‘Incredible grit’: Devastating injuries haven’t taken the fight out of Josh Emmett
Jun 17, 2022
Marc RaimondiESPN Staff Writer
JOSH EMMETT WOKE up with his wife, Vanessa, looking at him four years ago in the bedroom of their Northern California home. They were high school sweethearts, and have been together almost two decades. They are inseparable. Vanessa will always notice that Emmett is not doing well.
This was Feb. 28, 2018. Four days earlier, Emmett had competed in a UFC bout against Jeremy Stephens in Orlando, Florida. After a series of vicious blows to Emmett’s head, including an illegal elbow and a knee, Stephens won by knockout. After assessing his injuries, Emmett was allowed to fly home by Orlando hospital doctors. As Vanessa was getting ready to go to work their first day back in Sacramento, Emmett felt something was wrong with her husband.
” “In my gut, it felt like something was wrong,” she said. “We’ve been through [MMA] bouts; he bounces right back relatively quickly. I was like, “I think we should go to the hospital and get another opinion.” ‘”
Emmett was as stoic as ever. His wife said that Emmett has an uncanny ability of masking his pain. They went to the hospital the next morning, and Vanessa’s instinct was right. The shocking news that Emmett and Vanessa received from the doctors was no surprise. Emmett’s left eye-socket floor had been completely broken, his orbital bone was broken and his cheek was caved in. He also had a compressed nerve that controls his left eye movement.
Doctors told Emmett that they were stunned that he was able to walk normally. He would need to be transferred to another facility for emergency surgery. Emmett was visited in his hospital room by a panicked ophthalmologist around midnight.
” “When I see Xrays that look similar to yours, it means that someone’s eye is either hanging from the socket or has fallen behind the skull, and it is inoperable,” Emmett was told by the ophthalmologist, Vanessa.
At that point Emmett fighting again wasn’t on the couple’s minds. Their primary concern was quality of life. Emmett’s lead physician, Dr. Alberto Panero said that it 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 explains the perseverance in a more dramatic way. ESPN’s doctor said that he doesn’t get enough attention. These two major injuries are what probably make him one of the greatest comeback stories in UFC history. These are both incredible to be able to come back from. “
THE EMMETTS PURCHASED a new home in early 2018. Josh’s facial injury meant that the timing was not perfect. Emmett had a L-shaped metal plate placed in his face. However, this was not the end of the story.
As Emmett was working on light fixtures in the new house, Vanessa noticed him struggling to climb up and down the ladder. Emmett is a skilled acrobat and has excellent balance. Team Alpha Male is well-known for Emmett’s athleticism. He was doing a chore at home and lost his footing.
Emmett was able to heal his facial bones. However, he was suffering from severe post-concussion symptoms, including vertigo. Even the most basic tasks of daily living became more difficult or impossible.
” I couldn’t even stand or lie down without feeling sick,” Emmett stated. It felt like everything was spinning in the room. It was so terrible. … I didn’t know if it was possible to fight again. “
Emmett contacted Panero through Russ Dunning. Dunning is a physical therapist who helps fighters in Northern California. Panero, a specialist in sports medicine and regenerative orthopedics, asked Emmett to “quarterback” the fighter’s healing process. Emmett was desperate to find solutions and agreed.
Panero recommended that Emmett see a vestibular therapy, a doctor who treats imbalance disorders like vertigo and dizziness. Emmett began doing this three to four times a week. Panero also sent Emmett to craniosacral treatment, which is a gentle form of massage that uses touch to relieve facial and skull injuries.
It was a step by step process, Panero stated. Emmett had to get rid of his post-concussion symptoms in order to be able to start MMA training again. Emmett was able to keep fit and active by taking up biking. Emmett returned to Team Alpha Male after the vertigo subsided in eight to nine months.
Emmett sparred his first time without any head shots and focused only on body blows. Emmett was able to do this without any symptoms and moved on to regular sparring with headgear. Once he was able do that safely, Emmett took off the headgear.
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 have grown so much as an athlete and as a fighter. That loss was a huge learning curve for me. It was a great motivator. “
EMMETT RETURNED TO the Octagon on March 30, 2019, for a fight against Michael Johnson in Philadelphia. Johnson was not able to get up after Emmett smashed Johnson with a right hand in the third round. Emmett was re-elected as the UFC’s featherweight champion. Panero smiled as he watched from California. All of the tension and all that hardening he went through, this whole process was released in that single 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. Emmett could have been given a fight with a top fighter if he won. Emmett won, but that wasn’t the main headline.
