovedo was a schizophrenic who was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and the knowledge of his father's condition eased some of the pain that Cole felt about his father's crimes.

Still, it didn't have an immediate positive impact upon him.

"I ended up becoming a pretty jacked up teen-ager and a pretty big [expletive]," Escovedo, now 29, said. "But the one thing that helped me was martial arts. I had been doing martial arts since I was six, and that kind of helped keep me centered. It kept me somewhat out of trouble. A kid in that state could probably have ended up going a lot of different ways. I managed to avoid most of the really bad stuff with my Mom's help. I'm not in prison and I'm not a drug addict, and I went to the Police Academy for a while when I was 19, so I think she did a pretty good job."

If it wasn't for his mother, Laura Robitschek, Escovedo may have become an alcoholic and almost certainly would never have gotten rid of the walker he needed just to move slowly around his home.

He surely wouldn't be days away from making his debut for the Ultimate Fighting Championship by fighting Renan Barao on May 28 at UFC 130 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

After Escovedo was diagnosed in late 2006 with MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), the most dangerous type of staph infection, he began to feel sorry for himself.

He would drink when he awakened and drink to put himself to sleep. He wasn't doing much of anything to help himself beat an infection that was slowly, but surely, draining the life out of him.

"I had a lot of depression and I went through a big spell where there was a lot of drinking, unfortunately," he said. "I spent a good month or two pretty much just having a pity party and I just drank every day. I didn't do anything else but drink a lot of the time.

"But one day, my Mom smacked me around a little bit and told me I needed to pull my head out of my (expletive). She said, 'We're done with the pity party. You're going to go get a job like everyone else, or you're going to go and do something about this and fix the problem and continue doing what you have always wanted to do.' She told me I was going to waste away if I continued the way I was and I'll admit, it was a really depressing time."

What Escovedo wanted to do more than anything was to fight. He wanted to prove the doctors wrong, to show that he could once again climb into the cage and test himself against another man.

At the time Robitschek confronted him, he was hooked up to an intravenous line and given the antibiotic Vancomycin. He went through the regimen twice a day for two hours at a time for six weeks.

Escovedo's staph infection had initially been misdiagnosed and he wasn't given the proper treatment. By the time it was properly diagnosed, the infection had created an egg shell-like substance around his spinal cord and literally had begun eating through the spinal cord. It did enough damage before it was corrected with surgery that he still suffers from what he calls "leg shakes."

Occasionally, his legs will begin to tremor and won't be able to support his body weight. He'll have to take a break from whatever he is doing until it resolves itself. It usually occurs when he's doing intense workouts that involve his legs.

"It's something a lot of people don't notice and it just seems like fatigue, but what it is is that my legs aren't getting the message any more from my brain to stand up straight and hold my weight," Escovedo said.

After Robitschek laid into him, Escovedo realized his mother was right. He had never been one to drown in his sorrows and had always gone hard after whatever he wanted.

He laid in bed at night and thought about what it was that he wanted: To walk normally, to fight again, to live a full and complete life. And he realized that he wasn't going to do that relying on a walker and a bottle of alcohol, so he committed on the spot to making the best of it and getting himself back to normal.

It wouldn't be easy, but nothing about his life was easy and he had come to the conclusion that the life he was living wasn't much fun. He vowed to himself that he would push hard to recover and to be all that he had dreamed of becoming.

"I always had the belief that if I wanted to do something badly enough, I could achieve it," he said. "That's just the way I was brought up by my parents. They'd always preached to me that just because something is hard didn't mean I couldn't do it or that I should give up trying.

"So, there was always that small, underlying feeling that regardless of what my doctors were telling me, it was going to be me who would be the deciding factor in whether I would continue to walk or not again. At that point, once I decided I could walk, it was just a matter of how long until I could fight."

It was about 18 months from the time that he was originally diagnosed until his first trip back to the gym for a light training session. And while he was walking OK by that point, it was an entirely different thing being able to go through the grueling training sessions required of a professional fighter.

And Escovedo faced plenty of roadblocks and encountered a lot of doubt.

"For the first couple of months after I got back into it, there was a feeling that I had bitten off more than I could chew and that I was just wasting my time," he said. "I was thinking maybe it was futile to believe that I could fight and that the best I could hope for would be to get back into shape and teach [martial arts]."

But Escovedo knew how badly he wanted to fight and just didn't have it in his DNA to give up without trying harder. He kept pushing and began to make progress. Each day, he'd be a bit better and the future began to seem more promising.

Suddenly, he was on the verge of accomplishing what he wanted more than anything else.

"I can remember when my doctors were saying that not only wouldn't I ever fight again, but that I probably wouldn't walk again and me thinking, 'Oh yeah? You just watch me,' " he said. "And now, here I was. I was walking, obviously, and every day I'm in the gym and I'm getting better and better and (a return to competition) was getting more realistic."

He returned to competition on May 8, 2009, when he faced Michael "Mayday" McDonald after two years, eight months and 22 days away from competition. He still wasn't 100 percent. He wasn't nearly what he had been prior to the infection, and there were still doubts, in his mind and in the minds of those closest to him, whether it was the right thing to do.

But he'd come so far he wasn't about to quit.

In small type on the side of his Facebook page, Cole Escovedo has posted one of the more famous quotes from the book, "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu: "Victory is reserved for those willing to pay its price."

Regardless of what happened in that fight against McDonald at the Tachi Palace in Lemore, Calif., Escovedo was a winner. He had paid the price. He'd battled back from the brink of death to return to professional sports competition. Not even a loss in the first minute of the first round could obscure that.

Escovedo has not only made it back – winning that night on a second-round TKO – but he's gone 6-2 since his return and has made it to the pinnacle of the sport. He insists he's a better fighter now than he was prior to the staph infection and has developed a more well-rounded game.

The UFC did him no favors in his debut, however. Barao has won 25 consecutive fights and is a teammate of UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr., so he promises to be a formidable opponent.

As good as Barao is, however, there's no way he's tougher than MRSA and a life-threatening illness that nearly took away everything that is dear to Escovedo.

Regardless of the outcome, Escovedo is already a winner and now only has to go out to try to win a fight.

"I'm pretty stoked," he said. "I've been doing this 10 years and I finally made it. I know when I walk into the cage and they close the door, it's time to get serious and get ready to fight. But I'll be honest. It's going to be hard for me to quit smiling. I'm going to look around that place and soak it in and I know everything I've been through will be running through my mind.

"It's going to be a huge moment for me, not only as a fighter but as a man. Getting to the UFC after where I've been, I'm not sure I know how to describe that other than to say that it means everything to me. Unbelievable."