A miracle happened Sunday in Oklahoma City.
It was a quiet one, the kind of tucked away serendipity easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look. But a miracle still, and the emotions hit The Man Who Should Be Dead sooner than he ever expected. So he took a moment, buried his head in the embrace of a cornerman, then continued his walk into the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Back to the cage. Back home once more. For the ensuing half-hour, the breath of a select few choked back in wonderment, loved ones rapt in half pride, half disbelief at the impossible sight unfolding before them, as Darrell Horcher fulfilled a promise dismissed as delusion only a year prior.
By the time he left, Darrell’s eyes were bloodshot. Red from the fight. Red from the tears. Red from the sheer weight of what he had done. By the end of the night, his split-decision win over Devin Powell at UFC Fight Night 112 had been reduced to a footnote. An undercard result on a middling event at the end of a weekend over-engorged in combat sports. But that relegation didn’t mean anything to the select few, because it still happened, the dream that never had any right to come true, and for those who lived through the nightmare, a night of simple celebration was the greatest prize of all. One they waited 13 months for.
One they never truly knew would come.
It’s funny. Darrell says he never saw the black Ford Escape, though he has no way of knowing for sure. For him, those hours are misplaced, pages ripped out of a book and pieced together again by flashes and guesswork, wild shots in the dark. He only knows what he’s been told — how he and a buddy urged their motorcycles down an old Pennsylvania road close to home, and how the SUV cut across the intersection, making an abrupt left turn in front of the newly-signed UFC lightweight and his friend. Then, a screech. A bang. Bright lights careening into darkness. A few seconds to forever alter the paths of an unlucky three.
Darrell came to later that night in the ICU. He stayed there for over a week, his muscles ravaged, bone jutting out of his right arm, his entire body stained red and black by blood and asphalt. He still doesn’t remember much, but the photos are real enough. Doctors said they were amazed. Darrell was lucky to be alive, they said. A complete and total miracle, they said. Privately, they told the fighter’s loved ones that he probably would never fight again. The sooner he realized it, the better off he would be. Denial could lead to unrealistic expectations, and he needed all the strength he could muster.
Darrell’s memory finally picks back up somewhere around day seven. He was in a hospital bed, mind racing, a prisoner of his own broken body, and doctors wanted him to prove he could maneuver onto a toilet unassisted before they discharged him. He had one working arm. He couldn’t stand and he couldn’t walk. “But,” he says grimly, ”I was in the emergency room telling everybody that I’m going to fight again.
“I’m going to fight. I’m going to be training before the end of the year’s out. I’m going to fight next summer. It’s going to happen.
“I promise you it’s going to happen.”
Just one of those things you say. A small comfort, the promise of normalcy in a trying time. Not the type of thing that sticks.
Forty-eight days prior, Darrell’s life forever changed when one of the sport’s most talented lightweights, Tony Ferguson, fell ill and pulled out of a planned UFC title eliminator against undefeated contender Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight was set to air on FOX, far and away the UFC’s biggest television platform, and the organization was in a bind, having a little over a week to find a replacement fearless enough to challenge the feared Russian on short notice.
The timing was dreadful. Darrell had broken his arm six months earlier, a second-round casualty in a regional title fight he won with a third-round KO. He only recently had been cleared to train, and a metal plate was still implanted deep in his right arm. He was 25 pounds overweight from the inactivity, but when the UFC called and asked Darrell to battle one of the world’s best next Saturday on FOX, it was hard to say no. He knew better than anybody that he wasn’t ready, but this was his way in, an opportunity better than any he had envisioned, so he accepted and thrust himself into the whirlwind. A week later, he flew back home to Pennsylvania with a win streak of four years snapped but a dream fulfilled. He was finally a UFC fighter, he told himself, and the next time the world saw him, he would show his true colors rather than the slapdash version millions watched on FOX.
But then the accident happened.
