clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Todd Duffee's battle with Parsonage-Turner syndrome helps him bring 'different perspective' in UFC return

New, comments
USA TODAY Sports

Todd Duffee's run in mixed martial arts and the UFC hasn't followed the most linear of paths.

He roared into the heavyweight division and the organization in August of 2009, stopping Tim Hague with a seven-second, first-round knockout, which remains a tied record for fastest KO in UFC history. He followed up that performance in May of 2010 with a dominating beating of Mike Russow, only to lose via KO himself deep into the third round in what appeared to be the flukiest of outcomes.

Ups and downs in the Octagon aren't unusual for any fighter in any weight class, but this is where things took a strange turn.

Duffee was released after just one loss in the UFC. The reasons aren't fully known, but appear to be tied to a dispute over pay or healthcare coverage or both. Either way, Duffee was gone.

He subsequently lost a 19-second bout with Alistair Overeem in DREAM seven months after the Russow fight, only to then take two years away from the sport for an assortment of reasons both professional and personal.

He returned in 2012, battering former UFC heavyweight Neil Grove in the Indian Super Fight League. That propelled him back to the UFC, where he looked like he hadn't lost a step when he stopped Phil De Fries in less than one round at UFC 155 in December of that year.

And then, again, he disappeared for two more years from the sport, this time for a debilitating injury that's hard to diagnose and has no real known cause or cure.

All of that brings Duffee to the present circumstances, namely, a booked return to the Octagon on December 6th at UFC 181 against Anthony Hamilton.

"People were happy," Duffy says of reactions when others learned he'd be returning to the UFC. He opened up about his career and long sojourn on Monday's The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani.

"I get asked at least three times a day when am I fighting, when am I fighting, when am I fighting. It was a pretty big relief for me just to be able to have a date to give people and not have to just wonder myself," he explains. "It's relieving."

What Duffee discovered and still grapples with is an unusual and somewhat untreatable condition called Parsonage-Turner syndrome. In short, it's "a rare disorder consisting of a complex constellation of symptoms with abrupt onset of shoulder pain, usually unilaterally, followed by progressive neurologic deficits of motor weakness, dysesthesias, and numbness."

Duffee recalls the day he discovered he was saddled with this affliction. "Long story short, I just woke up and I felt like I pinched a nerve and had no real function of my arm, initially," he says. "It just felt dead and numb. There was a lot of severe nerve pain that would shoot down the arm and things like that.

"You lose function in your arm. It's basically nerve damage, is about the best, easiest way to describe it and make it understandable. They don't really know."

He's not exaggerating. Medical science isn't sure what causes the collection of symptoms. Duffee says there's some reason to believe it's the result of a viral infection, but there's hardly any medical consensus.

As for today, Duffee says the nerve pain has largely stopped or at least highly inconsistent. Given his positive rehabilitation, which he says has nevertheless been arduous and uncertain, he was cleared to return to training a month ago and was even in the gym a month before that.

Still, there's no such thing as completely getting over it. "It's day in, day out with the PT symptoms," he notes. "There's no road map to recovery. It just depends on how your body reacts. It just takes time.

"I feel a setback here and there, but it's not nearly what it was," he concedes. "I have full function of my arm. I really can't complain."

Doctors told Duffee it wasn't certain he'd have to give up any idea of professionally fighting again, but those prospects looked grim. After all, he wasn't simply in pain. He'd lost significant motor control over his own body.

"When I first diagnosed they were pretty adamant," he recalls. "It took a while for it to set in and it took a while for me to accept. They were pretty adamant that there was a good chance I may not.

"It took my seven weeks to learn to write again. It took me two or three months before I could completely close my hand, those kinds of things."

Duffee can close his hand now and even throw it in sparring sessions back at American Top Team, where he's training for his December return. He acknowledges the physical therapy has been arduous, but the return to training hasn't been as filled with technical setbacks as much as he imagined.

"You don't really forget," he says of MMA training. "I was kind of impressed. As soon as I got back into sparring, it kind of came back to me fast. It just took a little time to get down the timing, getting back in shape was the real thing. Just learning what my body can and cannot handle now. Those kind of things is what took a little time.

"I feel good. I feel confident. I feel like a veteran, really. It's kind of shocking what you learn and how you mature when you're away from the sport. I think that time away allowed for a lot of maturity. It allowed me to concentrate on a lot of things in my life, give me confidence going into my fights and things like that now."

While he wasn't clear about the specifics, Duffee is candid that the time away from the sport helped him mature as a person and athlete. It makes this return, he says, not the second coming of the old Duffee, but a new one more ready to tackle the challenges despite the injury issues.

"I have a different perspective on the sport," he contends. "I see things differently. Just in training, I see things differently. Hopefully, that translates into that fight."

To make ends meet, he's been working as a personal trainer and helped open a group fitness gym with friends. He says he isn't delusional about the task at hand, either on December 6th or in the division generally. Duffee believes the heavyweights of today are better than the ones that were around when he first got into the world's top MMA organization. For those reasons, he's as confident about himself as he is willing to own up to the steep challenge.

"I definitely think I can, but the mix is a lot harder to crack now," Duffee says of making it into the top 10. "I think there's a top 15 now that's pretty difficult whereas it was like top 8 back when I was first around. I think the division's gotten deeper. It's gotten more exciting. It's just a lot of great match-ups out there for everyone. There's so many guys I want to see fight. There's so many guys I want to fight.

"There's a lot of the old horses. They're not going away and I love that. Those are guys I grew up dreaming to fight, so hopefully I can get some of those match-ups. For me, I think the biggest thing is just being consistent. Getting the fight out of the way and then, hopefully, turn around in two`to three month period and then getting another one in."

For now, it's one fight at a time, one manageable challenge first, then the next. Duffee wants to stay busy, but not overwhelm himself and rob his best chances for success.

He also knows, however, he's lost valuable time in his career, both due to circumstances within and beyond his control. There's no time left to waste, no petty battles to engage in with promoters. It's a 'different perspective', remember?

It's about getting to work with the time and opportunity remaining. That, Duffee believes, is all he needs now and ever really wanted.

"I've lost four years of my UFC career," he notes, "so I kinda want to get in there and get busy and just get to work. I think the rest will take care of itself. I know my skill set. I know that I belong in the top 10. I just have to go out there and prove it."