Déjà vu can be a cruel beast, especially if it strikes when one least expects it. Corey Hill can attest to that. Owner to perhaps the first, or in light of recent events, second most gruesome injury ever seen inside the Octagon, Hill never expected to relive those old memories, the ones that are better left buried out back where the worms and the beetles play twelve feet under.
But these kind of things can't be planned for, and so there they were, front and center on Saturday night. Anderson Silva, mixed martial arts' Michael Jordan, crumpled in pain atop the canvas, shrieking bloody murder as his left leg dangled like jello by his side.
"It ripped off a scab," Hill says plaintively.
For Hill, a man five years removed from the night everything changed, UFC 168 was like watching a remake of his least favorite movie. Silva fractured both his tibia and fibula one-third of the way up his leg, each bone a victim of a checked low kick -- just like Hill's once were. "That spot is probably the same identical spot. We're talking maybe four or five inches above the ankle," Hill says. "Horrible spot. Just a horrible spot to have that happen.
"I suffered some pretty bad nerve damage. That's the biggest fear I have for him. Bones heal up pretty well, but you get those muscles and those nerves tangled in the wrong way -- we were left with a condition where I have two toes on that foot I broke that won't extend. I tell people, man, in light of what happened, this is a very serious injury and my heart goes out. This is something I will carry with me the rest of my life, knowing that I will never, ever be 100-percent the way I felt in that cage."
It was late-2008, and the 6-foot-4, miraculously 155-pound Hill was living a dream. He'd caught the eye of UFC officials and lied about his record to make it onto The Ultimate Fighter 5, joining a cast already overflowing with eventual UFC mainstays -- Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, Manny Gamburyan, Cole Miller and Matt Wiman. Though he fell to Diaz in the season's quarterfinals, Hill went on to put away Joe Veres in the second round of his official UFC debut.
A tree amongst shrubs, Hill's physical gifts made him a fascinating prospect in the recently reintroduced UFC lightweight division. But 11 months later the dream evaporated into the frigid Fayetteville air, as Dale Hartt checked a leg check, just like Chris Weidman did, and Hill heard that gruesome snap!, just like Silva did.
"That eerie memory of me laying on the canvas -- I really didn't know how bad it was until I looked up at the jumboscreen," Hill recollects. "You see your own foot twisting away. It doesn't make sense. That's when the reality of the pain really started.
"It's horrible. It's always what people don't see. I could tell you my side, but I'm sure my wife, she'll tell you a different side. The nights that you stay up crying, partly because of the injury, but mostly because it's your pain. The minute [Silva] broke his leg, I remembered ice and elevation and bed sores. You can't move. You're immobile. You pretty much live your life on pain pills as best as possible. It's just an absolute, indescribable feeling. The initial pain, I tell people, find a steel pole, and just give it the hardest (kick) you can, your best roundkick to that pole. Literally. Don't pull up. Try to kick through this pole, and that will be less than half of the actual pain you'll have. It's just horrendous.
"It took me a good two years (to watch it)," Hill continues. "And I still can't watch it live. I have to watch it slow-mo, just because of the sound of hearing the bone break live. It sounds weird, but until this happened to Anderson, to be honest with you, man, it almost sounds crazy, but I was embarrassed. You get so embarrassed. Everywhere you go, you're the guy who had the broken leg.
"We're in a sport, a profession, that requires you to be tough, to be physically fit. And to have your body fail in that way, just the mental side is horrendous. You'll always have that doubt in the back of your mind. I don't care who you are. It never goes away."
In Hill's case, it's the doubt that was the worst. And it's that same doubt that will test Silva the most.
Sure, the physically journey was tough. Pain was constant and the financial strain was unforgiving. Hill lost his house and moved in with family, where he stayed for three years. He switched doctors every other week. One would tell Hill that he'd never fight again, and so it was on to the next; perhaps he'd have a better answer.
They stuck a titanium rod in Hill's leg, just like Silva. He almost caught Gangrene, and in the process, almost lost his leg entirely. Finally he ended up having to self-provide most of his own rehab, eventually propping himself up against a gym wall and engaging in grappling practice on one leg once the frustration became too much.
