Alexis Davis' most Herculean effort during UFC 186 fight week came not from braving the salvo of blows she ate from rival Sarah Kaufman, nor from capturing the miraculous second-round armbar that felled Kaufman for the first time in three tries. Rather, it took the form of a conversation the morning after, when Davis awoke to news her sister Jessica had until then spared her, and suddenly the world of octagons and four-ounce gloves felt so small.
Earlier this month, doctors diagnosed Davis' niece, Hayden, with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer which aggressively attacks the sympathetic nervous system. Four stages exist of neuroblastoma. Like most cancers, the disease grows graver and more compounded with each stage. Of those four stages, Hayden's neuroblastoma was diagnosed at stage four.
Hayden is five years old.
"It was hard," Davis told MMAFighting.com. "Even now, it almost feels like it's a dream. Like, you don't almost believe it. It's like everything else, you think ‘this happens to other people, this doesn't happen to us.' You only hear about stuff like this, children at such a young age ... she's only five, she just turned five in November. It's just unbelievable. It's hard."
The first warning signs emerged several months ago, when Hayden began waking up in the middle in the night complaining of back pain. One of the biggest targets of neuroblastoma are the spindly nerve fibers that run along either side the spinal cord, but for Davis' sister, initial doctor visits proved exasperating.
Back pain on a five-year-old as active and rowdy as Hayden could be for any number of reasons, they figured, especially with a calendar as flooded with ballet practices and dance recitals as hers. In truth, it was only through a mother's intuition that the right diagnosis was found -- Jessica hounded and hounded until she finally stumbled upon the answer she feared most.
Hayden is in the hospital now, as she has been for the past week throughout her first round of chemotherapy. Davis, battered and bruised as she was, visited Hayden first thing Sunday morning after her fight. She's been a constant presence since, even bringing Hayden her favorite Frozen pajamas, because like any five-year-old, Hayden is obsessed with Frozen. The family is keeping a positive outlook, following the lead of the young girl who through terrifying times still can't help but grin a toothy grin from every hospital bed selfie.
"She's just so strong and stubborn," Davis says. "She has been her whole life, she's definitely been a fighter. She's obviously hooked up to a lot of machines and stuff like that -- she actually just finished her first round of chemo yesterday -- so she'll be having to go to the bathroom and she won't let anybody help her out of bed, won't let anybody help her get back into it. She's like, ‘no, I want to do it.'"
The road from here will not be easy. Hayden is expected to undergo her second round of chemotherapy later this month, then fly to Toronto to harvest a selection of her healthy bone marrow for stem cell use later in the treatment. The survival rate of children age five diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma can fall anywhere from 40 to 50-percent depending on the specifics of the disease and the circumstances of the individual, but just like her UFC aunt, Hayden is a born fighter.
In a remarkable and heartwarming show of compassion, a GoFundMe account set up by the family raised over $9,000 in its first active day to help aid Hayden through her journey. Simply titled ‘Hayden's Hugs - Heaven Can Wait,' what was initially a longshot campaign has blown away the expectations of both Davis and her family. Now a few days in, Davis has been left speechless by the generosity of the MMA community's response.
"It's incredible," Davis says. "It's hard for me to even say how much this means to me and my family, the amount of support we've gotten so fast. So many people have pulled through and it's incredible. It's just, my heart swells and I feel so fortunate that I have these amazing people around me and these amazing fans.
"Just, thank you. I can't even express how much this means to me. I can't even get the words out of my mouth because we're just so overwhelmed, my whole family and the support that we've had, from everyone who's donated a dollar to everyone who's sent us a message saying that Hayden is in their prayers. It's just, I'm extremely blessed to be where I am to have such great people around."
Any who wish to donate and help Hayden can do so here. Davis' hope, along with Jessica's, is that by this time next year, Hayden's fight will be simply one more memory that draws the family closer. And then, when she has her bubbly old niece back, Davis already knows exactly how they're going to celebrate.
"The one place that she's always wanted to go," Davis says. "They said with all the treatment and costs, it's going to take about a year to finish. But the first thing we're going to do is she's always wanted to go to Disney World. And that's where we're going."