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After tragedy and injury, Sean Loeffler still hoping for UFC opportunity he earned years ago

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Maybe none of it was meant to be. How could you think anything else when looking at the past?

Both times Sean Loeffler had an opportunity to make it big in MMA, bad luck struck him and it struck him hard. Loeffler has a good life -- a successful gym business, a beautiful daughter and he owns his own home in California.

What he has never had is a fight in the UFC and that is part of what still drives him through the muck of regional MMA after 16 years in the sport.

"In layman's terms, yeah," Loeffler told MMAFighting.com. "It's f*cking frustrating. I've fought since '99 and I've had some tough breaks."

Loeffler fights in the main event of Tru-Form Entertainment's Baptism Under Fire event against Brandon Crespin on Saturday at the Four Points by Sheraton in San Diego. He's hoping that's one of the last steps to get him back to the UFC, where he was once part of the roster, but never actually competed in a fight.

To understand Loeffler and his plight, though, you have to go back a few years earlier. In 2010, the San Diego resident nabbed a major opportunity, a tournament fight with Bellator MMA against one of the promotion's top middleweights at the time, Bryan Baker. Had Loeffler won, he would have advanced to the semifinals of the tourney and a victory in the bracket would have earned him a Bellator title shot.

A few weeks before the fight, Loeffler's boxing coach Hector Gil was shot and killed at another gym. One of Loeffler's teammates was also shot.

At Gil's funeral, Loeffler said he punched a brick wall out of anger and broke his hand. He took the fight with Bellator anyway and lost to Baker by TKO in the first round. Loeffler wouldn't fight for the organization again.

Loeffler, now 33, went back to the regional circuit, bouncing around between unregulated, unsanctioned shows in California like Gladiator Challenge and Xplode Fight Series. It wasn't an ideal situation, but fights for someone at his level were hard to come by in Southern California. And it got him a shot in the UFC.

In 2012, Loeffler signed with the UFC and was booked against Buddy Roberts at UFC on Fuel TV 1 on Feb. 15. Hours before the fight, though, Loeffler tore up his ankle and the Nebraska commission deemed him unfit to compete.

That was nearly the end of his career. Loeffler needed eight surgeries on his ankle and got bone infections twice.

"I didn't think I was ever going to fight again," he said. "After eight surgeries, doctors said there was a chance I wouldn't have even been able to sprint."

The UFC eventually released him before he ever had a bout.

"I don't hold it against the UFC for not wanting to honor that," Loeffler said. "Because they're like, 'We can't have this guy come in here and he can't compete.' It wasn't like one of these, hey have surgery and you're right back to the UFC."

After almost three years without fighting, Loeffler returned in June 2014 and defeated Travis McCullough by first-round submission at Xplode Fight Series. Loeffler has fought twice more since and won both times. He hasn't actually lost since the Baker fight in 2010, but admittedly his victories have come against subpar competition.

Loeffler (28-5) is excited for the fight Saturday, because Crespin is a legitimate opponent with a winning record out of Colorado and this will be his first sanctioned show (he needed his medicals and bloodwork done) in years. Loeffler has another fight booked on a sanctioned show on Oct. 17 in Indiana. After that, he plans on giving UFC matchmaker Joe Silva a call.

Silva actually contacted Loeffler twice in the last year, Loeffler said. He was offered short-notice fights with Ryan Jimmo at light heavyweight last year and Uriah Hall in January. It didn't work out either time. Loeffler wanted to fight Hall, but he would not have been able to make 185 that quickly. Hall ended up fighting and knocking out Ron Stallings at UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs. Siver in Boston.

Loeffler just wants another chance at a UFC fight. He doesn't expect a long run with the organization. Just a foot in the door. Loeffler has a long-term vision for his gym, Compound MMA & Fitness in Oceanside, Calif. He believes if he gets into the UFC, it'll bring more attention to the facility and allow him to eventually step away from the daily grind of coaching, so he can spend more time with his daughter.

"I know that the best way of doing that is getting into the UFC myself and pave the way for the next wave of Compound fighters to be in the UFC and then we'll be a mainstay," Loeffler said. ... "They can take the reins of carrying on the gym name, which will then keep the legitimacy and keep my business running."

Loeffler is afraid to use the word "regret" when it comes to never fighting in the UFC despite being so close. If he won that fight in Bellator and beat Roberts at UFC on Fuel TV, he's not sure what that would mean for his current life with his daughter, gym and home as his priorities.

"I'm proud of those things," he said. "I don't want to use the word regret, because then it would seem like I'm not happy with where I'm at with owning my house and having my daughter and owning a gym."

However, the missed chances do enter Loeffler's mind often.

"At the same time, it sucks," Loeffler said. "In my opinion, I would be a mainstay with my personality and my look. I'm not any supermodel or anything, but I'm a decent-looking guy. I'm articulate. I can talk sh*t with the Conor McGregors. I've been fighting since 1999 and I'm covered in tattoos and I've got an exciting style. I either finish or get finished in fights, because I like that style of fighting, being violent. I feel if things were different, I would have been one of the guys that stuck around in the UFC for a while."

Loeffler doesn't have any illusions of grandeur. He foresaw a long run in the UFC rather than a quick ascent to the top and winning the middleweight title. Loeffler envisioned a career as something of a cross between Donald Cerrone and Ed Herman -- the exciting style and ability to engage the fans like Cerrone and Herman's longevity and stability.

"I think I would be someone where the fans would always be interested, like a Chris Leben-esque type of guy," Loeffler said.

Those hopes have mostly dwindled. Loeffler is more practical now, thinking about his financial future and his daughter rather than UFC glory. But he still wants that one last crack at the big show, even if it's fleeting.

"Of course I look at the past and I go, I owe it to myself to f*cking fight once at the top level of the sport," he said. "And if I don't get to do it, I'm not going to live with regrets. I'm going to smile. I'm gonna pray like I do every morning. I'm going to be thankful for what I have and find a silver lining and I'll make an Arnold Palmer out of lemons."