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Darren Elkins and the improbable magic of an impossible comeback

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UFC 209 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Darren Elkins celebrates his seventh year in the UFC later this March. Seven years of quiet exceptionalism, especially when compared to his peers. Because while Elkins may not be the loudest fighter, nor the most popular, he is undoubtedly among the most consistent.

Nearly every year for the past seven years, Elkins has graced the Octagon two to three times and won. In reality, he’s probably won more than you’d think. Twelve victories over the course of 16 appearances, a number that dwarfs many of his featherweight contemporaries, all while racking up more UFC cage minutes than any 145-pounder in history.

This past weekend was no exception. Elkins crossed the Octagon threshold at UFC 209 and did what he generally does — grinding out a win over a man who dedicates his days to never being broken.

But this time was different. Even Elkins, who doubles as the most self-effacing man you’ll ever meet, acknowledges that. Because this time, Elkins had to wade through Hell to get there. And it’s not hyperbole to call his victory over blue-chip prospect Mirsad Bektic one of the greatest come-from-behind victories ever seen in the UFC.

UFC 209 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“It’s hard to describe, man,” Elkins told MMA Fighting three days after UFC 209, an assortment of car-crash damage still splashed across his face. “It was just like when you put everything on the line... and you knew, I knew, we all knew what I had to do. But to finish like that, man — and I knew it was a huge finish, I knew it was a huge win for me — coming back from behind, it was such a rush. My whole body just went numb.

“I always thought I was capable of something like this. I’ve been in these types of situations before and I haven’t performed like this — one of those things where I look back, and I do, I think about how I didn’t do it. But I knew I had to this fight. I knew I had to go for the finish. Not just survive. I really showed a different level of what kind of guy I am in this fight. I showed heart that I never showed before.”

The specifics of the fight are nearly as gruesome as the footage itself. Over the course of one of the most merciless, one-sided rounds you’ll ever see — a five-minute opening stanza where Bektic out-struck Elkins by a tune of 102 strikes to six — Elkins looked like a lamb led to slaughter. Bektic slashed open a myriad of wide cuts across Elkins’ face with a tornado of blows, including a nasty ax wound above Elkins’ right eye that bathed both contestants in a crimson sea of Elkins’ blood.

The scene was something out of a horror flick, and the second round brought little respite. But Elkins was undaunted.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” says Elkins’ head coach, Team Alpha Male’s Justin Buchholz, who worked the corner against Bektic at UFC 209. “I’ve been in this sport in the UFC for 10 years cornering or fighting and I’ve never seen anything like that before.

“Going into the third round, it was like ‘we need this round big, this is where you take over, this is what we expected.’ And he’s just like, ‘yep, yep.’ Then he just goes out there and you can see the moment in the fight where Mirsad breaks. And having Darren Elkins as a fighter, you’re in the breaking people business. We’re not going out there looking to find a punch or a sub. We’re looking to break motherf*ckers. And Elkins is one of the best in the world at that. In a no-time-limits fight, you’d have to kill him, because he will never lose. You’d have to kill him.”

Elkins turns 32 years old in May, and he’s been in this fight game since he was barely old enough to legally drink, but never has he displayed something like the sequence that signaled the end at UFC 209.

With Bektic fading from a withering pace, and Elkins down by insurmountable 20-17 scores on all three scorecards, the Team Alpha Male veteran dug deep and cracked his foe with a pair of clubbing right hands along the fence, then unloaded a monster kick to the head, just like his coaches had drilled over and over again in camp. Bektic was out before he hit the floor — the one-time executioner now inverted and unconscious, the undefeated “0” from his record suddenly melting into an unsightly “1.”

And Elkins lost himself in legendary celebration.

UFC 209 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“Man, it just all hit me at once,” he says. “A roller coaster of emotions. When you see that celebration, that’s why I celebrated like that. I knew what was on the line. I knew I had to finish. And when I actually did exactly what I needed to do, I just felt great. Out of all the fights and everything, that was the rush, man. That was the rush I’ve never felt.”

Elkins compares the feeling to an out-of-body experience, a moment he remembers only from a distance, the same way someone would remember a scene from a movie they saw years ago. A surreal payoff for a man who has been through the fight game grinder; who last year committed 900 hours to his second career as a pipefitter just to become union vested and secure quality insurance for his wife and two kids; who less than three years ago arrived at Team Alpha Male in the midst of a career-worst slump, wondering whether it was worth it to even continue.

But Elkins never quit then, and he certainly never quit this past weekend.

“He still believed he could win,” Buchholz says. “He’s never lost his f*cking will to win.

“The guy is amazing. He is the toughest guy in the world. And I think why he’s so tough, why he can do that, is because of the person he is outside of the Octagon. He’s a man of principles. He’s a guy who’s a straight shooter. He’s a guy who’s with the same girl he met in high school, his high school sweetheart. The same girl.

“This is a man of principles. You’re not going to break this guy. You can’t bend his will. He decides how sh*t goes and sticks to those principles, and that’s some badass Midwest honorable sh*t. We just all respect the f*ck out of Elkins and we’re so happy for him. It’s ridiculous.”

Over the course of seven years in the UFC, Elkins has never be able to seize a moment to call his own, a moment to point back to and say look at what I did. No longer. The images from UFC 209 will forever be celebrated, one instance when a man made a decision not to quit when he so very easily could.

And Elkins knows that things are different now, even if only a little bit, than they were before Saturday night.

“I’ve revived my career, man,” he says. “At one point, I was kinda win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. And now I’m back on a four-fight winning streak and making an awesome run. I’m going to keep this thing going, keep the momentum going.

“I just had to remember what I’m fighting for. Mental toughness has to do with a lot of it. You’ve got to be mentally tough. You’ve got to be able to keep your mind on what your actual goals are. And I got a family, man. I’m not only fighting for myself. I’m fighting for them.”

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Elkins says he’s never experienced anything like the past few days. Kneeled down in the center of the Octagon, drowning under a wave of adoration and standing ovations, he learned something about himself that he always suspected but never quite knew for sure, not only as a fighter, but as a man. The toughness, the resilience, the ability to survive in the face of the storm and push forward — those were real and not just platitudes. He finally seized his UFC breakthrough.

And now?

Now Elkins wants a bit of a break. Understandably so. Along with his 16th UFC fight came his first post-fight bonus. He says he might splurge a little on a trip for his wife and kids, but then it’s back to grind. Then it’s back for number 17.

He wants to fight again soon, so as to strike while the iron is hot and keep this momentum rolling. Four straight wins and a new No. 12 featherweight ranking should set him up for quite the challenge. And suffice to say, the next name on the dotted line better not underestimate the man who cannot be broken.

“I hope I don’t have to do anything like that again,” Elkins says, laughing. “But I will if I have to.”