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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
After 11 years in the sport of mixed martial arts, 29-year-old Sean Loeffler was finally brought into the UFC and scheduled for a bout against Buddy Roberts at UFC on Fuel TV in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the culmination of everything he had done in his career to this point, and he was ready to show the entire MMA world what he was capable of doing on the big stage.
However, his debut wouldn't come on that card. Just minutes before he was set to walk to the cage, his foot was caught in a crack between mats during a final warmup, and he severely injured his ankle. It swelled up considerably, and the bout was called off.
"It was surreal, when I think back," Loeffler said in a conversation with MMATorch on Thursday, reflecting on that moment. "It's probably one of those moments in my life that I'll never forget. You can break down things like when your kid's born, or near death experiences and s*** like that; that's one of those moments that I will never, ever forget. I was doing gut jumps, literally the photographer was there taking pictures of me and I made eye contact with him right before my ankle turned over."
"It was surreal because right before I had just never felt that good. My coaches were just freaked out, they were like, 'You're so relaxed it's scaring us. We just want to make sure you've got that killer mentality.'
"I [said], 'I'm gonna f***ing rip this goddamned guy's head off. You don't even know.' So my coaches said 'You're ready then, for sure.' I looked at my coaches and said, 'You guys have got to stop tripping, I'm gonna f***ing kill this guy.' They just said, 'Jesus, we've never seen Sean so relaxed and confident.'"
That confidence and anticipation would fade quickly, leading to one of the most painful things Loeffler has ever experienced in his career, not just physically, but emotionally as well.
"I was so relaxed; I was sweating, warmed up, and ready to go, but I felt like a professional," he said. "I just felt like it was another day at the office. Sometimes I've been nervous before some big fights; I wasn't nervous at all. As soon as I had to accept that it was over, it was surreal. I thought that I was going to wake up a couple times. I really thought I was going to wake up in my hotel room in Omaha. I just thought, 'There's no way. There's no f***ing way this is really happening right now.'"
"I felt my heart hurt. I've never felt my actual heart hurt before. I thought that was just an expression. To me, the heart was just an organ in the middle of your chest that pumps blood to the rest of your body; but my heart was hurting, like I was going to have a f***ing heart attack or something. It was just surreal."
"There's nothing that I've ever experienced like that," Loeffler continued. "It was a matter of two seconds; I go from 'I'm about to fight in the UFC and shock the world or something cool; get a knockout bonus or submission bonus or fight of the night bonus; get my win bonus' I was very confident in that. Two seconds later, I thought, 'Am I even going to be in the UFC? Are they going to drop me because of this? Am I going to be able to fight again?'"
"It was the craziest turn around - and I'm not feeling bad for myself - but a lot of people probably never experience that complete 180 degrees of emotion in a matter of seconds."
The fear that his UFC career was over before it even started was a near crippling thought, but one that was immediately squashed by UFC officials, who assured him that he had a place in the organization when his ankle healed. That, along with the UFC paying him his "show" money, was a major relief, but it also brought about an immediate change in complexion for Loeffler backstage.
"Obviously, it meant the world to me; it changed everything. When Joe Silva, Burt [Watson], and Dana [White] all said 'Sean's a UFC fighter, he'll be back,' and Ariel Helwani and Brian Stann confirmed it on live TV, it meant the world to me," Loeffler said. "It didn't make my leg hurt any less, and actually the leg started hurting worse when I heard that news because the adrenaline kind of stopped, and then it was 'ok, now I can focus on getting my leg better.' That was my instant focus. If we have to do surgery tonight, if we have to put me under, just get me to the hospital.
"It went from 'Was that it? Was that minute and 15 my one chance of UFC exposure?' And once I realized that it wasn't over yet, then my adrenaline completely stopped, and that's when I realized 'wow, my leg f***ing hurts.' I was focused on reality and less on accepting what happened. I just knew I had to accept it, I thought I might have broken my leg, and I just had to accept that and move on."
Not only did the UFC assure him that he had a spot left in the organization, they also made it a point to put him on television, show how badly the ankle was injured, and make it clear that this was something serious, and shouldn't be held against him. And for Loeffler, he didn't want the fight to be called off, and tried everything he could to get himself out there before being assured that his roster spot was safe.
"Everybody that knows me [when they saw me backstage icing the ankle] probably said, 'I bet you money the commission had to hold him down and his coaches had to yell at him.' Which is true," Loeffler said. "I'm just screaming, 'This ain't no f***ing ballet, this is a fight. You wrap this s*** up and let me go back in there!'
"They said, 'We can't wrap anything up unless it's cut.' I'm like, 'Well give me a knife and cut my foot. Just let me get in that cage!'"
"Burt and Joe were just said, 'Man, that kid's a warrior.' They were real cool, and real supportive, and I could tell by the look on their face that they knew it was just a bummer."
Along with showing the injury to his ankle, the producers for the event also allowed Loeffler to showcase his sponsorship banner, and get TV time to those that had helped him to prepare. Unfortunately for Loeffler, that exposure didn't lead to payment from all of them.
"It was so nice when the TV producers came down," Loeffler explained. "I said, 'Can I please put my sponsorship banner behind me.' They were like 'yeah, and we'll make sure that we get a big long shot of it.' It was really great of them to let me do that. A lot of my sponsors have stuck behind me, but some of the bigger ones are kind of complaining, which is heartbreaking."
