Bellator's Bryan Baker Fighting Through Cancer and Opponents Simultaneously

Bryan Baker walked into the Bellator cage on June 24 with a sense of faith and a sense of fate. He's a spiritual man, an optimistic man, and to him it just seemed like everything was lining up perfectly. He'd won each of his first two tournament matches easily to advance to the middleweight final. He was feeling better than he had in months. He was settling into his new life in a new state. And just one more win would give him a chance to fight for a championship, a goal to which he'd long aspired.

A more pessimistic, or even more practical perspective might have looked at the situation differently. Such viewpoints might have seen things as unsettled at best, unraveling at worst. But dissenting viewpoints had no access to Baker's reality. As he entered the fight against flashy Russian Alexander Shlemenko in Louisville, Kentucky, few were privy to the details of Baker's physical condition. In fact, so closely held was the secret that even his boss, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, was among those who'd been left in the dark.

Unbeknownst to few more than his trainer, his doctor, a few family members and friends, 24-year-old Bryan Baker was competing in the biggest match of his mixed martial arts career while in the midst of a fight with cancer.

*******

Thomas Denny had always said he was going to retire in Colorado.

With his active career winding down, the MMA veteran known as "the Wildman" who also works as a trainer was approached about moving his home base into the state. It was an offer he did not spend much time pondering. He was going. And Bryan Baker was going with him.

That was no surprise to anybody who knew the pair. After all, the two had bonded nearly immediately upon meeting for the first time.

It was November 2006 and Denny had been away from his gym, preparing for a fight of his own when his assistant instructor Lucas Taber called him with some news. A young man had come into the gym, worked out and awed everyone watching.

"This kid is going to be a superstar," Taber told Denny. There was only one problem: no one knew his name.

The next Monday, Denny had returned to his gym after winning his fight when the buzz began. The kid was back. He's never left. Almost four years later, Denny and Baker were inseparable. If one of them was going to Colorado, they were both going.

"He made a decision to come to Colorado," Baker says. "He wasn't even sure exactly why. He just had a feeling he needed to be out here. And ever since we got out here, God's set us up in amazing ways."

In early February, the duo set up shop at MMA Premier Fitness in Centennial, a city just 15 miles southeast of Denver, and like its neighbor, more than one mile high.

At the time, Baker was in the midst of signing a new deal with Bellator. As part of his contract, he had entered the company's middleweight tournament, a grueling format which would require the victor to win three bouts in less than two months. While many top-level fighters only fight two or three times in a given year, Baker liked the challenge.
"I have so much love for him, it brings tears to my eyes thinking about what he's gone through. He wants this so bad. His will to be the champion pushes him through everything. How do I take away his dream?"
-- Thomas Denny

But as he began to prepare himself for his first bout, something was clearly wrong. During training, Baker – with a 14-2 record and nicknamed "the Beast" for his ability to outwork everyone in the gym – found himself with little energy and constantly in a state of fatigue. More troubling: he couldn't complete his workouts.

"I was like, 'Man, this altitude sucks,'" Baker recalls. "I was blaming it on that. I thought, 'Wow, my body really does not like this. I would start to get upset with myself and push through. I would decide, 'I'm going until I pass out.' My spirit was pushing me through, saying, 'Don't listen to your body.'"

Watching from the sidelines, his coach was seeing other things, signs that troubled him. His mind was instinctively telling him it was something more than the elevation, and his opinion counted for something.

After all, the two are close enough that Baker lives in Denny's house. Ask them to describe their relationship and sometimes they'll tell you Denny's like a second father to Baker, sometimes they'll say they're like brothers.

So when he told Baker that something else was wrong, the kid had to accept it.

"At first I thought, 'Maybe it's staph? Maybe it's mono?" Denny recalls. "But I began noticing more and more problems. His skin was turning green, his back was bothering him, he was having headaches. He was the workhorse, but slowly, his workouts dropped off to nothing."

The two were hardly even established in their new community, but Denny called everyone he knew asking for opinions. Finally, he contacted a local fight doctor, who advised Denny that Baker should have blood work done.

They braced for the results.

"When they came, the doctor said, 'Thomas, you need to get Bryan," Denny says. "He said, 'Do not let him work out, do not let him do anything.' He referred me to a cancer specialist and said, 'You need to get him there for further testing now.'"

The detailed tests which he received on April 19 confirmed what doctors suspected: Baker had cancer -- specifically, chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) -- and had likely had it for a while. For a person of his age and body type, the normal range of white blood cell count would be between 4,000-10,000 cells per microliter. The average count is around 7,000. Baker's count was a staggering 100,000.

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the average five-year survival rate of patients with CML is just over 54 percent. Complicating matters, Baker had no health insurance.

At the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, Dr. Douglas Reznick recommended Baker be put on Gleevec, a popular treatment that was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2001 and hailed by TIME magazine as a "breakthrough" in cancer treatment. Baker's recommended 800-milligram daily dosage would cost $5,000 per month. After a few calls, Denny, Baker and the cancer center were able to convince the manufacturer to give him a year's dosage for free.

