I first spoke to Jared Gordon two years ago. It was the kind of encounter you don’t forget.
He was a young featherweight prospect readying for a regional fight up in the northeast, and over the course of a few hours, he told me his story. At age 19, he got himself addicted to pain killers. By 21, he veered into heroin. By 22, he was incarcerated and reeling from a massive drug overdose, his second, which left him legally dead for two minutes. By 23, he was homeless, a shell of a person, panhandling in the cold New York nights for a few dollars to feed his habit. And even that brief rundown leaves out the many side roads — the night the Gordons’ family business burned down in one of the most disastrous fires in New York state history; the death of a best friend by the very pills Jared peddled; the felony charges; the $100,000 reality show tournament that was supposed to change everything, but only left a recovering addict with a handful of broken promises and another round of depression.
But Jared made it. When we spoke, that was the thing that stuck out most.
Through the many ups and downs, through enough rock bottoms to drape across three lifetimes, Jared made out to the other side. He was more than one thousand days sober and dead-set on fulfilling his UFC dream. I called the piece The Unbreakable Man. Perhaps it was hyperbole, but the title seemed fitting. Jared won that weekend, defeating veteran Jay Coleman with a nasty first-round knockout to move to 9-0. Three months later, he found himself slotted in a CFFC title fight against Jeff Lentz. Word was that if he won, the UFC would come calling. He was so close.
But it never happened.
Doctors called the fight between the third and fourth round after a flush knee shattered Jared’s orbital bone and split his face wide open. Lentz was the winner. Jared was off to the hospital. And then? Well, he seemingly disappeared. A year passed and every time I checked, his record stayed the same, nothing new materializing on the fight schedule aside from an ominous cancelled rematch against Lentz. No sign of the man once so driven. So it went. McGregor rose and Rousey fell and the fight game moved on…
…until last month, when Jared reemerged in the most random of places.
That CFFC prospect with a “flat personality” on the latest episode of Dana White Lookin’ for a Fight? That grown man abstaining from losing his mind about getting a big break on May 13 at UFC 211? That was Jared.
And like all things on his ride, there was still much left unsaid.
Jared Gordon relapsed seven weeks after his hospitalization for the Lentz fight.
The worst part is, he saw it coming. He spent seven days after the fight in a head trauma unit recovering from surgery to repair his broken face. Worried that the fractures and frayed nerves around his orbital may cause him to go blind in one eye, doctors wanted to keep Jared close by, and they wanted to keep him in a pain-manageable state with the same sort of prescription pills that once consumed his life.
“We told [the doctors], I’m a recovering heroin addict,” Jared remembers. “They were like, ‘alright, well, that’s too bad, because we have to give you pain meds in order to control your pain. If you don’t control your pain levels, then healing won’t occur.’ I was in the most pain I’ve ever been in my life, so my parents said ‘alright, give them to him.’
“That was the start of it again.”
Jared left the hospital seven days after his first career loss with a prescription for painkillers. It wasn’t long before the taste of the opiates overwhelmed him. Coupled with the depression of a UFC dream that suddenly seemed so far away, he hurtled backwards into the cold embrace of a needle.
It was too familiar.
For six months in 2015, Jared gradually ran back to his old self. He became a ghost in the training room, instead scrounging up cash wherever he could, getting high the whole time and crawling once more towards Hell on his hands and knees. That Lentz rematch that never happened? Jared’s coach pulled the plug the night before weigh-ins, disgusted by the track marks he realized were strewn across Jared’s arms.
An old darkness was calling, and Jared was already too far gone. He welcomed it. “I was homeless,” he says with a sigh. “It was Christmas time. I missed Thanksgiving with my family. I missed Christmas. I wanted to die. At that point, I was hoping that God was going to take me. So I was doing as much as I can just to get it over with.”
Things reached a head on Dec. 26, 2015, the night after Christmas, on the floor of some sketchy northeastern motel room. Jared says he rented the room with money he nicked off a drug dealer. He was roaring high, a perpetual reality for a broken mind, and one last needle full of cocaine was enough to send his bloodstream spiraling over the edge for the third time in his young life.
“I overdosed,” Jared says flatly.
“And I actually fell in the hotel room and hit a lamp and a desk. Luckily I fell into that, otherwise who knows, I might not be alive. I knocked the lamp over, so the people in the room next to me actually called the front desk. The front desk called the police.” And then, as it had so many times before, fate intervened.
Considering his past run-ins with the law, Jared had enough narcotics on his person to get sent back to prison for the next decade of his life, assuming he survived through the night. But the spirit of the holidays was in the air, and the officers took pity on the half-dead junkie slumped on the floor of the broken down motel room. They arranged transit to take Jared to the hospital, rather than to a reality far worse, and the born-again addict once again awoke from a stupor surrounded by the familiar white walls of a place he had been too many times before.
“The cops saved my life,” Jared admits. “They saved me from myself.”
Today, Jared Gordon is sober. Again. This time he swears it’s for good.
Over 16 months have passed since the night his life nearly ended on the floor of that dirty motel room. It’s all a little overwhelming when he looks back. “Sixteen months ago, I was shoving needles into my arm. Now I’m in the UFC, fighting on the biggest card of the year,” he marvels. “I couldn’t be more grateful for what’s coming.”
