A perfect 4-0 record and a busy schedule had Casey O’Neill right where she wanted to be as she pursued her eventual goal becoming a UFC champion. Then disaster struck.
As she prepared to face Jessica Eye this past July, the now 25-year-old flyweight suffered a devastating injury in training, completely tearing her ACL. The injury required reconstructive surgery that should have kept her sidelined for the better part of one year.
“I was training for the Jessica fight, I was sparring and just a really weird, freak takedown sort of incident, and it just completely tore in half,” O’Neill revealed on The MMA Hour. “It was pretty strange, because you don’t feel a lot of pain when you tear it completely because nothing is holding on. It’s just gone, so you don’t feel pain, per se, so I thought I was going to be OK.
“The next day when I went to the [UFC Performance Institute], they told me that it was completely torn and that I was out.”
O’Neill said her first instinct was to battle through the injury and keep fighting despite the severity of a torn ACL.
“I really struggled to come to terms with that,” she said. “I think I tried to see four different doctors to try and get someone to clear me so I could still fight, because it was like there’s no way, I’m fine. Ultimately, I wasn’t fine and I listened to them.”
She underwent surgery to repair the damaged ACL, and a typical recovery time for that kind of injury requires nine months to a year off. Before she could get back on track with her rehabilitation, she had to go back under the knife again when another problem occurred with her knee.
“I had my first surgery, and then I sort of got back to normal,” O’Neill said. “Then a piece of the bone chipped, which they used to sort of hold my ACL down, came loose, and it was like floating on top of my knee and giving me a lot of problems, so I had to go back into surgery and get that pulled out.”
Multiple surgeries, combined with the time required to recover, left O’Neill in a fragile mental state. It was unlike any ordeal she had previously faced in her career.
“I would say that was probably the most depressed I’ve felt in my entire life for probably like the first three months,” O’Neill said. “Then I would kind of pull myself out and then it went through waves of like really good days and bad days. It’s not like you have surgery and you get better.”
Doctors informed O’Neill she would probably need the better part of the next year to fully recover, but she just couldn’t abide by that advice. So she put in as much work as possible to defy the odds, often spending double time doing rehab and physical therapy on her knee. The end result was being cleared to fight just seven months after her initial surgery.
“I just hammered out the rehab and did everything they told me to do and got better really quick,” O’Neill said. “I’m very excited to see what my new knee can do. I’ve seen it done faster, so I’m not the fastest one I’ve seen. People have come back quicker but pretty quick. I’m proud of myself.”
Even with the extended break, O’Neill has no desire to ease her way back into the flyweight division. After missing out on the chance to face a former title challenge in Eye in her previously scheduled bout, she couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than Jennifer Maia in her return fight at UFC 285 in March.
“I just think that’s a good fight for me,” O’Neill said. “Jessica Eye, who I was slated to fight in July, was a former title challenger and in the top-10 rankings. Jennifer Maia’s sort of the same thing. Jennifer Maia’s fought for the title and she’s in the top 10 and she did better than Jessica Eye did in the title fight, so just like the next challenge that I want to give to myself as the girl who’s been there, done that and see how I go against them.”
O’Neill admits the time off will probably require her to take a steady climb up the rankings before eventually challenging someone like UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, but she’s also not looking to take a step back in competition just because she’s coming back from a serious injury.
“I think that taking time off and going back to an easy fight would definitely stunt me and my growth a lot more than coming straight back into the deep end,” O’Neill said. “I don’t believe that I’ve lost anything.
“I’ve come back to training and within a couple of weeks I’m almost back to where I was. I think I’ll be better by the time March comes around and I’m going to have a lot more to show than I did before.”