David Mitchell is back on the UFC radar. He is not just another MMA guy anymore. He is now being tracked, watched, judged. Mitchell won his first UFC fight in Chicago on Jan. 27. He beat this other welterweight from Sweden, Simeon Thoresen, at the United Center. People surrounded Mitchell, asked him for his autograph, treated him like a celebrity.
"I never had been asked for my autograph before," said the Santa Rosa resident. "It was really cool. People actually were interested in what I was doing."
Those people would have been even more interested to know how Mitchell got there. In the 17 months preceding the fight, Mitchell had experienced so much pain and suffering, he came close to quitting the sport. He battled through depression, doubts, loneliness. Truth to tell, the Thoresen fight itself, that was probably the easiest part of those 17 months.
The toughest part? Looking at that piece of paper in March 2012.
You will not hold the surgeon or the hospital liable if something goes horribly wrong, like loss of speech, paralysis or death. Mitchell remembers reading those words, or words to that effect, before he signed the release form. He was going to have neck surgery at Sutter Pacific in San Francisco and he knew neck surgery was tricky, risky business. He had heard the stories. And then to see those words on paper, Mitchell took a big gulp and knew what he had to do.
"The day before surgery," said Mitchell, 33, "I jumped on my mountain bike and spent the whole day riding in Annadel. I didn't know what was going to happen."
Mitchell was a professional athlete, a mixed martial artist under contract to the Ultimate Fighting Championship folks. To think that this body he had trained so well that exercise to him was as natural as taking a breath, that it was even possible he would have to drink his dinner through a straw, all that gave him a chill.
As if he had a choice.
"If you had reached over and placed your finger on my head like this ..." he gently applied his right index finger to my knee, "... I would have screamed from the pain."
Mitchell had no strength in the left side of his body. He was in constant pain. It had begun as numbness and weakness three years earlier and gradually worsened. Most people would have seen a doctor long before Mitchell did. But he is an MMA guy, under UFC contract, and so on Aug. 27, 2011, he fought in Rio de Janeiro. He had no choice.
"It was either fight or get fired," said Mitchell, who graduated from Laytonville High School in 1998.
Mitchell had tried 10 days' worth of prednisone, an anti-inflammatory. No help. He took a cortisone shot in his neck just before the fight. It dulled the pain but gave him no strength. The pain leading up to that match not only affected his physical abilities but his mental capacities as well.
"Here I am in UFC, the NFL of MMA, realizing my dream, and I'm not as strong as I should be, not in as good a shape as I should be," Mitchell said. "I didn't feel like I belonged."
Mitchell lost a unanimous decision to a Brazilian special forces policeman. He made it three rounds but the pain was intense. It robbed him of his confidence, his agility and strength. Afterward Mitchell tried to train through the pain. He tried all-natural remedies. He would have drunk lizard extract if someone told him to. An MMA fighter does not give up the fight easily. Until he must. By March of 2011, Mitchell had what he estimated as only 20 percent function on the left side of his body. It was time to admit willpower wasn't going to solve this.