Then the Ford Escape rocketed out of the intersection and Darrell, caught in a blind spot behind his friend, slammed into the vehicle shoulder-first at 65 miles per hour, shot off his bike, sailed over the SUV and crashed down to earth 100 yards away, landing clean on his head. “In my helmet, I had a real expensive sun visor,” he remembers. “I had one of the ones that, in the sun, it would tint itself, and as soon as it got dark, it would go clear. Super expensive, like $150 for just a visor. That just exploded. There was nothing left of it.
“The padding in the front (of the helmet) that goes over your forehead is usually an inch, inch-and-half thick. It smashed the whole way down. It has to be less than a quarter-inch thick now. I landed directly on my face.”
In a nightmarish scene, Darrell’s bike detonated on impact into pieces, clumps of scorched metal strewn in heaps across the street. One of the scraps exploded off and struck Darrell’s friend, who had noticed the SUV with just enough headway to wrangle his bike to the left and avoid catastrophic injury. Both he and the SUV driver astonishingly emerged okay; Darrell was a different story. The force of the collision was so strong, it hurled the UFC fighter clear out of his riding boots, which still sat atop the footholds of his mangled bike. Darrell crash-landed a football field’s length away. By the time first responders arrived, Darrell was cycling in and out of consciousness, a bloody mess crumpled on the side of the road.
“He’d only just started his UFC career, and I know everything was just going in the right direction for him, and then this happens?” remembers Darrell’s manager, Brian Butler. “We were just waiting to hear back from the doctors at that time to see what the situation was going to be, and we’d already kind of conceded to the fact that we just wanted him to be alive. We weren’t even thinking about fighting again.
“It’s just... it was a scary time.”
The injury tally came in waves and read like a coroner’s report. Severe head trauma. A lacerated kidney. A lacerated liver. Darrell lost so much blood that he was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. His right arm was re-broken, a compound fracture that left bone exposed and ripped apart one of the major veins that ran down Darrell’s forearm. His legs both exploded, ACL tears and PCL tears. The MCL in his left knee erupted. Same for the LCL in his right knee. That one separated completely from the bone. There were other small knocks as well, but Darrell doesn’t go into detail. The memory is still fresh, and some words are better left unsaid.
From that point on, his world began and ended on the couch. A lifelong athlete, someone always considered the strongest in the room, Darrell was suddenly trapped within himself, a cruel fate, strapped from ankle to hip in immobilizers. It was weeks before he could even speak clearly on the phone, and Darrell had no choice but to rely on loved ones to survive his day-to-day. It led to dark nights. Moments of frustration and anger and helplessness, he admits, where he sunk deep into a pit of despair, questioning whether this was the end, whether a UFC career that never truly began had already met its luckless demise.
Darrell lost 30 pounds as the days dragged on, blood and sweat invested over a lifetime wasting away. The only positive was his support system — his wife, Daphney, and his friend from the accident, who abstained from being named in this story. They did all they could to lift the fighter’s spirits, anything to make the healing process a little easier. Darrell’s friend swung by every morning around 6 o’clock, just as Daphney was leaving for work. He’d cook breakfast for the fighter and take care of whatever needed taking care of, stay there for the day, then tag out once Daphney came home. Other friends and loved ones took turns doing the same, and the outpouring of selflessness was overwhelming.
“My wife was more than instrumental during this whole thing,” Darrell says. “She was always there telling me, ‘you’re doing great, this is good, you’re fine, smile and move on through the day.’
“And I don’t have a lot of friends, but the friends I do have, I’m super close with. They’re like brothers, and we made the best of it.”
Darrell soon lost count of his many different doctors and surgeries. Over time, it became his own macabre game. Who are we going to see today? Always someone new, a new surgeon or new specialist, and at the end of the trip, invariably, Daphney would pull out a pen, open her running checklist and cross one more body part off the ledger. Those were the best days, “because that meant I was getting close,” he says, “we were working our way through it.”
