To say the road for Court McGee has been long and winding would be to not say enough. He's made the most of it, turning a stint on The Ultimate Fighter into a consistent and largely successful mixed martial arts career.
Well, mostly consistent.
McGee returned to action after a two-year layoff at UFC 194, where be bested Marcio Alexandre, Jr via unanimous decision. But to get there, he faced a gauntlet of pain, suffering and uncertainty.
The middleweight turned welterweight's had nearly a dozen surgeries to fix his nose, knees, shoulders and more, many of which took place in his off time. One of the more nagging ones, however, was a wrist injury. He's not sure what caused it, but it was probably during his last fight before his layoff against Ryan LaFlare. Whatever it was, it broke what McGee describes as the ACL of the wrist, the very thing that enables the wrist to function properly.
"My wrist was sloppy and painful," he said on Monday's The MMA Hour. "My grip strength felt an average guy's, about 100 pounds, mine was at about 30. My other hand was roughly 200. It was the grip strength of an elderly woman."
Even after getting it repaired, the first attempt to fix it failed as it detached and rolled into his forearm. He had to get another surgery, which delayed everything all over again.
"After I did the therapy and the stuff the first time," McGee recalls, "after six months, I figured I'd be ready to roll. I kinda had it scheduled out and figured out." But it didn't work out that. In fact, the year mark passed of inactivity right after he began the therapy for the first relapse.
"I was just starting to do therapy and I thought, 'I don't know,'" he said of his future in fighting. "You can train with one hand, but it's not the same. You can't grapple. You can't do the conditioning you need. It was devastating to say the least. It was absolutely devastating.
"Those thoughts did cross my mind," he said retirement. "'What am I going to do? What I am going to do after? What if I don't have it anymore? What if I can't compete?' In this game, you're out for six months, you got new blood coming in, new people coming in, new stuff. People getting their [title] shots. Everybody's so good now and everybody has such great training, I just started feeling a little less than. I just thought, 'Sh-- man, I don't know if I have it.' About that year mark is when I said, 'I don't know. I don't know if I should hang it up and go on to the next thing.'"
As it turns out, however, McGee would steel himself. One night, he said, he just had an epiphany: he wasn't done. It was as simple as that. He eventually spoke to friends, family and coaches about his motivation and decided a return was going to happen, one way or the other. "I just made a decision that I still had some fight in me. That's what I was going to do. I just set everything aside and focused on becoming The Crusher again," he said.
It wasn't just the physical setback McGee had to deal with. There was the financial component of two years off that was a challenge as well. Yet, as he tells it, being smart with money from the moment he got into fighting that helped him cross the uncertain times.
McGee was a commercial plumber until October of 2007. He said he was paid a wage that he was able to live on. With the help of an account, no matter how much money he made in a certain month, if it was more than what he made as a plumber, he put it into savings. Every month, he only took out what he would've been making in the form of a salary.
The savings, he said, got him through much of the down time.
"I had a pretty substantial savings and that's what I do," he explained. "I pay myself a humble salary and that's what I live off of. I pay myself about $30,000 a year plus expenses. I pay myself about $3,100 or $3,200 a month and that's what I live off of, regardless."
In addition, McGee used his documented background as an alcoholic and drug user to land gigs as a motivational speaker. Between the savings and the speaking, his family got by.
"How I supported my family was with good savings and I started speaking, motivational talk, recovery talk," McGee noted. "Anywhere from high schools, junior highs then to prisons. I've been to colleges. I've talked all over the place."
All of which brings McGee to Saturday where he faces Santiago Ponzinibbio at UFC on FOX 19. It's a relief to McGee, in one sense. It's his second fight six months. The regularity of activity feels unfamiliar, but is a welcome change.
There's more going on than that, however. According to McGee, April 16th - the day of the event where he's fighting - holds powerful significance in his life's journey and who he is today.
"God willing, I make it there sober, I'll have 10 years of continuous sobriety. That means I haven't used or drank - including I stayed sober through all four of those surgeries I went through and all four of them I went through non-narcotics. [April 16th] was the worst day and the best day of my life because I quit using and drinking and the worst day because I didn't think I could go one day without a drink or a drug. That's how I lived," he recalled.
"That was my solution to everything. If I needed more energy, I would take this. My solution to life was getting loaded. It wasn't working anymore. So it's the best day of my life because I quit, but it took a lot of work. It's been the most difficult thing I've ever done, but the most gratifying thing I've ever done."
