There had been setbacks. There had been challenges. And, of course, plenty of uncertainty. But after 13 years, Sean Loeffler thought his dream of fighting in the UFC was about to come true. That's when it all went up in smoke.
As the story goes, Loeffler was warming up backstage at UFC on FUEL TV 1: Sanchez vs. Ellenberger as he was set to fight fellow UFC newcomer Buddy Roberts. Minutes before his bout, however, he injured his ankle. The Nebraska athletic commission deemed him unable to continue and the fight was scrapped at the last possible moment.
It's not the most auspicious beginning in the world, but he'd be back, right? Other fighters - Kevin Randleman, Tim Means - have had their bouts cancelled because of last-moment injuries. Wrong. Not only has Loeffler not fought since that date, he's no longer even with the organization.
How could that happen? How could a fighter go from nearly making his UFC debut in February of 2012 to not fighting at all more than a year and half later? "It's an interesting story and it's got a lot of dynamics to the story," Loeffler told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I'll be really candid with you and make it as short as I can to get some of the details involved because it is kind of an interesting story."
The facts go something like this. As part of a new UFC PED testing policy, Loeffler was required to have tests administered some time after his failed debut. Loeffler requested the UFC set up a date in the two weeks after they contacted because, as he told them, he was going on vacation to Hawaii and would be unavailable. They obliged him, but gave a date that coincided with a follow-up surgery on the same damaged ankle. Loeffler claims he told the UFC that and was happy to get the test done on the same day if they were. He claims UFC had no issue and the date was set.
Loeffler went through with the surgery as well as the testing and later headed off for Hawaii. That's when the trouble started. He says he received an e-mail saying he'd tested positive for multiple substances on the prohibited list. Confused, Loeffler contacted his doctor, who believes - and later wrote in a sworn affidavit - the substances that came up were related to prescribed medication from the surgery on his ankle he had the day of his UFC drug tests. Loeffler later took another drug test when he returned from Hawaii, one he says came up clean.
Loeffler thought that'd be enough proof to clear any suspension related to the test, but according to him, the UFC said any positive tests count toward a penalty, including false positives. The UFC wasn't interested in giving him another fight, at least not anytime soon. It removed his profile from its website and told him it would get back to him.
By this point, Loeffler's priorities had shifted. He was tired of the grind, tired of trying to force something to happen that wasn't going to happen. His gym was doing well. His family was growing. His ankle was still busted and medical bills only partially covered by the workman's compensation he was under. Why not focus on what was going right, he thought, rather than fight the UFC in public over getting a new fight that they didn't seem interested in giving him?
"Why cause a big stink when there's all these other people that are cry babies, people that talk trash, make them seem a like a cheater?," he said. "I don't need to deal with that. I'm busy being a dad, a business owner, giving my family stability."
That doesn't mean despite the certainty in Loeffler's words he isn't still grappling with his decision.
"It hurts me. There's a gaggle of reasons I'm not fighting in the UFC. I think I would probably be in the top eight, realistically, in that division," he claimed. "It's frustrating, but the reason why I say 'why now' is that, as weird and spiritual as it is, I believe in god, man. A couple of weeks before my Bellator fight my coach is shot and killed in the gym and everybody knows that. That was one of my first big opportunities.
"Then before my first UFC fight, I go and tear all the ligaments in my ankle and I don't get that opportunity. And then this whole thing happens where they said because something was in my system because of surgery combined with something else, when my doctor wrote an affidavit, and I got a clean test and they said 'Oh, just take some time off', I kind of looked at it as prophetic as it is, the UFC broke my will to fight."
To hear Loeffler tell it, that was when he had a eureka moment. Call it the light bulb turning on, an awakening or rationalization. Whatever it is, Loeffler believes the pieces lining up to a UFC run just weren't there. Life was telling him to do something else.
"I was just confused and then I realized. It just broke my will to fight," he said. "I fought for 13 years to fight in the UFC. Maybe this is god's way of saying 'Concentrate on your family. Concentrate on your gym. Concentrate on your fighters.'"
And that's what he's doing. His gym is now opening a second location. He's training more fighters than ever and expecting an addition to his family next month. Loeffler says the ease with which everything else is going is making the decision to prioritize a little easier.
Yet, he does have one final fight in him. His ankle isn't perfect, but it's better or good enough, anyway. And as he sees it, he can cap off his fighting career in a ceremonial fashion without having to travel too far to do it.
"So, I kind of let it go, but then I had an opportunity on Aug. 24th have a retirement fight in a local organization since the UFC has no interest in me," he said. "And I thought, you know what? I'm just going to retire. Fight that local fight. Fight some regional guy that's a decent fighter and call it quits, concentrate on business, which is kind of a little sad, since the reason I'm retiring is the UFC kind of broke my will because I don't feel like jumping through all of those hoops when I know I did the right thing."
If it sounds like Loeffler's upset and angry with the UFC, he'll claim he's not. It didn't happen how he envisioned it, but he can't complain. Things are, generally speaking, going well for him. And besides, he's training fighters now. He wants to stay on good terms with the UFC, if for no other reason than to keep the door open for his students to get the opportunities he wasn't able to fully realize.
That's why he never spoke about his situation before. He didn't want a long, ugly and protracted battle with Zuffa. Loeffler says there was too much to lose, not enough to win. And the people who engage in those sorts of battles with them almost always come out look worse for the wear.
"There's too much social media, jealous people and trash talkers out there, and people that try to stifle other people's success and look down on people," he argued. "I just took a deep breath, smiled and I go 'It's a hurdle.' I've had a lot of hurdles in life. I've grown as a person in last three, five years. Be mature. Look at it and learn from it. Take advantage of it.
"Especially if I deal with it the way I deal with it," Loeffler continued. "Not knowing what position my ankle is in, anyway. Maybe it'll turn out to where the UFC will appreciate the fact that I handled everything the way I handled it. They handled everything the way they handled it. It might've been a miscommunication. Maybe I should've gotten an opportunity, maybe I shouldn't have, but hey, we're going to make sure we take care of this guy's fighters. We know he's going to be on the up and up and keep us in the loop."
"Hopefully that's the way it plays out," he said. "Some people talk trash. Some people call me out. I just smile and go about my business."