This upcoming Sunday marks a dubious anniversary for Jason High. Exactly one year ago, the veteran lightweight shoved referee Kevin Mulhall in the immediate aftermath of a second-round TKO loss to Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 42. The shove was neither malicious nor forceful, seemingly born out of frustration more so than anything else. However the rarely heard from New Mexico Athlete Commission (NMAC) deemed High's actions severe enough to garner a one-year suspension.
That suspension, enforced retroactively from June 7, 2014, reaches a merciful end this Sunday, allowing the 33-year-old High to finally pick up where he left off with his professional fighting career last summer.
"I'm excited, man," High said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.
"You know, it's been hard to sit on the sidelines, especially when I'm healthy. I came off of a big rest from being not healthy with my appendix and everything. Then to get sat out for a year after that, it was really heartbreaking, man. It was really hard to sit out and watch. But you know, I've been getting through it, and I'm ready to get back to work this year."
High now returns from his year-long hiatus as a free agent, as UFC President Dana White cut High from the promotion following the incident, albeit after admitting that he neither saw the shove live nor on a replay.
High apologized to both Mulhall and the commission for his actions in the immediate aftermath of the event. His appeal, however, fell on deaf ears and the NMAC ultimately upheld its one-year suspension.
"The first time I heard of the push of the referee was when the commissioner came to me in the locker room," High said. "You know, I'd taken a good punch right before that. I don't really remember the whole thing. So that was pretty much our case.
"I felt pretty confident (we could get the suspension reduced), especially because I felt like the meeting went well. I felt like it went really well and (my manager) Mike (Kogan) did too, so I thought, you know, we were going to get six-to-nine months. That's what I was hoping for, at the worst. But they upheld the year, and here we are."
Reaction to the verdict was decidedly mixed. Many observers decried the one-year suspension as excessively harsh, pointing to lesser sentences handed out by various state bodies for far more severe infractions, such as nine-month suspensions for PED use. High echoed that sentiment at the time, and on Monday compared the commission's final ruling to a "poke in the eye," saying of the experience, "you feel like you're going to vomit for a second, then that passes."
High ultimately spent a majority of his year away from competition building up his Kansas City branch of American Top Team alongside Bellator contender L.C. Davis. He now returns to an MMA landscape vastly changed from the one he left, with the UFC's controversial Reebok deal and Nevada's stricter drug testing policies readying to take effect, and Bellator continuing to emerge as a viable player for free agents.
High has racked up a solid 9-2 record since mid-2010, including a pair of victories in his latest UFC stint and an undefeated run in Strikeforce. While he hasn't ruled out a potential return to the Octagon, he admits it's no longer the top priority it may have once been when he was younger.
"Man, anything's possible," High said. "You know, [the UFC has] certainly shown that they're willing to do business.
"I don't know, I feel like earlier in my career, maybe I would've cared a little bit about that more. But now I really, it's not that big of a concern for me if I go back to the UFC. I'd like to go back because there's a lot of good guys there and I think I could be at the top of that division. But I think also if I go to Bellator or anywhere else, I could be in the top-five of that division and be right up there."
While he and his manager Kogan have already opened dialogues with a few of the major players, High wouldn't be surprised if it took upward of a month to find his next landing spot. For now, High is simply keeping his options open, eagerly awaiting June 7 so he can put this whole nightmare behind him.
"I'm a finisher. I'm going to be at the top of your division. Don't worry about everybody else, I'm here, I'm back," High said.
"I'm just sharpening my utensils until I can eat again."