Everything happened quickly for Todd Duffee. Following a blistering seven-second Octagon debut, he became one of the UFC's biggest overnight sensations. A menacing behemoth with dump trucks for hands and a cartoon character physique.
But then came the first loss, a stunning upset with Duffee on the wrong side of a last-second flash KO that ringside announcer Joe Rogan would later dub one of the "greatest comebacks in UFC history." Sadly the dramatic stumble would only mark the beginning. Within a month-long span, Duffee experienced an unparalleled measure of loss that most would not wish on their worst enemy. Duffee's father, best friend, and then coach, three of those dearest to him in the world, all passed away in cruel succession.
Facing such adversity, Duffee's ensuing abrupt and unceremonious release from the UFC must have seemed like an afterthought. UFC President Dana White never specified any reasoning for the move, only citing the ever-ominous "attitude problems," and even now, after receiving a surprise second-chance in the UFC, Duffee still isn't sure what happened.
"I don't know honestly know," Duffee conceded on The MMA Hour. "I know that people have a tendency to read me very wrong. I'm not saying I didn't do anything wrong, because clearly I did. I clearly made some mistakes, and what exactly it was, I have no idea. But I do know that people, I kind tend to come off [wrong]. I think it's kind of a shyness in me because I'm just some small town kid. It's very awkward and weird when people you don't know are coming up and acting like your something more than just a regular person. I don't know if it was that.
"But I can tell that I've given my entire life to be a part of the UFC and to live this journey. My biggest goal is to be one of the best fighters in the UFC. I think that's everybody's goal here, I can tell you that. But I don't know. I still don't know, and I don't think it matters. At the end of the day, I had a good friend tell me that you see a lot better through the front windshield than you do through the rearview mirror."
His friend's advice is uncannily wise, because for the 26-year-old Duffee, the rearview mirror is littered with misfortune. Following his 2010 UFC release, Duffee spent much of the last two years "living like a drifter," plodding through the minefield that is regional MMA and finding himself the victim of flawed promotion on more than one occasion.
Fight after fight fell apart, and when the dust had settled, Duffee had competed just once over a span of 23 months.
"When you stay out of the cage or the ring for that long, it's not good for your mind," he explained. "It's not good for your training. You only have a short period of time you can do this sport at a high level, so I was just begging to get in there."
By his own admission, the relentless stream of bad luck had begun to wear Duffee down. He had invested his entire life into this pursuit, but now he was on the verge of throwing in the towel.
"These last three months have been very difficult," Duffee reflected.
"I was looking at going home. It was over for me almost. It wasn't over in the sense that I was going to stop fighting, but the actual chasing the dream aspect and the all-or-nothing mentality, all that, it was taking a backseat.
"It was going to take a backseat to real life, and that's never happened to me before. The No. 1 thing in my life has always been athletics. ... For the first time in my life, I was like I guess I need to be an adult and I need to move forward. I'm getting ready to be 27 here shortly, and you can only be a kid for so long. That's what this is, even the guys that are older, we're still out here living a dream. Most of us, it's not a reality. We're not living real life, and I'm thankful that, believe me."
Duffee started researching potential options, looking to get back into school, move back to Orlando to live with his mom and pick up a fulltime job. But then something strange happened. Something he didn't even think was possible. Shane Carwin got injured in advance of his fight against Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione was pulled as a replacement, and wouldn't you know it, the UFC came calling.
They asked if he could step in for Mitrione and fight Phil De Fries at UFC 155 on one-month's notice. It wasn't the main card blockbuster many had predicted for him so many years ago, but for Duffee, it was exactly what he wanted -- an opportunity. And so he said yes, without even offering a passing glance at the details.
"It wasn't a concern of mine," Duffee admitted. "I wanted back into the UFC. That's where the best fighters are. This last two-year gap, I've gotten to really experience what the fight business is like, and it's a dirty, nasty business. You don't have to deal with all that stuff with the UFC. It's real cut and dry, it's real easy. You know when you're going to fight, who you're going and to fight, and they get things done. I couldn't be more excited.
"There's not many times in your life where you set a goal and you actually go out and get it done," Duffee concluded with a heavy breath. "It's huge. Let's be honest here, I've only went out and fought twice since I've left. To say that I've earned my way back is kind of, I don't know if that's entirely the truth, but here I am and I have an opportunity to earn my way back with a win on December 29. That's my next goal."