2019 was going to be Vince Murdock’s year.
After 16 pro bouts, which included a one-off appearance for Bellator and a two-fight stint over in India’s Super Fight League that may have done more harm than good (both Murdock’s SFL fights ended in controversy, with one being a cut stoppage that he disputes and the other a TKO loss that he claims was due to a groin strike), Murdock returned to the States at the end of 2018 to pick up a win at a regional show in Michigan. The victory earned Murdock a featherweight belt and put him on the UFC’s radar.
Six months later, the 28-year-old was picked to be a short-notice replacement to fight Jordan Griffin at UFC on ESPN 3 in Minneapolis. Nine years after making his amateur debut, Murdock was officially part of the UFC roster.
Then 48 hours before fight night, the Team Alpha Male product revealed that he was ruled medically unfit to continue. At the time, Murdock didn’t think the condition was serious and actually thought he might still be able to make his debut.
“Originally when I got there, it was just called a high grade stenosis at the time, [commission physicians] didn’t know the size of the blockage,” Murdock told MMA Fighting. “They just knew that there was a lack of blood flow. I didn’t know much and the doctor at the time—I almost thought they were going to clear me and have me take care of this after the fight.”
The UFC recommended that Murdock seek out further testing and after what Murdock estimates to be nine or 10 tests and scans in the months that followed, he was diagnosed with Moyamoya, a rare neurological condition typically found in young children. With Moyamoya, a patient’s internal carotid arteries become narrow, resulting in limited blood flow to the brain. He was diagnosed the end of September after being examined at Stanford University and told that if it was not treated, he would be at high risk for a stroke.
Murdock is no stranger to surgery having had procedures done on his knees, shoulder, and jaw. But this was something completely different. This wasn’t just something that would simply hinder his athletic goals, this was his brain that was in danger now.
“For a long time they were saying it was compatible with Moyamoya and I had ignored it for a long time because I was like, ‘There’s no way I have a disease,’” Murdock said. “If you look Moyamoya up, it happens to kids from three to seven. It just didn’t make sense to me and nothing this strange has ever—I’ve lived a pretty normal life I feel like and I just didn’t think it was—You look at people who things happen to, it’s like, ‘Ah, that won’t happen to me.’ That’s how I approached it when they were telling me this.
“I just kept thinking each test result was going to tell me, ‘It turns out your body’s fine.’ But that’s never been the case. They told me I have Moyamoya and I was like, ‘What the f*ck, what’s that mean?’ They’re like, ‘Brain surgery’s the only way to fix that,’ and I think that’s when it all kind of sunk in. For a long time I was just hoping that nothing would happen, I guess.”
Once diagnosed, Murdock began to fit the pieces together in his head. Initially, it was assumed that his career was over. The first few doctors he saw told him there was no way he would ever fight again. This caused him to react with disbelief and frustration.
Later, once the need for surgery became apparent, Murdock began to have doubts himself.
“‘S*it, you guys have probably never competed a day in your life. Don’t talk to me about my career and tell me about whatever,’ because I just didn’t want to hear it,” Murdock said. “They didn’t speak about surgery yet, this was just in general, they were thinking that I could probably live with this condition but I would never be able to compete. I was like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’
“Then when I found out I needed surgery, that’s when I started to believe it a little bit too. Like, ‘Hey, who the f*ck fights with brain surgery?’ I’ve never heard of it. So I went and finally saw Stanford and I blew it off like three times because I had to go seek a second opinion and that cost me about a thousand bucks just for the guy to talk to me. He was the only guy and he was the most qualified guy, he said, ‘Obviously, the outcome of the surgery is the most important part, but I’d have no problem clearing you to compete given a successful surgery.’ And I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ He’s like, ‘I’ve worked on football players, high impact players, you wouldn’t be at any risk.’ I could almost kiss the guy on the head.”
With acceptance of his condition and assurance that there was at least the possibility that his fighting career could continue, puzzle pieces from Murdock’s past started to come together. Why was training leaving him so exhausted? Why did his body occasionally betray him?
“That was one of the strangest parts is that a lot of things started to make sense,” Murdock said. “Training so often, I would always chalk it up to an injury or maybe I’m over-training, I always felt that I was over-training because I’d fatigue faster, which basically meant there’s a bigger demand for blood on my brain and my brain can’t meet that demand, so I would fatigue and it would always make me so angry because I’m doing everything that everyone else is doing and I just couldn’t figure it out. I’ve always dealt with that.
“I’ve had some symptoms in the past, just dead arm, stuff on the right side of my body, which is where all of the problems are. Just stuff like that and I was like, ‘Well that makes sense.’ A lot of things are starting to make sense now and I’ve had some incidents that make more sense now that this has been told to me. It’s kind of a crazy thing to think about is how close I was to something serious happening and just not knowing back then.”
Murdock is grateful that his condition was discovered as he later learned that Moyamoya is typically diagnosed only after a person has a stroke. He spoke highly of the commission doctors that initially pulled him from the Minneapolis show and the UFC for offering advice on how and where to get himself properly examined. Up next for him is a surgery scheduled for Nov. 13, a costly procedure for which Murdock is currently seeking financial assistance through crowdfunding.
It will be a long road until Murdock can compete again. In addition to his impending surgery, he is currently on USADA suspension until 2021 after failing to disclose his use of a banned substance (GW1516) that Murdock says he was taking to help him deal with fatigue. Though he had stopped using the substance prior to signing with the UFC (and well before he knew about his condition), Murdock received his suspension after voluntarily coming forward to admit what he had been taking. He puts the blame fully on himself for the suspension.
Even when his USADA sanction is concluded, Murdock isn’t sure if he’ll be ready to compete in two years given the amount of time off he will have to take off from physical activities and contact following brain surgery. It is still his goal to return to fighting someday, even if his health has become his primary concern.
Through all this, he’s leaned on the support of his wife, friends, family, and teammates, including Alpha Male boss Urijah Faber, who was responsible for bringing Murdock into the fold. Murdock’s advice for people going through hard times like himself is to not be stubborn about asking for help.
“A big part of it, I was kind of embarrassed to speak about it, or nervous. I thought people would look at me like a lost cause or, ‘That guy’s got brain damage.’ I was scared to talk about it because I didn’t know, I didn’t have have all the answers necessarily the whole time. People would be like, ‘Are you going to fight again?’ And at the time I didn’t know how to answer those. I didn’t know, ‘Is it progressive?’ ‘What’s this mean?’ ‘What’s the surgery?’ I didn’t have a lot of answers and I’ve just recently became more comfortable talking about it.
“But I think a support system has really stood out because without that I don’t know how anyone would be able to handle something like that. That’s something I’ve been really good at, positioning myself around people that genuinely do care about my well-being, Faber being one of them. The guy moved me out in 2011 and has been a huge help to me. This whole thing just kind of sucks because I’ve always tried to represent the team to the best of my ability and obviously of late, that hasn’t been the case. Especially with this it’s just so frustrating because it took me this long to get there and then I have this. But I’m optimistic. I’ll be okay.”
If you would like to contribute to Vince Murdock’s brain surgery fund, you can donate to the GoFundMe campaign set up by Urijah Faber here.