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Years after accident, Matt Grice finding a new way to thrive in mixed martial arts

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Nothing's been easy for former UFC fighter and policeman Matt Grice since September 8, 2013. Not that he hadn't faced adversity, but it was significantly worse than anything that came before.

On that day, an off-duty Grice, sitting at an intersection in his hometown of Shawnee, Oklahoma, was struck by an inattentive driver who slammed into the back of his vehicle. Grice was severely injured as a result, suffering a traumatic brain injury and was listed in critical condition.

Grice, ever the competitor, eventually made what doctors described as a miraculous comeback. Despite brain surgery and more than a year away from his job in law enforcement, Grice was able to return to the beat after demonstrating he was still capable of performing his job - something many suspected he'd never be able to.

While a career in mixed martial arts (MMA) is almost certainly impossible at this point, Grice hasn't looked back since the accident. Grice, 35, isn't merely a seven-time UFC veteran. He's also a coach, a massively decorated high school wrestler with an accomplished collegiate career to boot.

For his already won accolades, Grice was inducted on October 10th into the Oklahoma Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. On top of that, he was awarded the 2016 Medal of Courage Award, something Grice says is given to people who've "overcome significant injury."

In speaking to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour, Grice called the awards a "100 percent shock," but expressed genuine honor in having his accomplishments and struggles recognized.

"God blessed me and I'm very healthy," he said. "I'm back in the gym, working out and all that. Unfortunately, I'm probably never going to be able to fight again, but it is what it is. I get to be here at my gym. We have a bunch of young, up and coming fighters who do a great job. I get to help and teach them and still stay in touch with it and be a part of it."

Grice, who runs the R-1 MMA Training Center in Choctaw, Oklahoma, is no longer a competitor, but is every part the coach, trainer and mentor to the next crop of fighters he's helping to reach their goals.

While Grice's story has been inspirational, it hasn't come easy. For a time, Grice wanted nothing to do with MMA. His relationship to the sport is healthier now, but after the accident, it wasn't so easy.

"At first, I kinda stayed away from the gym for a while because it was hard. I still wanted to fight, I still wanted to compete and it kinda was depressing," he admitted. "Part of me wanted to be in there. I like training, but then it was also depressing knowing that I was in here and I'd never be able to go compete again in something that I love and enjoyed doing.

"I've came to terms with it. I love seeing the guys and girls in the gym when they go compete and knowing that I helped them get to where they're at," he admitted. "It's a good deal."

Not only is he still active in the MMA community, but he's thriving in the police department again. Grice said doctors didn't think he'd be able "mentally capable enough to make quick decisions and drive and listen to the radio," thereby keeping his job. "I just wasn't willing to accept that," he contended.

Instead, Grice was able to pass every test and get back on patrol.

Even that, however, wasn't enough. Eventually, Grice would apply when an opportunity opened up to be a part of the Police Athletic League, something Grice labeled a "perfect" fit. "Now we create sporting leagues for the inner city kids in Oklahoma City and go to schools every day and try to give kids a better understanding of police. Let them know we're people, too. We can be fun and teach them things."

As for the accident, Grice said he's over it, at least as much as a functioning person can be. "It's one of those things I've tried to put behind me because it changed my life forever. Never will be able to do one of the things I truly care about and love doing, but like I said, I get to help coach and train these men and women here at the gym. It keeps me involved in that aspect. But yeah, it's still hard whenever I see a fight.

"For a year or two after the accident, I wouldn't even watch fights. It was depressing. My oldest daughter, she always wanted to watch fights with me," he confessed. "It was about a year and a half or so after the accident, fights were coming on. She goes, 'Daddy, can we watch the fights?' She would ask me numerous time and I'd be like, 'Nah, I don't want to.' It depressed me.

"Now, we're all good," he noted. "We watch the fights and help these guys and girls and I love it as much as I did before."

Coming to terms with his fighting past has been a challenge, but he does have fond memories of his time, including some of his wins and wild brawls inside the UFC from 2007 to 2013.

"The [Dennis] Bermudez fight was probably my funnest fight ever," he noted. "That was a good time. After that fight, I felt like that was the beginning of what was about to be my career. I started training right before the Leonard [Garcia] fight. Before that, I kinda did my own thing, but before the Leonard fight I finally got around the right people, opened my gym, got good people in and started sticking to the game plan. That showed in the Leonard fight.

"Then when I fought Dennis, that was the best fighter I'd ever been. It just felt like, 'Ok, I've got this down now.' I got the weight down, I was at the right weight and had my diet and everything. The rest is history."

If there is a lingering difficulty to accept, it's how he was forced out of athletic competition. He never had a say in the matter. The end comes for all athletes, but not being able to guide that choice remains bothersome.

"A lot of it was just me coming to reality that this is what it is. I'm not going to be able to fight anymore and I have to accept that. The hardest part for me was I didn't get to retire on my own terms," he said. "It was taken from me. I felt like I was the best fighter that I've ever been at the time. I was just getting my training down right, my diet, everything. Then that happened. I kinda felt like it was taken from me."

But like he's shown in the rest of his life, Grice is not easily deterred. It's not that the difficult times don't leave scars. It's not possible to ever completely move on. Yet, there's not much of a choice if it means being healthy, happy and productive.

His left hasn't been the same since September 2013, but despite the challenges, it's been fulfilling. Once he accepted fighting wasn't an option, he refused to let that affect the rest of his options. Ever the optimist, Grice is still along for the ride.

"Life goes on," he observed.

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