"This drug is not your standard type of chemotherapy," Dr. Reznick says. "Within a matter of one or two weeks, symptoms are already abating. I've got several patients with this, and I've known some endurance athletes in the same position. They go on competing and living a full, normal, active life."

But Baker didn't even have that little time; he was scheduled to fight in just 10 days. Surely he couldn't compete with his body so ravaged by aches, pains and side effects that some days, getting out of bed would prove nearly impossible. A body that was, according to Reznick, down three pints of blood due to the anemia that accompanied his disease.

"I always said, 'I'm going to be strong through it, I'm going to beat it, I'm going to go in and do well in this tournament, go in and get my title,'" Baker says. "That's where my spirit and focus was."

With his mind made up, Baker had only two days to prepare for his first tourney bout with Sean Loeffler. Adapting to the medicine, he could barely jump rope for five minutes – the same length as a grueling MMA round -- and yet he still decided to go through with the fight. Ask Denny how he felt about Baker competing with leukemia compromising his body, and you can feel the conflict well up inside him.

"Of course we tried to stop him but I have love for this kid like a brother, like a son," he says. "I have so much love for him, it brings tears to my eyes thinking about what he's gone through. He wants this so bad. His will to be the champion pushes him through everything. How do I take away his dream?"

Incredibly, Baker won in just 2:43, scoring a technical knockout.

His second fight came a month later. His body was starting to get stronger, but slowly. For this fight, he managed five solid days of training, Denny said. Again, Baker improbably rallied, defeating Eric Schambari via triangle choke, this time in just 2:29.

That win put him in the tourney final against Shlemenko. This time, he had two weeks of training. Everything seemed set up for a storybook ending.

*******


Baker entered the tournament finals with a 13-1 record, and was considered the favorite to beat Shlemenko and set up a title match with champion Hector Lombard. After all the obstacles he'd conquered on his way to the bout, it seemed that destiny should be on his side. In the locker room beforehand, Baker had a great warm-up session. According to Denny, he was crisp, energetic and focused.

When the cage door closed behind him, though, he never seemed to get his offense started. Shlemenko dropped Baker with a knee to the body midway through the first round and followed up with ground and pound offense for a TKO finish.

Around parts of the MMA world, criticism of Baker surfaced.

"I remember thinking, 'If you even knew half of what this kid's gone through, you guys would shut up,'" Denny says. "He's fighting more than just a fight. He's fighting for his life."

Baker, though, says he has learned from both the experience of cancer and the experience of losing. On Thursday, he defeated grizzled veteran Jeremy Horn at Bellator 30 via unanimous decision in Louisville. He says he's at about 90 percent going into the fight.

"It takes unparalleled heart and courage to battle cancer, but to do it while training for and competing at an elite, world-class level in MMA is awe-inspiring," Bellator's Rebney said. "Simply put, I do not believe I have come across a more compelling story of an athlete courageously fighting through adversity than what Bryan is going though right now. "

After months of treatment, Baker's in hematologic remission, with normal blood counts. Within a few months, his doctors hope there will be no leukemia in his bone marrow. And if everything goes according to plan, after a year on Gleevec, all traces of the disease will be gone from his system.

Until then, he'll get by with his medicine, and frequent readings of Scripture, including his favorite, Proverbs 18:14, which reads, "The human spirit can endure a sick body, but who can bear a crushed spirit?"

"What he's done is exceptional," Dr. Reznick says. "It goes to show how well trained and fit he is. In spite of what he was enduring, he sustained and got through. One thing I must say is, he is a lovely person. He has an incredible work ethic and mental fortitude. He's just that kind of person. always looking at the positive. I believe that's an important part of this."

A few years ago, which is to say early in his career, Baker was asked how he saw his future. His face broke out into a grin. "With a belt on my waist, and a smile on my face," he said. He still believes it. He still believes he'll get there, even after the detours put in his path. Or maybe now, because of them.

Baker believes all this was put in his life for a reason. That he walked into Denny's gym and forged an unshakeable bond with him because he was the man assigned to look over him, his "guardian angel," he says. He believes that he moved to Colorado because the elevation would exacerbate the symptoms that would eventually lead to his diagnosis. Otherwise, he thinks, the leukemia might have gone undiscovered until a later, more dangerous stage. He believes that coming close to living his dream with cancer and falling short will be the motivation to carry him through the rest of his career. But if nothing else, he believes that the future is his with prayer and positivity. Faith and fate will bring him to tomorrow and beyond just as they've done every day since April 19. Cancer and opponents? Neither stands a chance.

"We talk about that all the time," Denny says. "If the kid is 13-2 and he's been fighting leukemia this whole time, imagine what he'll be like at 100 percent? He'll be one of the best in the world, one for the history books. He's definitely going to do great things."

"I always said I want to be the best," Baker says. "I believe I can be. Fighting through this cancer, beating it, overcoming it, and getting stronger at the same time. And at the same time, the world showing an interest in me and having a care for me, I want to be a living testimony to everyone out there that's going through something rough that they can overcome it. Just keep your spirits high. Just keep fighting."


Follow Mike Chiappetta on Twitter.com/MikeChiappetta

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