Sometimes a moment of dread becomes a moment of joy. That's just what happened to UFC middleweight Alan Belcher
, who walked into his doctor's office on Tuesday morning with nervousness about what he might hear regarding a possible career-ending injury to his right eye, and walked out with a green light to begin full contact in January.
Belcher had won his last two UFC bouts and was in Brazil preparing to face Demian Maia when his eye started giving him trouble. It was soon discovered to be a detached retina, an injury that has cost many fighters their careers. He was immediately put on the sideline and underwent surgery to correct the problem in August.
Now, with his recovery going well, his ophthalmologist, Dr. Chris Semple, has cleared him to do workouts including running, jumping and weight-lifting. Meanwhile, a return to sparring and eventually to the cage will have to wait a bit longer, leaving Belcher chomping at the bit to begin his march to the top.
"There's no doubt I miss it, I miss it bad," Belcher told MMA Fighting. "I was the kind of guy I'd be training almost every day. You'd have to make me stop because I love it so much. But I did it because it was fun and it makes me feel good about myself. This has been the longest break I've taken from training in my entire sports life. I've trained every week, almost every day since I was a kid. I started martial arts at eight years old and haven't missed more than a week, so it was really weird doing nothing for months."
The 26-year-old is scheduled for a precautionary check-up just before he starts full sparring and then another two weeks into it to make sure the eye is responding well, but all signs are looking good for him to resume his MMA career with no restrictions.
While Belcher is likely never to have 20/20 vision in his right eye (it's currently at 20/85), the eye seems structurally sound and most of his peripheral vision is back.
"Dr. Semple's done a real great job being with me every step of the way," he said. "My depth perception has to adjust, but it's coming back. At first, just walking down the stairs was tricky, it looked like you had to go further, but it's all coming back. I'm super-happy, it's really amazing and the news is outstanding."
Belcher said he'll spend the next few weeks working on conditioning, and not surprisingly, he was already back in the gym hours after getting the green light, doing some light cardio and warm-up drills such as pummeling.
"I thought I was totally out of shape but it wasn't as bad as I thought I was going to be," he said.
Belcher said he expects to give himself six weeks of training before he accepts a fight and hopes to fight before May so he's not inactive for an entire year. His last fight came at UFC 113 on May 8 when he defeated Patrick Cote via rear naked choke submission.
Belcher (16-6) has won four of his last five bouts overall, losing only a close split-decision to Yoshihiro Akiyama in July 2009.
Belcher's also become considered one of the UFC's most exciting and promising young middleweights, capturing "Fight of the Night" or "Submission of the Night" prizes in each of his last four fights. But despite the injury, expect only subtle changes to his aggressive style.
"I'm always going to show a lot of courage and confidence when I'm in there," he said. "The range that I fight at is where I can hit and hurt my opponent at all times. I don't run at all. I make the fight happen and the thing I'm going to improve on is making sure I'm winning the fight at all times. I don't want to go back and forth. I don't want to have a war. I just want to put a war on my opponent."
Belcher was fast moving up the ranks of UFC middleweights at the time of his injury. Interestingly, the division is highly populated with fighters over 30. Champion Anderson Silva is 35, Wanderlei Silva is 34, Chael Sonnnen is 33, Demian Maia is 32, and Nate Marquardt and Michael Bisping are 31.
Belcher believes he's the man to add some young blood to the top of the division.
"It's lacking, man," he said. "I see it myself, I've heard it from a lot of fans. The middleweight division, there are some tough guys, but it's really lacking someone to come in and fire it up, dominate and be exciting. That's going to be my spot when I come back in.
"They need to look out for a totally new fighter coming into the division," he continued. "My whole mindset is changing. I'm working on my mental game, figuring out what it takes to be the best in that division and that's what I'm going to make happen. I'm going to use this opportunity to come back better and smarter. Don't expect Alan Belcher to come back slacking or rusty. I will come back better. I will not lose. I will beat whoever is on top, I'll get my title shot, and I'm going to be be world champion."