"Literally, it was like, the UFC show, season five, the limelight, the next big thing, Corey Hill at lightweight, and then it was gone," Hill says. "It was all gone. Two weeks after the injury people were sending their condolences, but out of sight, out of mind. It was like I disappeared, this dark shadow, watching everybody else's careers advance from season five."
It took the better part of 14 months for Hill to work his way back into the cage. But that lingering doubt, it was still there, gnawing away. Frankly, Hill admits, it might always be there.
"If I could answer that, I would," he says. "If I honestly could... do you get over it? People ask that. I feel like I'm a very tough individual, but at some point I'm not sure what people want me to tell them.
"You guys think I don't get in this cage, and not at one point do I worry about my leg or my health? Every fight I do. I mean, I do. Look at what my family has been through.
"I don't know if you're ever over it," Hill continues. "We've changed our fighting styles three or four times to accommodate my condition where the toes don't extend. We've tried to work around that the best we can, and every time I change my style, I know why I'm doing it. Why are you changing your style five years later? Oh, because of this horrific injury. Every time we do something to make it better, I have to remember why I'm here and how did I get here. It's scary sometimes. It doesn't stop everybody I fight from kicking that leg. It doesn't stop everyone from going after it. That's part of what we signed up for. And you know that going into it. You know, the first thing this guy is going to do, he's going to kick your leg."
If Silva is looking for a positive omen, he can take solace in the fact that Hill is back now, 3-3 since the injury, and preparing for a fight on January 24. Though Hill admits, the injury took something away from him that he'll never reclaim.
Hill hopes in earnest that Silva's significant financial advantages lend themselves to a different outcome than his own. Because the truth is, Hill left a little piece of himself in that cage five years ago. Everything he does now is simply done in adjustment to a new life. "You can't jog for long," Hill explains.
"When it gets cold, it rains, it's crazy. You always hear old people talking about, I know it's going to rain, I can feel it in my joints. I feel it. It gets too cold man, you can't run. Because that rod, something happens to it, I feel the pressure as I run. I feel that rod going up into one of my bones. So instead of being the old Corey where I just run through it, tell me body to shut up, now I get on the bicycle."
The many parallels between the injuries which upended the two men are almost unnerving. And although Hill has never known Silva personally, he empathizes with Silva's plight on a level only the most unfortunate of competitors can understand, the way that two strangers can bond over shared anguish like old friends.
"I sympathize for [Silva] is going through, and what he is going to go through," Hill says. "MMA fans aren't the nicest people out there. We dealt with so many people sending us messages via Facebook, cards. Some people were happy. That's what you get, man! You broke your leg! It's like, how cruel can people be?
"I just hope he doesn't have to deal with any of that. It's bad. It's a long road. It's going to be with us for the rest of our lives. You kind of think, no, it'll go away. But it'll never go away. It's going to be like this. We try to find strength in it and the positives, use that strength to carry us forward and continue doing what we're doing. But there's so much that's going to happen to Anderson Silva that the world will never see."
On Monday, the orthopedic surgeon who performed Silva's surgery, Dr. Steven Sanders, told reporters that Silva is expected to be able to return to training within six to nine months. And apparently Silva is already asking doctors that very question, maybe hoping to piece together a timeline for when he can return to the world he loves, and the world that loves him right back.
But Silva is 38 years old. For some, the idea of a comeback may seem crazy. Even Hill was only 30 when his leg turned to mush. But like Mariano Rivera before him, another aging sports legend who overcame a catastrophic injury to go out his own way, perhaps Silva will do what he does simply because he must, because he wouldn't grasp any other outcome.
If that's the case, and Silva wants to come back for one more try, Hill understands what that road means -- how hellish the trials are that lie ahead. So as he thinks back to that day, all Hill can do is wish Silva luck, as one of the greatest of all-time embarks on a journey he never expected, en route to making one of the most difficult decisions of his life.
"I just cant explain how rough it was, man. To look at my wife, my mother, my family members, and after this horrific injury, it's like, you're going back?? For what?
"Like I said, I'll never be whole. Hopefully Anderson Silva won't have to experience that. Hopefully he'll get it right the first time in surgery and he'll have use of all his toes, ligaments will work just fine. I almost feel like the test dummy. It's like, okay, now we know what not to do."