When he reflects, McGee can't quite believe it. He lives a humble life, but that's miles from the pit of despair he fell into. To be a decade removed from that, he noted, is almost too much to believe.
"If you'd have told me 10 years ago, 'You know, Court. You're going to be on a FOX card fighting in the UFC. You'll have a family, you'll have a wife and two kids. You'll have your own vehicles. You'll have your own fishing poles. You'll have taught your kids all kinds of great stuff. You'll have a relationship with your family, both families...
"I mean, I didn't have anything. I didn't have s--t. I was homeless, unemployable. I had nothing, man," he said. "I had nothing. I had no wife, no kids, no friends. The one or two friends that I had since, one spent a significant amount of time in prison and the other one passed away on my six-year sobriety birthday.
"I would've say no way. No way," he argued. "I wouldn't have given myself a shot in the world. It's crazy."
Is it a coincidence, then, that he's fighting on the anniversary of his sobriety? McGee isn't quite sure. He was trying to get a fight in February, but it didn't work out.
"There's been a lot of coincidences in the last 10 years. [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva said, 'We're not going to have you for this fight. Maybe we'll schedule you for March or April'," McGee observed.
"I remember I didn't hear much about it and then I had this feeling like, 'I bet you money that they're going to schedule me for April 15.'"
That ultimate didn't come to pass, but the bout for UFC on FOX 19 did. McGee said he received a text from Silva saying the bout for the 16th of April was on. His response? "It's pretty crazy."
But celebration is a strong word. Or maybe not the right word. It's not that McGee doesn't take note of his journey or celebrate his life in way others can understand. But that's not quite the right way to think of it.
"In my first few years of sobriety, a lot of it was to show me," he said of sobriety anniversaries. "And now, the longer that I'm in recovery and the longer term of sobriety I have, the more I realize, life is a one day at a time thing, recovery's a one day at a time thing. The most important thing is my deep, dark past and that past is my key to success in helping somebody else who's struggling.
"I can work with someone who is at their deepest, darkest and talk to them. They know that I know where they are. So when I celebrate that day, yeah, it's a celebration, but it's more to show that it's possible."
That's where McGee is now. He's trying to change people's attitude about those suffering. He's out to serve as a living example. That's slow work and one fraught with peril, but it's the one he believes he's best equipped to handle.
"There's a lot of stigma around addiction. You think of an alcoholic, you think of the guy panhandling on the street. When you think of a drug addict, you think of the guy breaking into my house, stealing s--t out of my garage, shooting dope. When I stand up and I speak and I say, 'I'm Court and I'm a person in long-term recovery,' when I tell my neighbor, 'I'm an alcoholic and a drug addict.' They're just like, 'No, you're such a good guy.'
"'Everybody that I know that's in recovery are incredible people.' And we are. We're incredible people. We can do incredible things, but when we're not loaded, when we're not drunk, when we're not shooting dope, I'm a great person and I can do great things. I can't when I'm on heroin. I can't when I'm snorting Oxycontin."
McGee's place as a parent has changed his perspective, too. When he speaks now, he uses an old ESPN SportsCenter profile video package done on him to show others. That segment also happens to show McGee at his lowest, both as a person and as a son.
"When I see that, man, I see the devastation I put my family through. My mom standing over me at the ER when they've done defibrillations and CPR and just thinking now me as a parent, I think of what I put my dad through standing over me.
According to McGee, both of his parents are model citizens and did everything possible to raise him right. Whatever's gone wrong in his life, he shoulders the blame. It's on him, he said, not them.
"They didn't do anything wrong. They raised me right, more than right. I'm an alcoholic. That's the only thing. It's nothing they did. There wasn't one specific time in my life that made me. I think it was inherit in my personality long before I drank or used. So when I drank at 15, 16 years old and smoked marijuana and took the pills, it's like, I triggered an allergy.
"Right at first it was fun, but as soon as I left high school and found out I wasn't going to be wrestle in college, the next best thing was like, alright, let's numb out with some alcohol. Let's start partying and my partying didn't stop. It started on Monday and ended on Sunday. It just didn't stop," McGee said.
"I lost everything really quick. I went from graduating high school with honors and being an outstanding wrestler in Utah to homeless."
Now, with a new beard care company called Old Abe Beard Co., McGee is onto new things: new company, new fights, new challenges. But on Saturday at UFC on FOX 19, they'll also be a moment for reflection, for the length of the journey and solemn reminder of what once was, so it can never be again.