By July 2016, doctors cleared Darrell to start easing himself into physical therapy. Then the real work began. Over the course of eight months, the UFC fighter gradually defied the odds, blowing away the expectations of doctors who cautioned that a return to competition was an unhealthy expectation to set. But Darrell made a promise, and he intended to see things through, no many how hard the days grew or how restless the nights became.
“It was kind of a joke between my physical therapist and I,” he says. “My physical therapy was hours-long full body workouts. I remember leaving there covered in sweat. I had to bring a change of clothes every time. And I’d look over at these people doing stretches and touching their fingers together, and I’d be like, ‘man, why can’t I just do stuff like that? That looks easy.’ And they’d just pull me back and be like, ‘no, because that’s not you.’”
Trust was the last ability to return to Darrell. Trust in his weapons. Trust in the strength of their recovery. Trust in himself. Then, this past February, the unthinkable happened. Ten months after his fateful ride, less than a year after a high-speed collision nearly ended his life, Darrell actually returned. Daphney’s checklist was complete and Darrell was cleared by every doctor and surgeon and therapist the two had seen.
He was free and clear to fight in the summer, just like he first promised from that hospital bed.
The comeback was made official on Sunday, once Darrell drowned Powell under a tsunami of top control in Oklahoma City to earn his first UFC win. It was a surreal sight. Afterward, Darrell nearly lost himself thinking about the past year. He’s not an emotional guy, he told reporters, but this was different. He shouldn’t be alive, much less fighting at a world-class level. Yet there he was, trading bombs back-and-forth with his rebuilt body, a walking testament to the power of the human will.
“It’s been ups and downs. It’s been a roller coaster,” says Darrell. “A perfect example, my surgeon called me [before the fight]. And it was like, cool, I have a surgeon calling me to make sure everything is good and I’m feeling real good and everything’s working. That’s a positive. And then you start thinking about it. How many people have a surgeon calling them because how many people need a surgeon calling them to make sure they’re okay? And I’m a thinker, so everything little thing, I think into it too much and I’m like, ‘man, this is a good thing — no, hold on, this a bad thing.’ So it’s a roller coaster, man. It’s up and down. It’s just... it’s a lot, is what it is.
“It puts the smaller things into perspective. It definitely makes you see that there’s a bigger scheme of things, especially as fighters. We focus so much. Fighting is what matters, fighting is life. It’s not. And given that I almost lost it, to the point where never could’ve [fought] again, you start to think more about what really matters. I know more of what matters now. I’m married, happily married. I’ve got a good wife, we have a good life, and that’s what’s important. Don’t get me wrong, I love MMA. That’s why I do this. That’s why I pushed so hard to come back and that’s why I pushed my body. But it puts things into perspective and makes you see what’s really important and what really matters.”
“He is a walking miracle,” marvels Butler. “I think his doctors will attest to that. He’s a fighting miracle. It’s a miracle. I don’t how else to say it. He shouldn’t be able to even train, honestly. He should be one of those people that, one, is lucky to be alive, and two, is walking around with a massive limp and a cane for the rest of his life.
“I just tried to be supportive to keep him driven to get mobile again. I never really thought he would actually fight again. Never.”
Darrell says he hasn’t ridden a motorcycle since the accident. He didn’t really have a choice either; Daphney arranged to sell his other bike — a loaded, purpose-built drag bike — before he was even discharged from the hospital. Darrell says he wasn’t mad. He no longer has the urge to ride. The road is too full of risks, he says, too many drivers whose focus drifts behind the wheel. His old passion has lost much of its luster these days. He’s moved on to other, less daring hobbies, he says, ones where grisly photos of twisted wreckage aren’t potential outcomes.
“I just thank God I’m alive,” says Darrell. “The funny thing is, you say how gnarly it looked (in the photos)? They actually pulled my bike back together to make it so they could take the pictures, so they could load it up. Because the bike was actually in multiple pieces and it was scattered. So it was actually worse than the pictures in real life. I look at those pictures and I’m reminded, man, this looks bad, but it was actually worse. It was real bad. I’m thankful to be here. I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful for all the people who helped me.
