At just 31 years old, Joe Riggs has lived a fairly extraordinary life, and not always in the most positive sense. Riggs has fought 55 times professionally. He has lost a child at birth, and has gone through a well-documented addiction to painkillers that derailed his first run in the UFC. For the last seven years, Riggs has been more of a journeyman, fighting in Strikeforce, King of the Cage, ProElite and other promotions. After a three-fight losing streak in early 2011, it looked like he was entering the twilight of his career.
But then, just as things were beginning to fizzle out, Riggs began to make a comeback. Since late-2011, "Diesel" has won six fights in a row, his latest -- and most noteworthy -- coming against Mike Bronzoulis in Bellator to win the Fight Master reality show. With a provision in his contract to leave Bellator as the new regime under Scott Coker got underway, Riggs re-signed with the UFC.
He was supposed to fight Paulo Thiago at UFC Fight Night 51 in Brazilia, Brazil on Sept. 13 in his UFC return, but then he suffered his scariest setback to date. While taking apart a firearm in his house in Arizona and watching The Bachelor on television on July 28, Riggs accidently shot himself in his hand and left thigh.
Riggs appeared on the Monday edition of The MMA Hour and talked about the harrowing episode that nearly cost him not only his career, but his life.
"I lost consciousness before the Air Evac got to my house, so I was laying there and my wife was putting her entire finger in my wound, because she thought my femoral was hit and all that stuff," he said. "When you don’t feel pain anymore, that’s not a good thing, and it started to not hurt. And I started to let go and go to sleep. So, I know those things sort of go hand-in-hand with dying. So I told my wife to get my son from the bedroom so I could say goodbye to him. And it is something that must have been very traumatizing to my son. But I said it to him because I thought I was going, and it was just a sad situation for him."
Riggs’ son is seven years old.
He said that he’s been essentially a life-long gun owner, getting his first firearm as a present after the eighth grade from his father. He was disassembling the pistol to remove a live round that was stuck due to a bent pin, when he inadvertently hit the trigger, and shot himself through the hand his left leg.
"Everybody was asleep in my house," he said. "It was only 8:30, but everybody was asleep. Nobody heard it. You think when something like that would happen I would be calm, cool and collected, but I got up and ran around the house like a chicken with its head cut off.
"I’m laying there and then I see blood spurting up, and I’m like, okay, I should wake [my wife] up, and…I said, Lisa, call the ambulance, I’ve been shot, and we went from there."
Riggs would end up losing consciousness and would ultimately need a blood transfusion at the hospital. He says that his heart rate went down to "about 10 beats per minute," and the peaceful, slipping feeling coming over him meant only one thing.
"When I lost consciousness and I came back to, it was a feeling of any worldly stress you have, gone…it was a crazy feeling," he said. "The feeling of dying was very easy. The feeling of wanting to live and to fight through that pain was awful. It would have been very easy to let go and die. But I guess for a reason I’m here, and I’m alive, and I’m able to fight again unbelievably. My hand, I can make a fist, and yesterday I actually did my first workout. The doctors are astounded at how fast the rehabilitation has gone."
Riggs said that when the doctor first saw his hand, he was convinced that his career was over. But after three surgeries on his hand the doctor "was able to put it back together," and now he’s able to get back into the gym. Somewhat miraculously, Riggs says that he believes he’ll be able to fight in December. That’s the month the UFC happens to be rolling the Octagon to Phoenix for UFC on FOX 13 (Dec. 13).
"I’ll be ready to fight in December, whichever show it may be," he said.
When asked if there was a name in mind, Riggs mentioned Jordan Mein, who defeated Mike Pyle on Saturday night at UFC Fight Night 49 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That fight would be a rematch to a 2011 bout that Mein won in Quebec under the Wreck MMA promotion. Riggs did concede that he wasn’t currently at Mein’s level, and that he would need a win or two first.
But the bigger thing wasn’t who, when or where, but that after a brush with death that he would be able to fight again at all.
Riggs said he wouldn’t trade the experience of what happened to him, because it changed the person that he is.
"I thought for sure I hit my femoral artery, because it was just spraying blood," he said. "I thought for sure I was going to die. I said goodbye to my son, I said goodbye to my wife, so I thought I was dead. When you think you’re going to die, it does something to you…it just deeply changed me to the core."
Riggs added at the end of the interview that, though there was tremendous pain with the self-inflicted gun wounds and his rehabilitation, that he steered clear of taking any painkillers to alleviate it.