"I had to pay for plane tickets, I paid for four hotel rooms, I had to pay for the printing of the shorts and the banners, which was a few hundred bucks. I had percentages to a couple of other people who created money for me from different stuff for me that I wasn't going to get. Then I borrowed some money from my parents to just concentrate on training and hire some coaches for my gym; I own a gym, and instead of me focusing on running the gym I hired some other coaches to come work with me for my fight, and other coaches to run my classes at the gym. So I had all these expenses."
"If it wasn't for the UFC giving me my show money, I would have been - no joke - about $4,000 in debt, to my parents, business partners and stuff like that," he continued. "Because the UFC gave me my show money I ended up making about $245 when all was said and done after the fight, and obviously my leg will be taken care of. But it would be nice if some of the sponsors would step up - I'm not going to mention any names at all because most of the sponsors have been awesome - but some of the more well known ones, it would be nice if they would step up and take care of me because that money's going to matter for covering my coaches after surgery when I can't teach."
"I'm not whining or being a little brat about anything, but it'd be nice because it's like 'Dude, you think I haven't dealt with e-f***ing-nough already? I did everything I could to get you guys on TV.' They probably got more exposure from that banner and my shorts than all the other guys on the undercard combined that didn't get their walkout shown or banners or anything. My s*** was on Facebook, and Fuel TV, with a huge ankle where people were probably saying 'Damn! Did you see that?' I don't know. I understand a contract says you get paid to fight, but there are sponsors that have stepped up and paid me what they said they were going to, and I couldn't thank them enough. They couldn't thank me enough, and I couldn't thank the UFC enough for letting me do that."
Loeffler is now looking at surgery on the ankle to repair the anterior talofibular ligament, as well as several other issues that have popped up. For Loeffler, the procedure can't come fast enough, and he's definitely reaching his breaking point without much use of his leg.
"I'm getting to the point of just kind of frustration," he said. "I'm not trying to be a whiner or complainer or anything, but just frustration with being on crutches all the time, or being in a wheelchair half of the time. Going through places and not being able to use the leg, all the tendons are tore in my leg."
"I've got surgery on Tuesday; I thought I was going to have it this Tuesday, so I was looking forward to, at least, it was the final [thing], then it's all downhill from there, because the surgery would have been done. Yeah, I'm going to be in a wheelchair for a couple of weeks, then crutches and then rehab; but once you get the surgery that's kind of the culmination and everything from there is just healing process and getting stronger. So when they put it off for a week it's just kind of disheartening. I'm like 'f***', like I fell on my face yesterday pumping gas because my crutch went out from under me. I'm a professional athlete and I'm pretty coordinated and [it makes you] feel like a retard on stilts."
The surgery was delayed from this week to next because a followup examination revealed an alternate path than originally planned. Loeffler explained that he initially would have been looking at 4-6 months of recovery time, but instead he'll undergo a slightly more extensive procedure that will see him back in the gym a lot sooner than that.
"We're doing [the surgery] on Tuesday at the San Diego Medical Center," he said. "I haven't gotten the surgery that I was supposed to, and they said that there is some more extensive stuff that they saw that they want to prepare for just in case. The ultrasound actually showed good news. It's going to make for a faster healing process, but a more extensive surgery, if that makes sense. Originally, the main tear was in my anterior talofibular ligament, which is the ligament on the outside of your ankle that kind of wraps in a circle around what looks like your ankle bone there. That was completely torn; and then they saw some other slight disruptions on the medial and posterior which is on the inside and back of the ankle."
"They were going to put a cadaver ligament in and then some pins on the inside to strengthen those; but when they did the ultrasound the doctor was really impressed with how strong my tendons were and the ligaments were, even the broken ones. So they opted out of surgery on Tuesday because they said 'by putting a cadaver tendon in here or pins, they're going to be weaker than your broken ligaments and tendons.' So what he said is 'I just want sew your tendons and ligaments back together to each other, since they're already so strong. Some scar tissue will reattach them a little bit more, and some string will hold. It'll be stronger that way, and then we won't need to worry about somebody else's tendons or pins being in there making it weaker than your natural body.'"
That's fine for Loeffler, as it will mean a less extensive rehabilitation process, and when he can return to training he can really return to training. Knowing himself, Loeffler says he may have pushed himself too hard with the initially planned return, and now he believes he'll be able to be a little more patient with the process.
"It makes it so once the surgery is done I'll be able to train at 100% in about three months," he said. "I'm still looking at a six month time to get back to the cage; but I was thinking six months to get back to the UFC would be a month of hard training and then I could conceptually fight at 100%, whereas this is like I can have a three month training camp and really be at the top of my game six months from now."
"I would have probably tried to push myself really hard and overdue it a little bit, and who knows what would have happened there. Now, I can be patient for two months, and sit in a wheelchair and stay off it when I know the second I get cleared I can go hard on it. It's just hard for me to think about doing f***ing band work or sitting on f***ing rubber balls for two months and that's the training I'd have had to do; so I'd rather do nothing for two months and then BOOM just get back into fight training."
We'll have more from this 30-minute conversation with Sean later this weekend, featuring a couple of highly entertaining stories you won't want to miss!
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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