Fighters miss time due to injuries and illnesses all the time in mixed martial arts, but rarely do those absences total 1414 days, which is how long Jamie Siraj went between his win over Blake Sigvaldason in the summer of 2019 and his unanimous decision victory over Esteban Sedano at BFL 77 in June.
If you know what happened in the time between those two contests, then you already understand why Siraj fell to his knees, awash with emotions after his hand was raised.
If you don’t, read on, and you’ll come to realize that “The Gremlin” has already been through the toughest fight of his life and it didn’t take place inside a cage.
AN ASCENT DELAYED
Siraj’s win in the summer of 2019 extended his overall winning streak to five, with four of those victories coming inside the distance. The last man to beat him, Cole Smith, eventually graduated to the UFC, where he won his debut, and the young fighter from British Columbia’s Lower Mainland was on a path towards reaching those same heights.
But then Siraj got sick.
“In 2020, I ended up getting a brain infection,” began the now 29-year-old featherweight, who returns to action this week against Ryan Rohovich at BFL 78, airing exclusively on UFC FIGHT PASS. “I had to go into a coma, and in healing from that, my body developed an auto-immune disease that was attacking my body’s connective tissues.
“I ended up septic in the hospital a bunch of times, and then I was put in another coma and almost died at the beginning of 2022,” he added. “ In the past three years, I probably spent a year-and-a-half in the hospital.”
Living in the same region, covering the sport, and knowing Siraj, I can tell you that the quick version of things doesn’t paint anywhere near as grim a picture as watching things unfold during that multi-year stretch did, as teammates and friends within the MMA community offered heartbreaking updates about the myriad serious issues the constantly smiling young fighter was dealing with at the time.
It wasn’t just that his career was on pause – it’s that his life seemed to be hanging in the balance, and positive progress would suddenly be followed by another string of genuinely frightening health issues for Siraj.
While diagnosing and treating the different maladies that waylaid his fighting career was the priority, the self-described “psychotically competitive” fighter never allowed his dreams of competing again to fully fade.
“MMA always stayed in my head for some reason,” said Siraj, who trains at Pinnacle Martial Arts under former UFC middleweight Denis Kang. “Even when I was critically ill, doing walking therapy again, doing the most basic things, in my mind, I was always like, ‘I’m going to get back to fighting.’ At certain points, it got put a little more on the back burner, but the idea of getting healthy enough to compete was always in my mind; I wanted it so bad.
“Some days were a lot darker than others — there were definitely days that were more challenging than others where I didn’t care about fighting; I just wanted to live and be healthy and happy again — but the second that I was healthy again, I was always thinking about getting back to competing again.”
Three years, 10 months, and 14 days after he registered the eighth win of his professional career, Siraj notched win No. 9, and rightfully fell to his knees, his face in his hands, the emotions understandably pouring out of him.
“It was surreal — that’s the best way I can describe it,” he said of his return to the cage in June. “It felt like I was fighting again for the first time; it was an incredible feeling.
“I really wanted a tough guy to come back against because I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t need a step back. I’m not one of these guys to pad my record, and I wanted to go out there and make a statement. I got to shut him out, and afterwards, it all just kind of hit me — everything I’d been through these past couple years hit me all at once, and it was pretty intense.
“To be honest, there was nothing in the world that could bother me for about a month; I was on Cloud 9,” answered Siraj when asked about the euphoric state his return to action and getting another victory produced. “It felt every bit as good as I thought it was going to feel getting in there again.
“It was probably even better than I anticipated because of how vindicating and validating it felt to get back in there, get back to doing what I love. It was an incredible experience and one of the best nights of my life, for sure."
BACK ON THE RISE, ARMED WITH A BULLETPROOF MINDSET
Since returning to full health and being back in the gym, Siraj has been surrounded by a collection of like-minded individuals that all reside in a similar position — sitting on the cusp of graduating to the next level in the sport.
Achilles Estremadura fought on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021, suffering the first loss of his career, but returned to the win column and unified the Battlefield Fight League lightweight title with a split decision win over interim champ Xavier Nash at the same June event where Siraj made his return.
Iranian-born wrestler Navid Zanganeh fell to Nash by split decision earlier in the year in their battle for the interim title, also bouncing back with a 45-second submission win at BFL 77, while featherweight Radley da Silva ends his own extended absence this week with a return to action at BFL 78 as well.
Having just watched BFL champ Caio Machado and Serhiy Sidey earn victories and UFC contracts on this past season of Dana White’s Contender Series, Siraj believes that he and his teammates are on the cusp of making that jump as well, and says the energy in the gym has been electric as a result.
“Achilles, Navid, Radley — all these different guys could go in the UFC right now and (have success),” began Siraj, who was being eyed for a spot on the annual UFC talent search series prior to his health issues. “We’re all in this place where we’re really motivated to go get it, and we really want our shots.
“The energy and the morale in the gym has been super-high; it’s been such a good vibe in the gym right now. It’s contagious and we’re always pushing each other, holding each other accountable.”
Jamie Siraj (9-2) will try to become the 1st fighter from the BFL roster to join the UFC without holding the BFL world title since Michael Chiesa— Battlefield Fight League (@BattlefieldFL) October 16, 2023
Since then 10fighters have made the UFC but they have all been BFL champions
Watch the drama unfold #bfl78 Thursday on @UFCFightPass pic.twitter.com/SPYHYHTrOR
Not only is he backed by an outstanding collection of coaches and teammates, but Siraj is now armed with a bulletproof mindset as well, the trials and tribulations he endured having changed the way he looks at things.
“I just feel like whatever problems are going to be presented to me from an MMA standpoint are never going to be as hard as what I just went through,” said Siraj. “It’s even my outlook on certain things too: before, the weight cut, I would dread it, but now I’m like, ‘I get to compete!’
“It really matured my perspective on life and made me look at things through a broader lens.”
Healthy and brandishing a new found outlook on both life and his career, the surging featherweight is eager to make up for lost time and get himself back on track in order to make the jump to the biggest stage in the sport at some point in the not too distant future.
And that journey continues this week at BFL 78.
“I really do feel like I’m entering my prime right now,” offered the excited featherweight. “They say you hit it when you (in your late 20s), and every week, I feel like I’m becoming a better martial artist. I feel so sharp and dialed in right now that I think I go out there, win this fight, and that I’m bringing a lot of problems to the UFC featherweight division.
“I’m still young, I’m still in a great place in my career — I’m on a six-fight winning streak — and I want to win every small battle, keep climbing.
A DREAM RESUMED
Siraj was on the cusp of getting an opportunity to audition for the UFC before his health went sideways and his career was derailed.
Now, with his medical issues behind him and a win under his belt, he’s eager to step in against Rohovich on Thursday evening, make a statement, and get back to chasing down his UFC dream.
“The last fight, I think people can understand that there was basically four years off, and I wasn’t completely comfortable in there,” he began. “But now I got that 15 minutes of cage time, I’m back in my groove, and I’m going to let go in there like I normally do.
“I’m going to remind everybody why I was the most violent finisher in Canada for quite some time. I’m going to make a statement. I want to show the powers that be at the UFC that I belong there and deserve to be there.”