Emmett tore his left ACL about 19 seconds into the bout. He managed to win unanimously, but he was in great pain and had no stability in his left foot. Emmett stated that he knew right away that he had to remove his knee ligaments. However, he didn’t consider stopping the fight as he “would have known that I gave in and that’s not in him.” “
” Most people just instantly go down,” Panero stated about those types of knee injuries. They go down, they stay there and that’s all. That’s it. It was amazing that he stayed standing and continued to fight and won. I was not surprised to learn more about the man. He was the only person who could do that. “
The good news was that Emmett, who was fighting to save his injured knee, didn’t cause any more damage. The bad news? The damage was already quite severe. Emmett’s ACL was torn and his meniscus and MCL were partially torn. Emmett’s ACL snapped and the impact down Emmetts leg broke his femur, tibia and femur. Emmett was going back to the bench after he had overcome his horrific facial injuries.
“I feel like I had almost two career-ending things — they could be career-ending things,” Emmett said. “People who have had half the stuff I’ve had never come back to fight. “
With the facial fractures, Emmett’s situation would only get worse before it got better. Emmett had to have another surgery six months after his initial surgery to repair the ligament damage. Panero explained that an ACL can be repaired by a graft from another part of the body. In Emmett’s case, doctors used a graft taken from his left patellar tendon. This connects the kneecap to your tibia.
Emmett had no problems with his ACL. However, the patellar graft that Emmett received from the doctors did not heal and required another surgery. Panero stated that Emmett’s severe condition was not common. Emmett couldn’t bend his knee while putting weight on it. He was in excruciating pain. His left quadriceps muscle, which was located in the left quadriceps, began to weaken over time. It became difficult to strengthen it.
” It was very painful,” Panero stated. It was slowing down his ability to rehab. “
Emmett couldn’t even step off a curb or go downstairs for 10 months without severe pain. The spring in his left leg had stopped. Emmett stated that this was more mentally difficult for him than his facial injuries. He had been seeing mental coach Josh Manuel since 2016, using hypnosis to visualize how he would win fights. Emmett used the same technique to rehab his knee. He worked with Manuel to imagine “little people” in his knee, repairing it.
” There has been extensive research on this stuff and it really works,” Emmett stated. It’s all about belief. It has helped me recover from major injuries. “
AFTER THE SECOND surgery, Emmett vowed to fight in 2021. Even after his facial fractures, Emmett hadn’t been out for a full calendar year. 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 strong, but no one knew this going into the fight,” Emmett stated. “I was very hesitant about it. I didn’t wrestle and I didn’t do any jiu jitsu at that camp. That was the last time I worked that position before the Burgos fight. Because my knee was still a little bit twisted, I couldn’t run and couldn’t do any other activities. “
Emmett won again, even though he shouldn’t have been able. After the fight, Emmett returned to his home and went to Panero’s for a status report on his left knee. Before they started talking about Emmett’s leg, Panero wanted them to talk about Emmett’s heart. He had won against some of the most difficult fighters in the division both times despite suffering catastrophic injuries.
“Man! I’m so proud,” Panero told Emmett. “I want my sons to hear your story. I want to tell my boys how you got back from this and how hard it took to get there. I wish they had the same work ethic as you and could use what you have done as a role model. “
Kattar will be Saturday’s opponent. A title shot could be in the offing. Emmett already sees his hand being raised in Austin. Emmett is more than a 2-to-1 favorite for Kattar, but it’s not hard to see Emmett beating the odds. He’s already done it twice.
Vanessa knows Emmett better than anyone, and she said that she was not surprised that her husband would return, even in the most difficult days of recovery. She is certain that Emmett will one day be her husband and she will be able to see him again.
” I think Josh, ever since he started fighting, has wanted to be a world champion,” Vanessa stated. “I don’t think Josh has ever lost sight of his goal or longed to be a world champion. This is his past. It has never been a question if he would continue. It’s only a matter of how he would navigate the bumps in his way. Josh is a man of extraordinary grit. He has a will unlike any other. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.