Things were going well for Brian Melancon recently, at least as far as his MMA career was concerned.
Sure, his last fight was a loss. A first-round submission defeat, no less, at the hands and arms of Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Fight Night 27 in August. But his UFC debut, which had come just a month prior, was a blistering second-round TKO stoppage victory against the experienced and respected Seth Baczynski at UFC 162.
1-1 in the UFC is not the worst place to be. That's something to build on. That's a position many fighters envy. It's a reason to be proud.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it all came to the most unusual of screeching halts. Melancon, originally scheduled to face Robert Whittaker at UFC Fight Night 33, wouldn't be competing on that card. In fact, he wouldn't be competing ever again.
"It has been announced, I am sad to say that my fight career is over," Melancon wrote on his Facebook wall in late November. "I have been having kidney problems that have gotten much worse recently and just found out that my kidney function has dropped to 47%. If I continue to train, fight, and cut weight then I run the risk of permanent damage. I have been advised by my Specialist to retire and move on and that is what I will be doing. This is not how I wanted to go out, but I have to believe that God has another path for me. Thanks to all of you who supported me throughout my career."
How could a fighter who had no history of weight cutting problems or a long career spent in the game, and therefore in the sauna, abruptly stop just at the moment his career was at it's peak?
According to Melancon, he always knew something wasn't right. And by the time he discovered exactly what was going wrong, it was all too late.
"Looking back now I see all the signs before that you miss when you're training and pushing through, trying to give your all," the former UFC welterweight told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "You have times where you get weak and things like that. You just chalk it up to normal over training or something like that. So, it's been going on for quite a while, but it got progressively worse actually before I fought Kelvin [Gastelum]. About three weeks before that fight, I finished a real hard training day, three sessions that day, and then went home."
"As I was going home," Melancon continued, "my body started cramping up. Literally, everything up my toes to my legs, my ribs, my stomach, my neck, my back; everything was cramping up severely.
I got home, kind of crawled in and I went to the bathroom. I went to lay in hot water and drink fluids to get the muscles to relax. My wife was there helping me. It was about two hours that I was in the tub trying to get this to relax. It was excruciating pain and wouldn't stop, so I had to go to the emergency room and got some IV fluids. Finally, after about another hour there, it started to calm down. They get some blood work and they said my electrolytes were all out of balance and something was going on with my kidneys, but that it could just be from training so hard."
As Melancon would soon discover, his condition wasn't simply from training hard, nor was this his first brush with health issues. He'd had kidney pain during his days of trying to cut from lightweight all the way from his walking around weight of 195 pounds. But things got more serious where he was diagonsed with having had premature ventricular contractions in 2011.
Doctors told him the condition, which disrupts the heart's natural rhythm, was benign, but after taking a break from his time in Strikeforce to focus on his wedding, he noticed his conditioning was unusually bad once he returned to the gym.
He gutted through and even had a successful UFC debut. But in taking the two UFC fights in such close proximity, he was never out of the gym. After the bout with Gastelum, "my conditioning was horrible," said Melancon.
"We normally spar six, five-minute rounds and drill afterward. For this camp, I was getting to where I could only spar two rounds and I had to take a round off because my body just wouldn't go.
"I started having night sweats and was sweating way more than normal. I went to the urgent care center from before. They just said, 'Well, you need to drink more water and you need to train less.'"
That advice wouldn't prove very useful, but Melnacon was insistent on finding the cause. More treatment and tests revealed he had another condition known was rhabdomyolysis, "where you basically break down the muscle tissue from intense training and then it clogs your kidneys, so to speak.
"After that one main incident, back before the last fight, now it's been susceptible to happening again and again. It got progressively worse and worse as I tried to train for this last fight."
Melancon knew the problem was serious, but wasn't ready to give up on fighting just yet. He says he begged and pleased with a specialist he was seeing to give him one more chance to see if they could work around the condition before calling it quits, which is the advice the specialist was giving him.
Melancon and his doctor agreed to baby steps, the first of which was taking a blood sample after a training session to see where kidney function stood before they made any further decisions.
It was a short practice, Melancon recalled. Nothing too strenuous. He was plenty hydrated. He felt fine afterward. Blood work was taken and Melancon hoped this would be the return to the cage. Everything seemed in order to do so.
That is until the results of the blood work were returned.
"[The specialist] said my kidney function had dropped to 47 percent with just a light training session," Melancon said. "He said if I continue to train, it's going to get worse. If I cut weight, for sure it's going to get worse, so I kept trying to say 'Let me get this one in and we'll take some time off and look at it'. I asked him, 'There's nothing like I'm going to die or anything like that?,' kind of jokingly.
"He said, 'I can't promise you that you're not.'"
And with that somber response, Melancon knew it was over. He wasn't prepared to have his life threatened or even his quality of life compromised by having to spend a life on dialysis just for one more fight in a cage all the way across the planet.
After all, Melancon had read the news of Leandro 'Feijao' Souza, the Shooto Brazil fighter who died from weight cutting complications. He knew fighting was something he wanted to do, but wasn't his entire life. He was only doing it part-time anyway, spending the rest of his time as a husband and physical therapist. Why risk serious damage just for one more fight?
"It's time to quit now," he told himself.
The obvious question is the same one that's always asked when retirement comes around: are there any regrets? Did you do everything you wanted to? Did you leave anything behind?
Melancon's career was relatively brief, something he sees as good and bad.
"Fighting was never my life. It was a hobby. It was something I like to compete at. It was never truly my profession," Melancon noted. "I love to compete. I love the sport. I wanted to do more. There were more goals I had that I wanted to accomplish, but at the same time, my main goal was to get in the UFC and to get a win and everything else after that was just going to be icing on the cake.
"I feel like it was the right decision. I don't really feel like it was a bold decision to make. I had to do it, but obviously I'm going to miss the sport and miss competing."
Even now, however, Melancon isn't out of the woods, medically speaking. He says he still has kidney pain, surprising his doctor, who is having some difficulty specifically identifying what's causing it after the fighter had an ultrasound in January.
Still, he's optimistic he can avoid surgery. Melancon has a follow-up in a month to see where things stand then. His doctor doesn't believe it'll be necessary to take an invasive procedure.
For now, he's not training, trying to stay hydrated and manage his electrolyte intake. And if things go according to plan, he'd like to turn his physical therapist occupation into a his own sports medicine practice. While MMA ended before he was ready, he knows he did what he could with the time he had. Like everyone else, he just wants to be healthy and happy.
Even with MMA out of the picture, Melancon believes he's still on the right path.
"Overall," he said, "it looks like everything's going to be OK and get back to normal."