The trek back to reclaim himself was long, and it took more self reflection than Jared thought himself capable. He guesses he’s been to rehab at least 10 times in his life. But only after this last stretch did he realize what was happening, how he was using training and fighting as an excuse to stay sober, and how once that outlet was gone — taken from him by injury and depression — there was nothing left to occupy his thoughts but the devils he had been fleeing for so long.
“After being 9-0, thinking I’m going to be a UFC fighter and CFFC champion, to now I’ve got to start all over again — it was a perfect storm for me to go back to what I was doing,” Gordon says. “Not that it’s an excuse to do it, but I was sober for a substantial amount of time, to then I was getting IV’d drugs and the depression. I just... I didn’t know what to think or how to cope with it at all. I didn’t have anyone really, the people that I have in my life now, and I just tail-spun out of control.
“I’ve reached a lot of physical bottoms before, like jail and rehabs and being homeless. I’ve done the panhandling. I’ve done the whole ‘out there on the streets for day after day.’ But this was a mental bottom. I was in a prison in my own head. I didn’t know how to get out of it. It was just craziness. But I think that, honestly, everything was supposed to happen the way that it happened. Because I had enough holes in my game anyways, that even if I won the (Lentz) fight and I would’ve gone to the UFC, yeah, maybe I would’ve won a couple. But I probably would’ve wound up losing and I wouldn’t have done as well as I wanted to. So it helped me. I believe I’m a completely different fighter now. And it helped me in my life in general, the choices that I make on an everyday basis.”
Jared says he goes to addiction support groups regularly now. He has an AA sponsor, and he even helps lead another recovery group on the side. He’s also seeing a sports psychologist, one who is helping him learn healthy coping mechanisms for his anxiety — another issue he used to treat with the syringe and a needle in his past life.
A year ago, on a random morning in New York, he was parked outside of a bank with his father when a police officer noticed him and flagged him down. It was one of the cops from the night at the motel. Jared’s memory was fuzzy, but the officer certainly remembered him, how bad things had been the day after Christmas, and how things easily could’ve been so much worse.
But this time around, Jared was several months sober, waist-deep in the process of re-righting his life. The officer was thrilled to hear it. It was a nice reminder that they made the right decision, choosing the ambulance over the back of a police car. Little crossroads that lead to marathon runs. Sometimes it’s strange how life works.
Jared knows he’s chosen a career path where relapse is always a risk. It’s a tricky balancing act; any bad night at the office could end up with a stay in the hospital bed. But he’s more confident in his recovery than he’s ever been before, and more equipped to understand the consequences of his choices. Last December, in the midst of a two-fight winning streak, Jared suffered a nose injury and had to drop out of a fight to get surgery. Afterward, doctors gave him pain pills. It was a chance for history to replay itself, but Jared kept to his support groups and did what he needed to do. He had something bigger to strive towards. No longer was he running towards those demons.
And as it turns out, that injury postponement — and Jared’s subsequent strength through his recovery — is what led him to be re-booked onto the same CFFC show that wound up on Lookin’ for a Fight. The same show that led him to be signed by the sport’s biggest stage. The same show that led him to be labeled as a “flat personality” by the president of the UFC.
Again, little crossroads.
It’s bizarre for Jared to think about how it all worked out, how perfectly things fell into place. Who knows if Lookin’ for a Fight would’ve happened had he not gotten injured, he had not been able to test his newfound resolve. The only bit that irked him was White’s swipes at his demeanor, more so because they seemed so ludicrous after everything he’s overcome. But Jared laughs it off, and so do those close to him. A two-minute encounter after five hard rounds can’t tell the whole story.
Jared acknowledges that his opponent for UFC 211, fellow Octagon newcomer Michel Quinones, is tough, but at this point, he’s come too far to be stopped. He has a purpose now, something far less selfish than the goals of his past. Somehow, implausibly, through all of the twists and turns, Jared is still alive. He’s still here on this Earth, a walking reminder how a crippling disease doesn’t have to be the end. He now wants to use his experiences to inspire others, use his new platform to help strangers not to succumb to their own pitfalls, whatever they may be.
After going through so much, Jared promises this is only the start. The first chapter after an overly long prologue. He knows how that sounds, considering he’s really 50 chapters deep into a life story even Hollywood wouldn’t believe, but he swears by it.
“My ex-girlfriend said something to me once,” Jared remembers. “She was like, ‘why are you fighting?’ I was like, ‘what do you mean why am I fighting? Because I’m good at fighting and I like knocking people out and this is what I’m good at.’ And she’s like, ‘no, no, no. What is your reason for fighting?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. My reason for fighting is because I’m good at it and I love it.’ And she just said, ‘when you figure out why you’re doing this, then that’s when you’ll truly be happy and successful.’
“At the time, I was getting high, so I was pretty much oblivious to everything going on around me. And now, I realize. Fighting and what I’m doing, yeah, I love it, and yeah, the goal is to be champion. And I truly believe I will be champion — I want to make a living off of this and have a nice life. But I realized, this isn’t about me at all. It’s about giving to others what was given to me, and that’s by being sober and showing people like me how to live a respectful life. My real, ultimate goal is to really help other people get over the things that I went through, especially addicts and young kids.
“I’ve done some terrible things in my life. I’m that guy who has to burn my hand 10 times before I learn to change, learn to not touch the burning hot stove anymore. But this is it, and this truly is just the beginning. Everything that I went through was just setting me up for this. I had to go through the bullshit in order to get through to the other side. But this is just the beginning.”
Jared has never been sure of anything more.