Warming up in a locker room at Nebraska's Omaha Civic Auditorium, Sean Loeffler had never felt better. A 12-year fight veteran, Loeffler was about to reach his career climax on the sport's biggest stage when UFC event coordinator Burt Watson entered the room to give Loeffler his five-minute warning. Only a few hallways and a few ticks of the clock separated him from his UFC debut.
Loeffler was all set to finish his pre-fight ritual with five tuck jumps, a dynamic yet simple exercise that forces the athlete to pull his knees up to his chest in mid-air before landing. On the landing of his first jump, something went terribly wrong, his right foot twisting between a seam on the mat and the sound of two distinct cracks piercing the air. It was clear to the others in the room that he'd damaged his leg, just not how badly. But Loeffler, anxious to make his first start in the UFC refused to acknowledge the obvious.
"I looked down and my ankle was the size of a softball already, and this was 20 seconds after it happened," Loeffler said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.
Despite his gameness, the freak occurrence did eventually force him out of the UFC on FUEL bout, a rare fight night injury that cost a fighter a chance to compete while already in the arena. As Loeffler tells it, it's just another in a series of tough breaks he has endured throughout his colorful life story.
Among them? He's been shot, stabbed, been in jail, was misled into signing away rights to his daughter, and had one of his coaches killed. Yet through it all, he remains optimistic.
First things first, when it comes to his MMA career. An MRI revealed a complete tear of the anterior talofibular ligament in his ankle as well as partial tears of two other ligaments. Still, he expects to be back in the cage within six months. That quick recovery time should come as no surprise given the fact that Loeffler wanted to go through with his scheduled bout even after suffering the injuries.
At the outset, backstage doctors believed he had broken his tibia and fibula bones, but Loeffler lied and told them he was in no pain. When he got back to his feet, his coaches realized he couldn't plant his foot, a significant problem in generating power or even establishing a stable base.
"I said, 'Carry me out there, I'm going to fight,'" he said.
But moments later, he stepped forward to reach for his water bottle and fell back down. Doctors, coaches and UFC officials quickly ruled him out of the fight. The decision was devastating, according to Loeffler, who instead of walking to the octagon, was instead soon riding in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Remarkably, it wasn't the first injury he suffered during a big moment in his career. During his first live televised fight in 2008, he suffered a compound fracture 35 seconds into the bout while in the midst of attempting a takedown, an injury that resulted in a TKO loss on his record.
But this being the UFC, this sudden setback was a much bigger letdown. According to Loeffler, he wept in the locker room and later in his hotel room as well. Even in the midst of the moment, it was so surreal that it seemed entirely unreal.
"Two things were going on," he said. "The first thing going on was the adrenaline was starting to drop, and I never realized how much it masked pain until this moment. Because I started realizing, this really hurts. And the second thing was I kept thinking, 'I’m going to wake up.' And this sounds so cheesy. 'I’m going to wake up, it’s going to be Wednesday, it's going to be cold as hell in Omaha, Nebraska, and I’m going to wake up thinking, Wow, what a scary dream that was.'"
That cold reality though, is a situation that can be fixed with time. That's something he's not so sure about when it comes to his daughter, Amber, who he hasn't seen in over five years. It was at that time when Loeffler signed over full custody to Amber's birth mother, mistakenly believing that he would still have visitation rights. Since then, the two haven't had "one bit of contact," he said. He publicizes the problem in hopes of one day reconnecting with his daughter, saying "I’d sell my house and my business if it meant seeing my kid for one day."
Grouped together with some of his life experiences, Loeffler has experienced many of life's lows, something that he hopes will be at least partially balanced out one day with a professional achievement years in the making.
"I’m still just accepting things, and pray to God and hope that the roller coaster than I’m on is going to end one day with that belt wrapped around my waist," he said.