“And I’m amazed. I, personally, am amazed at myself and my body, that I was able to come back from this. I’ve actually had doctors look at me and tell me, ‘Darrell, you were never even supposed to walk right again. And now you’re training for a fight? That’s unheard of.’ A lot of people. So, I’m thankful that my body has healed the way it has.”
“He’s kind of had this epiphany,” adds Butler. “Darrell used to be a little bit rough around the edges. Not rough, but he used to be a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy. And now when you talk to him, you can just tell there’s a different demeanor about him. Like, he appreciates everything. Everything. Even teammates — he was a bit of a lone wolf, too, and even now he’s just appreciating having a team at Team Curran and the people supporting him and focusing on him, helping him. He’s just much appreciative, and that’s very evident to me.”
Darrell knows there are plenty of ways his path could’ve ended in a darker fate. One extra mile per hour, one little nudge on the angle of impact, one less piece of protective gear — any of one million scenarios and he wouldn’t be standing here today. He hit the asphalt head-first; imagine if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet? Darrell says Daphney still gets emotional thinking about everything, thinking about all the ways her husband cheated death. She doesn’t like to talk about it. Nobody does. But, says Butler, “I can tell you that girl didn’t leave his side.
“She was by his bedside the whole time.”
The couple has been together seven years, and the accident was hard on Daphney. Darrell doesn’t remember, but according to Daphney, the first thing out of her husband’s mouth when she walked through the hospital doors that terrible night was an apology. An apology for whatever phone call she must have received. An apology for scaring her half to death. An apology for everything still to come.
But the two of them have carried a new mantra into 2017, one focused on looking forward, not backward. It’s been helpful for both. “We kind of always say, we just want to forget 2016,” Darrell says. “Because I hadn’t lost in, like, four or five years. And then the motorcycle accident. That whole year was bad. Let’s just forget that whole year and move on. That’s how we’re taking it now. We just kind of push it into the past and it’s 2017 and we’re starting fresh.”
Butler says Darrell was initially hesitant to talk about the accident. He didn’t want to be seen as a sob story. But that’s the thing — Darrell isn’t a sob story. He overcame. That’s his story. That’s all of their stories. And they’re all in this together, even still. Daphney flew to Oklahoma City for Darrell’s fight. So did one of Darrell’s physical therapists. Darrell’s lead surgeon on his knees, Dr. Robert Gallo, called frequently to check on his camp. The two still talk often, and Gallo vowed to keep his eyes glued to the television screen once Sunday night rolled around, waiting to witness the man making the most inexplicable of walks.
Through his haze, Darrell thanked them all on the broadcast. Without them, he couldn’t have done what he did.
“For most ordinary people, I probably would be (shocked by Darrell’s recovery),” Gallo marvels. “But just getting to know him over the past year, I’m not all that surprised. He surpassed every milestone. What he’s been through, you wouldn’t know it. If you saw him and didn’t know and didn’t see the story, and just saw him working out, you wouldn’t know.
“To get back to that level, that’s pretty rare. I’m sure if you did a Google search on that, go look at the athletes who have had those injuries, there’s a lot of them that don’t get back, especially with a sport that’s as physically demanding as MMA. Those guys are pretty impressive. It’s just a testament to his determination.”
Darrell says he considers himself a lucky guy, as strange as that may sound. He says Sunday night felt like his UFC debut. His real UFC debut. He still wasn’t 100 percent, he admits, but he felt worlds better than he did for the Khabib fight. That one was simply about going in and being a body. This one was about proving a point. Proving that the past year was done for a purpose. Proving that he belongs. Now Darrell’s voice is confident and steady. He says he’s going to roll right from this fight camp into another, then another and another. He’s going to make up for what he missed, he says, and by the end of his story, his year from hell will only be another footnote, a step toward something greater.
That, he promises.