‘Incredible grit’: Devastating injuries haven’t taken the fight out of Josh Emmett

JOSH EMMETT WOKE up with his wife, Vanessa, looking at him four years ago in the bedroom of their Northern California home. The couple were high school sweethearts and have been together for nearly two decades. They are inseparable. Even when the slightest thing might be wrong with Emmett, Vanessa will notice it.

This was Feb. 28, 2018. Four days earlier, Emmett had competed in a UFC bout against Jeremy Stephens in Orlando, Florida. Stephens won by knockout after a series of vicious blows to Emmett’s head, including an illegal knee, an elbow and hard punches. Emmett was cleared to fly home by doctors at an Orlando hospital after determining his injuries were superficial. But as Vanessa was getting ready for work on their first morning back in the Sacramento area, she felt like something was off with her husband.

« In my gut, I just felt that something wasn’t right, » she said. « We’ve been through [MMA] fights; he bounces back relatively quickly. I was just like, ‘I think we need to go to the hospital and get a second opinion.' »

Emmett remained stoic, as is his way. He has an uncanny ability to mask his pain, his wife said. But the two went to the hospital that morning — and Vanessa’s instinct proved to be correct. The news the couple got from doctors was nothing short of horrifying. Emmett’s left eye-socket floor was completely shattered, the left part of his orbital bone was broken, his cheek was caved in and he had a compressed nerve near the muscle that controls his left eye’s movement.

Doctors told Emmett they were shocked that he was walking around normally. They told him he would need to be transported to another facility for emergency surgery. Later, around midnight, a frightened ophthalmologist visited Emmett in his hospital room.

« When I see X-rays that look like yours, someone’s eye has either fallen out of the socket and is hanging or it has fallen behind the skull and it is inoperable, » the ophthalmologist told Emmett, according to Vanessa.

At that moment, Emmett fighting again was not on the couple’s minds. Quality of life was their primary concern. Dr. Alberto Panero, the lead physician for Emmett’s recovery, said it very easily could have been a « career-ending » injury.

Yet, Emmett was able to return to the Octagon 13 months later. He has not lost since the Stephens fight, including a 2020 bout against Shane Burgos in which Emmett completely blew out his left knee 19 seconds into the contest.

Emmett, 37, is on a four-fight winning streak, and a win over Calvin Kattar on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Austin, Texas, could earn him a featherweight title shot. Emmett, who came back from the knee tear with a win over Dan Ige last December, said he’s persevered due to his obsession with becoming UFC champion, and thanks to the medical support team he has built around him and his mental training, including hypnosis.

Panero describes the perseverance more dramatically. « He really doesn’t get talked about enough, » the doctor told Crumpa. « He probably has two of the biggest comeback stories in UFC history with these two big injuries like this. Both of these are just crazy to come back from. »

THE EMMETTS PURCHASED a new home in early 2018. The timing wasn’t perfect due to Josh’s facial injury. Even after successful surgery — Emmett had an L-shaped metal plate implanted in his face — there were other issues.

One day, while Emmett was attempting to work on light fixtures at the new house, Vanessa could see him struggling as he climbed up and down the ladder. Emmett was an acrobat as a child and has superb balance. He’s known for his athleticism at Team Alpha Male. And here he was losing his footing while doing a household chore.

Emmett’s facial bones were healing fine. But he was dealing with severe post-concussion symptoms, the worst of which was vertigo. The most basic, everyday tasks became frustrating or worse.

« I couldn’t even sit up or lay down without feeling sick, » Emmett said. « It felt like the damn room was spinning, everything. It was so bad. … I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to fight again. »

Emmett reached out to Panero, whom he knew through Russ Dunning, a physical therapist who works with fighters in Northern California. Panero, who specializes in regenerative orthopedics and sports medicine, asked Emmett if he could « quarterback » the fighter’s recovery process. Emmett, desperate for solutions, agreed.

Panero’s first recommendation was for Emmett to see a vestibular therapist, a doctor who treats imbalance disorders such as vertigo and dizziness. Emmett started doing that three to four times per week. Panero also sent Emmett for craniosacral therapy, a gentle type of massage that uses physical touch to provide relief to facial and skull injuries.

It was a step-by-step process, Panero said. Emmett needed to rid himself of post-concussion symptoms before he could start MMA training again. Emmett did stay active, though, taking up bike riding to stay in shape. The vertigo took about eight or nine months to subside, and once it did, Emmett returned to Team Alpha Male.

Emmett’s first sparring sessions were without any head shots, focusing only on blows to the body. Once he was able to do that without symptoms, Emmett moved on to regular sparring, but with headgear. And once he was able to do that safely, the headgear came off.

Emmett knew he was back to 100% when he was able to spar with teammate Chad Mendes, who used Emmett as a main training partner for his December 2018 fight with Alexander Volkanovski, who is now the UFC featherweight champion. Going back and forth sparring in the gym with Mendes, who at the time was one of the top 145-pound fighters in the world, gave Emmett confidence.

« I just had a small hiccup or whatever you want to call it with that loss [to Stephens] back in 2018, but I’m grateful for it, » Emmett said. « I’ve grown so much as an athlete, as a fighter. I took a ton from that loss. It honestly just motivated me even more. »

EMMETT RETURNED TO the Octagon on March 30, 2019, for a fight against Michael Johnson in Philadelphia. In the third round, Emmett cracked Johnson with a right hand, and Johnson did not get up. Emmett was back as one of the most dangerous men in the UFC’s featherweight division. Watching from back in California, Panero had a smile on his face.

