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‘Grateful’ Josiah Harrell reflects on revelation of rare brain disease that led to UFC 290 scratch

Josiah Harrell was a little over 24 hours away from making his UFC debut earlier this month. After replacing Sean Brady on short notice, he successfully weighed in for his UFC 290 bout with Jack Della Maddalena.

Then, life-changing — and potentially life-saving — news was sent in his direction.

“We get into the hotel and immediately — about three minutes later — my MMA coach Tim comes in, and then Maurice, my manager, comes right behind him, and they’re looking at me and I’m like, ‘Something’s going on,’” Harrell told MMA Fighting. “So I’m just like, what’s up? And then [they say to me], ‘You want the good news or the bad news?’

“They cut it to me and [say], ‘Hey, you got, Moyamoya, it’s a brain disease that’s limiting blood flow to a certain side of your brain and you’re going to need brain surgery. The fight is off.’ So I’m trying to understand what they’re saying and I’m wrapping it around, and that’s when my ego got kicked in, and I’m like, ‘Are you for real?’ In my head, I worked all my weight off. I did all of this and I’m like, ‘Stop, OK.’ So I ask, ‘Is it treatable?’ They said it’s treatable, and then I ask if I’m on the UFC roster still, and they say yes. So, it was very hectic, a lot of ups and downs for me.”

Harrell competed in sports such as football and wrestling during a big chunk of his life before finding MMA. After dealing with varying struggles throughout his upbringing — including finances hindering his ability to walk on to the University of Cincinnati football team — Harrell admits to letting his ego guide him into some very dark places in the past.

After receiving the news that he has a rare brain disease, needs weeks of tests before he can schedule an appointment for brain surgery, and his UFC debut — at worst — will have to be put on hold, the undefeated 24-year-old prospect admits to running the gauntlet of emotions, but he chooses to focus on the positive more than anything else.

“I’m still trying to put everything together,” Harrell said. “A part of me is excited and grateful because if I was living my whole life with limiters and restricted blood flow and only half of my brain, what can I do with my full potential? And then another [part of] me is like, ‘I worked this hard to get here. I’ve risked everything to be here, and now I have to wait? You’re telling me I have to wait?’

“So a part of me is ego involved, and a part of me is just grateful that I had the opportunity, and that I was willing [to fight], and the UFC knows that. I’ve got mixed feelings, long story short.”

Part of the emotional roller-coaster ride for Harrell has been acceptance, as well as reflection. Harrell was asked if there were any signs, or any sort of life examples from his past that would make the Moyamoya diagnosis make any sense.

“It’s probably why my teachers hated me ... not hated me, but I was a very difficult student,” Harrell said. At first I [thought], I don’t think I’ve ever had any of these symptoms, and then I started having little flashbacks. So during these flashbacks, I’m thinking, ‘Is this [why]?’

“I have a flashback of me running a 40-yard dash for my very first football camp and I run it, and then right at the end of it, I fall. In my head, I’m thinking [there’s] nothing going on. But one of the symptoms is [being] off-balance or [you’re] not able to move properly whenever you need to.

“Another condition is not being able to understand language, and for the longest time, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. [I was diagnosed] as a young kid, and I’m not sure if it was that, or if it was more and more not being able to fully understand or comprehend the language, but I might have a little bit of both. It might be a super special [case], so who knows? There’s definitely a lot of things that I would [look back on] and go, ‘That makes a little bit of sense.’

“So I’m starting to put puzzle pieces together, but I definitely have instances where I remember difficult times, or difficult things, and brain fog and I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. Well, these are symptoms and I had them, I just didn’t realize that they [were] symptoms.’”

Since getting the news, Harrell says he has spoken to fellow UFC hopeful Vince Murdock, whose career was delayed after the same disease scratched him from a scheduled bout with Jordan Griffin at UFC on ESPN 3 in June 2019. The conversation helped keep Harrell’s hopes up, especially considering Murdock was able to continue his career less than 17 months later, competing on both the UFC’s Contender Series and The Ultimate Fighter.

While he chooses to be grateful with everything he has in his life, Harrell can’t help but reflect on how far he has come, both physically and emotionally.

“In my life in general, it’s always gotten to a point where things would get hard and I would get over the hard things, and then something would get out of my control, and I don’t know if it was God, [or] I don’t know if it was the devil,” Harrell explained. “Growing up, it was always, ‘OK, something’s after me.’ I got to a point now where, for me, being grateful hit so hard compared to feeling sorry for myself and letting those thoughts get by.

“Obviously, I’ve been very lucky in my life and obviously it’s been, I won’t say hard, but it’s been my life. So it’s been perfect [for me], but it’s not the easiest thing to do — and nobody’s life is easy by any means — but, for me, the emotion I understand the most, or that hits me the hardest is just being grateful.

“As a man, you don’t get to express enough emotions, and as you grow up, you get to experience more emotions. But so far [since the diagnosis], I don’t get angry [or] sad. No, it’s always been just being so grateful, and I won’t say happy, but excited that I’m able to still live, and [potentially] put on a show, even though there’s so many times in my life that I may have not had that same mindset. So it’s being grateful and then comparing that to where I’ve been in my life and just being like, ‘Yes, we are going up and we are getting to a point where we to live and we deserve to do this.

“It’s just getting to a point now to where it’s comparing my mindset to where I was — from being so sad and so victimized, compared to now to where I’m just happy to be able to see the difference, and see the growth, because you don’t get to experience that hindsight when you’re so, so down. There is a light, and maybe at one point in my life, I would’ve just accepted that I wasn’t a good person just because of what’s been going on. But I just got to a point now to where I’ve dealt with so much that it’s, ‘I’m not a bad person, but a good person [and] that this thing happened.’ This is just life, it’s going to test you and that’s cool, but it’s understanding that even though you’re getting tested, it doesn’t mean that you’re not worthy, or you’re not able to get this.

“It just lets you know, ‘How bad do you really want it? Is this something that you really want to do,’ compared to, ‘Is this just a fluke?’ If you’re going to get this, you’ve got to earn it type of deal, compared to, ‘You’re not just going to be able to have this handed to you.’”

Harrell is hopeful the UFC will assist in his recovery, although he isn’t 100 percent sure if that will be the case since there’s a lot of ground left to cover before he gets his surgery.

Being the competitor that he is, one of Harrell’s first questions about his recovery was whether or not he’d be able to compete inside the octagon — or any MMA cage again. Should the worst-case scenario come to fruition, Harrell will accept it and find a way to be “useful” with having the willingness to help others who are dealing with the same disease.

Regardless of what happens, Harrell has found a maturation and an appreciation for life that neither money nor any fighting victory can buy.

“I think I have a character that will help a lot of people express themselves a little bit more, and I think that a lot of people, not necessarily need to be more vulnerable, but need to be willing to be vulnerable and people can use it as a tool to manipulate, or to hurt you in a way if they know certain things, frustrate you, or piss you off or make you sad,” Harrell said. “But it’s only really one emotion that can do that, and that’s being grateful. So, unless [future opponents are] going be like, ‘Dude, I love you so much, I can’t wait to fight you,’ I’m going to be like, ‘OK, dude, whatever you think, you think you’re better than me? That’s fine. We’re going to see, but you don’t have the backing that I do.’

“I have so many people that support me and it continues to grow every day. I’m not doing this for myself, and I said that from the start of this. I didn’t really decide [on] fighting, fighting picked me. So this is a sport that happens to love me, and I’m getting to a point now to where I can share those feelings in return.”

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