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Josh Emmett’s return delayed with injury complications, doesn’t know if he’ll fight again this year

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Some people who watched Josh Emmett fight Shane Burgos essentially on one leg for three rounds thought he didn’t feel it because of adrenaline.

Emmett can assure them, there is no amount of adrenaline that could mask the following injuries: a complete ACL tear; an MCL sprain with partial tearing; a Baker’s cyst rupture; a focal impact fracture of the femur; and a cartilage defect on his tibia.

“Oh, I felt it,” Emmett told What the Heck. “There’s a reason why you don’t see NFL players playing the last quarter after they tear their ACL.”

It’s been nine months since Emmett stepped into the cage against Burgos and overcame incredible adversity to win a unanimous decision and a $50,000 performance bonus at UFC Vegas 3 this past June. There was a time when he thought he’d be back this summer. He wanted to be “the Adrian Peterson of MMA.” But now, he’s working with a different timetable.

“In my mind, I will fight this year, I just don’t know yet,” he said.

Emmett underwent surgery earlier this year. Doctors used a slice of his patellar tendon to make a new ACL and cleaned up his patella. Initially, he was on track to make a quicker-than-usual recovery. He stayed in Las Vegas for two months and went to the UFC Performance Institute twice a day for physical therapy.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to come back, I’m going to be the first person she clears under six months, and I’m going to fight,’” he said of his therapist.

At the three-month mark of recovery, Emmett was back in his adopted hometown of Sacramento and feeling pain in the front and center of his knee when he did his exercises. The pain wouldn’t subside, so he asked his doctor what he should do. He was advised to wait one month and see if things changed.

“I kept going through all the workouts,” he said. “Trust me, I can deal with pain. As long as this is not affecting my ACL.”

When the pain persisted, Emmett did an MRI and found out his patella tendon hadn’t healed, and he had a fracture in his patella bone. That’s when he sought out another doctor and underwent stem cell treatment, injecting marrow harvested from his sacroiliac (SI) joint in his patella.

“He drilled into my back ... literally with a power tool,” Emmett said.

That was a setback that couldn’t be avoided. The 36-year-old fighter went from a full back brace, unable to bear weight, to a straight-leg brace and then crutches. But three months later, subsequent imaging revealed the beginning of a healing process.

There’s much more ahead before Emmett can consider himself in the clear and ready to train. He’s still doing physical therapy every day, just much less of it, and he needs to reach certain benchmarks to move forward.

“Unless the MRI comes back and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s 100 percent healed,’ then I know it’s just a mental thing, and I’ll push through whatever to keep it going,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the case, because when I do certain things, I feel pain in my knee.”

Emmett admits there have been times when he thought his career is over. But he chalks them up to the irrational thinking of a someone who can’t do what he loves. And the torture of watching the UFC featherweight division proceed.

With three straight wins, Emmett was poised to fight for a title in 2020 or this year. Peterson-like or not, his comeback was impressive considering the 13-month setback he suffered in a knockout loss to Jeremy Stephens that left him with another laundry list of injuries.

It remains to be seen what’s in store for Emmett when he comes back. There was a time in his career when he accepted any and all opponents. But with so much time lost, that stance has shifted.

“If they have a 1 through 6 in front of them, OK, let’s do it,” he said. “But I’m not fighting behind me. I made that clear. I’m not fighting anyone behind me, because in my last handful of fights, I’m always fighting back, I’m never going anywhere. I’ll stay stagnant, and I do want to get closer to that title.”

Any thoughts of retirement have always been counteracted by the kind of gritty optimism that kept him fighting on one leg. He’s also got a really good poker face.

“I always try to find the positive,” Emmett said. “It’s frustrating, but I truly believe everything happens for a reason.”