« All of that tension and all of that hardening that he went through, that whole process, was released in that one punch, » Panero said.

Emmett followed up the Johnson knockout with a TKO over Mirsad Bektic on July 13, 2019, in front of his friends and family in Sacramento. The victory earned him a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus, which is a nice chunk of money for someone who had just been out of action with no income for more than a year.

Things took a turn for the worse, though, 11 months later. Emmett’s next bout was a big one against Burgos, the co-main event of a UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas on June 20, 2020. A win could have gotten Emmett a fight with a top contender. And Emmett did win — but the result wasn’t the main headline coming away from the contest.

Emmett tore his left ACL about 19 seconds into the bout. Somehow, he gutted out a unanimous-decision victory while being in a tremendous amount of pain and having no stability in his left leg. Emmett said he knew immediately he had blown out knee ligaments, but he never considered stopping the fight because « I would have known that I gave up and that’s not in me. »

« Most people just immediately go down, » Panero said of those kinds of knee injuries. « They go down, they stay down and that’s it. That’s the end of the day. For him to stay standing and stay in the fight and win was just amazing. Just knowing the guy now, I wasn’t shocked. If there was anyone who would be able to do that, it was going to be him. »

The good news afterward was that Emmett fighting on the injured knee didn’t do any further damage. The bad news? The damage was already pretty terrible. Emmett’s ACL was completely ruptured and his MCL and meniscus were partially torn. When Emmett’s ACL snapped, the impact down his leg fractured his femur and tibia, as well.

After fighting back from catastrophic facial injuries, Emmett was going to be on the shelf again.

« I feel like I had almost two career-ending things — they could be career-ending things, » Emmett said. « People that have had half of the stuff that I’ve had don’t ever come back to fight. »

Like with the fractures in his face, things would get worse for Emmett before they got better. Six months after the initial surgery to repair the ligament damage, Emmett needed to go under the knife again. Panero explained that when an ACL is operated on, a graft of tissue is taken from another part of the body to help with the repair. In Emmett’s case, doctors took a graft from his left patellar tendon, which attaches the kneecap to the tibia.

Emmett’s ACL healed with no problems. However, the patellar from which the doctors took the graft did not heal, and another surgery was required. Panero said the severity of Emmett’s issue was « uncommon. » Emmett was not able to bend his knee while putting any weight on it, without being in excruciating pain. Because of that, his left quadriceps muscle began to atrophy over time and it became difficult to strengthen it.

« It was very painful, » Panero said. « It was just really slowing down the ability for him to rehab. »

Emmett couldn’t even step off a curb or go downstairs for 10 months without severe pain. The spring in his left knee had completely ceased. In some ways, this was more mentally challenging for him than the facial injuries, Emmett said. He had been seeing mental coach Josh Manuel since 2016, using hypnosis to visualize how he would win fights. Emmett used the same method as part of his knee rehab, working with Manuel to visualize « little people » inside his knee repairing it.

« There’s been research done on this stuff and it actually really works, » Emmett said. « It’s about belief and it has been a huge factor in coming back from some of my major injuries I sustained in the past. »

AFTER THE SECOND surgery, Emmett vowed to fight in 2021. He had not yet been out for an entire calendar year, even after the facial fractures. Emmett took the fight with Ige last Dec. 11 at UFC 269, perhaps a bit prematurely. But Emmett made a promise to himself, and after being out another 18 months, money was once again becoming an issue, he said.

« My knee was not good, but no one knew that going into the fight, » Emmett said. « I was super hesitant on it. I didn’t wrestle, I didn’t do any jiu-jitsu for that camp. The last time I was working that was before the Burgos fight. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t do anything, because the knee was still kind of screwed up. »

Emmett still managed to win, though, again when he probably should not have been able to do so. When he returned home from the fight, he went to Panero’s office for a status check on the left knee. Before the two started talking about Emmett’s leg, Panero wanted to discuss his heart. Both times after facing catastrophic injuries, he had come back to win against a couple of the toughest fighters in the division.

« Man, I’m so proud of you, » Panero told Emmett. « I want to tell my sons your story. I want to tell my sons how you came back from this and how hard you had to work. I only wish they could have some of your work ethic and use what you’ve done as a model for them. »

Kattar is Saturday’s opponent, and a title shot could be on the line. Emmett has already visualized getting his hand raised in Austin. Kattar is a more than 2-to-1 favorite, but it’s nothing new for Emmett to visualize beating the odds. He has already done it twice.

No one knows Emmett more than Vanessa does, and she said she « wasn’t surprised » that her husband would come back, even during the darkest days of recovery. She’s sure that one day she’ll wake up next to Emmett and there will be a gold UFC belt not far away from his grasp.

« I think Josh, since he has started fighting, wanted nothing but to be a world champion, » Vanessa said. « I don’t think that goal and wanting to be a world champion has ever wavered. This is just his past. It’s never been a question whether or not he would continue. It’s just a question of how he would navigate these little bumps in the road. I think Josh has incredible grit. He has a will like I’ve never seen. »

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