How almost losing his MMA career made Cub Swanson a better fighter

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Cub Swanson lands against Dennis Siver during their featherweight fight in July 2013. (Getty Images)

Cub Swanson

Cub Swanson lands against Dennis Siver during their featherweight fight in July 2013. (Getty Images)

Fighters tend to be relentlessly optimistic and believe they can overcome just about any obstacle.

Cub Swanson is no different. If he feels pain, he doesn't admit to it.

But on June 2, 2011, during a practice session for his UFC debut a month later, his life was forever altered. He took a knee to the left side of his face that immediately forced him to withdraw from his bout at UFC 132 against Eric Koch.

His career seemed in jeopardy. The knee caved in the left side of his face. He broke his upper jaw. His teeth were dangling. His cheekbone protruded through his gums.

Swanson's family urged him to retire. His jaw was wired shut, and he'd spend long days on his back in bed, pondering his career and his future.

He wondered whether his family was correct, and whether he should step aside.

That Swanson had talent, and plenty of it, was never a question. He was 15-4 at the time of his injury and was regarded as one the top featherweights in the world.

Swanson contemplated retirement after a serious injury in 2011. (Getty Images)
Swanson contemplated retirement after a serious injury in 2011. (Getty Images)

Something, though, was missing. For all his physical gifts, Swanson was never quite as dominant as his talent suggested he might be, or really should be.

As he lay in bed recovering, he pondered his career and whether, at 28, he was through.

"I wasn't dealing well with the pressure I put on myself to perform," Swanson said. "Because of that, I couldn't perform to my full potential. Maybe I didn't believe in myself 100 percent."

It was a different Swanson who returned from the injury. He lost via arm triangle submission to Ricardo Lamas in his first bout after his recovery, but he was a very different fighter.

He proved that subsequently, reeling off five consecutive wins heading into Saturday's bout in San Antonio against Jeremy Stephens that will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1. If he wins, it's likely he'll fight the winner of the Aug. 2 Jose Aldo-Chad Mendes UFC featherweight title match.

Everything changed for him as he thought over his career at his darkest hour. He wasn't ready to walk away. He wasn't ready to be an also-ran.

He was, he knew, far better than he was showing, and while he was infirm, he took the first steps toward changing.

"When my family urged me to retire, it made me re-evaluate everything for the first time," Swanson said. "Laying in bed throughout the day, I thought about why I was doing this. Why was I fighting? I knew I was doing it because I loved it, but as I thought about it, I asked myself if I was doing it the smartest way, if I was giving myself the best chance to live up to my potential.

"I knew I could get better and I definitely wanted to still fight, so from that point on, it changed the way I thought about things and I think you see that in my results."

He's diversified himself and landed a major sponsor. He now is sponsored by Powerbilt Golf and in eight months has gotten good enough that he's breaking 90.

His job as a brand ambassador is to introduce at-risk kids to golf and use golf as a vehicle to teach them fitness.

He went to the PGA Tour's Humana Challenge, formerly the Bob Hope Desert Classic, and spoke to 160 kids about fitness.

Golf has given him an outlet from fighting and another athletic endeavor to pursue. It's helped him because it has reminded him how good of an athlete he is and how he has improved in responding to instruction.

"Golf doesn't look like it's going to be that hard, but then you start to do it and you realize, 'Wow, this isn't that simple,'" he said. "Me being an athlete and knowing my body, it was frustrating at first and I was having a hard time with it. But I had a coach and I was able to pick up on the little things that were required."

And it was the little things that made the difference in his fight career, too. One of the big ones was simply believing in himself and turning his doubts and negativity into confidence.

Swanson, right, kicking Dennis Siver, returned to the cage as a better overall fighter. (Getty Images)
Swanson, right, kicking Dennis Siver, returned to the cage as a better overall fighter. (Getty Images)

He conceded that in the past he frequently wouldn't mentally show up on the night of the fight, and all the good work he'd done in the gym was wasted.

But when it came so close to being taken from him, he realized he needed to change his mental approach. That he was able to do so quickly and effortlessly speaks to the type of athlete he is.

He's answered the one question he always fretted over.

"The fear I had of not being able to do this any more [because of the facial injury] led me to ask myself, 'OK, if I have to retire, am I going to be happy with the results I've had so far?'" he said. "My goal from Day One has always been to be proud of myself when I retire, whenever that may be and whatever I may have accomplished to that point.

"And when I asked myself at that point, the answer was no. I wasn't satisfied. I did something about it. I made the changes I needed to make and now I want to see where that takes me."

It's taken him to the verge of a title shot. He needs to get past Stephens, which is no easy task, and then defeat the Aldo-Mendes winner, which will also be highly challenging.

No longer, though, is Swanson swallowed by his own doubts and insecurities.

"I believe I'm fully capable of winning the belt, but I had to give myself the best chance to do so," he said. "And I believe I'm doing that now. I'm able to perform to my best on a given night, and that's all I can ask of myself."

What to Read Next