It's been a rough stretch for the audacious Joe Warren. He lost his title. He was knocked out and suffered a concussion in one of the year's most cringe-worthy finishes. He fell in his bid to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
For the self-described "Baddest Man on the Planet," this time of athletic failure is uncharted territory. He is not a man who is used to losing. He was an all-state wrestler in high school, an All-American in college, and world-ranked as an international Greco-Roman competitor. Then, when he transitioned to mixed martial arts, he won a championship within 18 months of his pro debut.
Success has mostly followed him like a shadow but suddenly, it's cloudy around the Bellator star. Warren, who recently turned 36 years old, is hearing questions. So many whispers. Is he too old? Can he take a punch? Should he still be fighting at all?
Like all athletes who march forward despite the swirl of doubts surrounding them, Warren has his own explanations for his troubles, and his own views of the future. The knockout loss to Alexis Vila? "I didn't believe something like that could happen to me," he says. The uncomfortable beating he took at the hands of Pat Curran? "I think as the fight went along, his size was a factor."
It was that fight that left many wondering about Warren's future, both in terms of his abilities and more importantly, his health. The March 9 Bellator featherweight title bout was fairly even after the first two rounds, but early in the third, Curran perfectly timed a knee as Warren began to duck low for a takedown. The crushing impact of that first strike knocked Warren's head back sharply. Great champions have been felled by less, but he stayed on his feet, though he staggered backward several steps until his back ran into the cage. The next 25 seconds were both riveting and unbearable as Curran battered him with 40 power strikes, any of which could have ended the fight.
Too tough for his own good, Warren kept on his feet where he tried to hold off the bombardment to no avail. Finally, after a series of uppercuts, Warren's lights turned out and his body slumped to the mat.
The aftermath was equally pretty. Warren vomited backstage and was diagnosed with a concussion. Remarkably, after a career spent in the wrestling and fighting worlds, Curran said it was the first time he had ever been diagnosed with one, though he believes he's likely had others that went unidentified.
If that resulting concussion was the injury, the timing of it was the corresponding insult. The U.S. Olympic team trials were scheduled for less than two months later, and his wife and doctors did not want him wrestling while Warren was adamant he could still do it.
Over the course of about three weeks, he underwent CAT scans that showed that despite his concussion, his brain was functioning correctly. With minimal preparation, Warren still went through with the trials but lost in the semifinals, ending his bid to compete in London.
All the way along though, he knew he would find his way back to the cage.
"I always planned on coming back," he said. "I saw my doctors and did what they asked. I'm completely healthy. I took some time. I haven't been back in the cage for a few months. I'm healthy and confident it just happened. I don't believe I'm prone to another one because I got one. I believe it happens in this sport. It just happened to me."
Warren said that in the months after the concussion, he didn't spar for a few months, focusing on helping to coach the men's Olympic team while occasionally hitting pads. While he was in the gym, he says he took great pains to avoid situations that could result in blows to the head. That, of course, could only last so long, and he's been at it full bore since getting the word on a return date.
Warren believes that his permanent move to bantamweight will help extend his career and minimize his chances of injury, as he'll no longer be competing against fighters who out-weigh him by 15-20 pounds in the cage. His return fight comes at Friday night's Bellator 80 against Owen Evinger, a Missouri-based fighter who is 7-3 but has no knockouts on his record. It is for all intents and purposes designed as a tuneup fight for Warren, even though such things can be quite unpredictable in the MMA business.
If Warren wins, he is a lock to be entered into the promotion's bantamweight tournament when they move to Spike in 2013. If he loses, his career will certainly be at a crossroads.
In typical Joe Warren style, the future all comes down to a mind set. His attitude won't change, even if his journey here was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.
"It sucks to lose," he said. "It's like it bruised my ego a little bit but the bruise healed up. I'm healed up. You can't break me. Just because I lost a couple times it’s not going to stop me. I still believe I’m the baddest man on planet. I’m still going to keep winning."