Josh Samman leans his head against the cold brick wall and starts crying. Eighteen months of bottled-up emotion come pouring out of the two hundred-pound smashing machine, his tears mix with the sweat and blood that are running down the shower drain. The rushing of hot water drowns out the hammering bass of UFC 181 taking place right next to him. Here, backstage at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center, Samman truly realizes for the first time the extent of how much his “Knockout of the Year” had just changed, maybe even saved, his life.
Had someone told 16-year-old Joshua Kaleb Samman how many tears, how much pain and suffering his path would have in store for him, maybe he would’ve tried to take a different route with his life. By finishing high school, for instance, or staying off criminal records. He probably wouldn’t have, though, because 16-year old Josh Samman frankly didn’t care about what most people had to say.
That version of Josh Samman was all about minding his own business and, that way, business was going good. The cocky, athletic teenager knew exactly what he wanted, so when he met Hailey Bevis for the first time, he just knew he had found his girl.
“She preferred hugs over handshakes, and never met a stranger,” someone would describe her, years later. “She had a beautiful soul that always shined through her big, brown eyes, and a smile that could light up a room.”
That’s exactly how Samman felt and that’s what he told anyone who would listen to him bragging about ultimately winning the heart of the girl of his dreams. And he would’ve pulled it off if it weren’t for Hailey’s brothers, who weren’t quite as enthusiastic as Samman about the idea of him getting close with their sister.
“Probably for good reason,” Samman laughs, looking back on his old self. “I had known (them) and grown up with (them) but I was a high school dropout.” He also had multiple arrests to his credit. In short, “I was probably not the ideal boyfriend for an older brother to want for their little sister.”
Right when the bare shinbone slams into Eddie Gordon’s face, even before the New Yorker hits the ground, Samman instantly knows that it is over. His instincts are as sharp as ever at UFC 181, despite the eighteen months that had passed since he had last felt the thrill of victory – in the same building, but in a completely different life, it now seems.
Despite remaining in loose contact, nothing of lasting substance developed between Hailey and Josh. Luckily, Samman soon found another love that took possession of his mind. While strolling through his neighborhood, he stumbled across a Shaolin Kung Fu dojo, walked in and ran right into a BJJ class. As with so many of his now fellow fighters, Samman tried his hand and was hooked instantly. Kung Fu went out the window altogether when he learned that the BJJ class he had tried was in fact an MMA course and that this was something that he could actually compete in.
A short while later, he got pulled from his debut fight when promoters realized that he was legally too young to compete. Stubborn 16-year-old Josh Samman continued training and, as soon as he turned 18, caught up on the idea. He won, took another fight and then another. After his fourth victory, he signed up to try out for Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter.
“NOW COUNT BACK FROM A HUNDRED”
Samman flew to Seattle, all the way across the country to take on the challenge. He would have to surpass hundreds of other hopefuls, with only a few dozen eventually making it all the way on to the show. Thus, the atmosphere was tense when the first part of the procedure kicked off.
“It was only two minutes of grappling, so everyone went very fast, very hard,” Samman recalled, describing the somewhat hostile energy in the hotel ball room turned BJJ arena.
Halfway through his two minutes, he sensed a tug in his right leg. Probably a muscle pull, he thought, and ignored it – Samman was 21 years old, flooded with adrenaline and on the verge of making it on the biggest of all stages.
“When I began to cool down, my leg really started hurting and I realized that there was probably an injury because it began to swell and it hurt more than it should have.”
Samman grit his teeth and carried on –the alpha male had always gotten what he wanted, and this time would be no different. A few rounds on the pads and a couple of interviews later, he left with his name added to the cast list.
The flight back to Florida left early the next morning and Samman didn’t have patience or time to worry about his leg. Until the plane took off.
“We got higher and higher and what ended up happening was I guess that the altitude caused worse internal bleeding and forced my blood to clot.”
By the time he touched down on the east coast, his right thigh was twice the size of his left. He didn’t have the slightest clue what was going on inside his body. But the doctors at the emergency room, they did.
“They rushed me to the operating room – I was at the hospital maybe 15 minutes before the doctor was like ‘we need to operate right away,’ so he gives me this gas mask and says ‘count back from a hundred.’”
And then what? Then he’d try to save Samman’s leg from amputation after the huge blood clot had locked every bit of life out of it.
“That’s a terrifying thing to hear. I couldn’t say anything other than ‘what the hell, what are you talking about.’ It was just so scary, man.”
100, 99, 98… While the gas gently knocked him out, Samman’s big dream turned into his biggest nightmare.
When he woke up, drugged up with narcotics, his leg was still there. The nightmare, though, had only just begun. For days a tube dragged dried blood out of a massive hole in his leg, held open by clamps, before it was patched up with 200 stitches and 40 staples. Needless to say his TUF aspirations had gone down the drain for a while. A quarter of a year would pass until Samman was able to walk again. For one month, he was tied to the bed altogether with even the smallest movement sending shockwaves of excruciating pain through his body.
“One moment I’m in Seattle, I think I’ll be on The Ultimate Fighter, doing well and talking to Joe Silva and meeting Dana White," Samman recalls. “I’m having this crazy, awesome experience and it turns into a crazy, terrible experience. That was by far the worst injury I’ve ever had. One of the most painful things in my life. I think it was probably a year before I fought again.”
It had paid off to not train any wrestling, no grappling at all and nothing that could have provoked another injury – Samman had made it to UFC 181 intact and he was inside the Octagon again. Nobody would take this victory from him, he had promised to himself. This would be his night: Hailey’s 24th birthday, his first fight in 612 days. Now, though, the skipped grappling classes are catching up to him. Eddie Gordon does not want to play his part in Samman’s redemption tale; he wants to win. And that is exactly what he has been doing for two-and-a-half rounds – Gordon is stronger than Samman, he slams him on the mat, doesn’t leave space for him to breathe. And yet, Samman keeps believing – that this is his night, that once he is back to his feet, he will find that one opening he needs. That he will continue feeding the body kick to his opponent and that, at some point, when Gordon’s instincts expect another sharp bone battering his ribs, he will lift his shin a notch higher than his guard and deliver the final blow to this guy’s head.
When his leg was healed up, Samman took six fights, five of which he won. Still, it would take three more applications and pictures of his shredded leg for UFC matchmaker Joe Silva until he got his place back inside the TUF house. When Samman finally moved into the notorious Vegas mansion, he did so with a torn meniscus, but he was not about to let the opportunity slip by. After all, who could guarantee him a fifth shot at this? The gamble paid off as three finishes advanced him to the semifinals, where eventual season winner Kelvin Gastelum knocked him out of the tourney with a first-round submission.
Samman got a shot with the UFC regardless. And even better, he was with Hailey again. This time, it was to stay; the on-and-off teen romance had rekindled and developed into a stable adult relationship after a grown-up and humbled Samman had established solid contact with her family. UFC or not, winning back Hailey was his “most important victory,” he says. “Most definitely the biggest accomplishment of my life.”
The following months made him happier than he’d ever been. After years of uncertainty and struggle, his life had regained structure, success and perspective through the passion that he now also happened to pay his bills with. Hailey moved in with him and they became “two halves of a whole” that could take on life and all its challenges.
Until August 30, 2013.
GRIEF AND GUILT
The Florida summer weather had vanished on this ordinary Friday night. In the middle of the storm, Hailey was on her way to their place in Samman’s hometown of Hollywood. At 8:36 PM, one of her text messages popped up on his phone. At 8:41 PM, police arrived at the exit from Interstate 75 to I-10, where a car had wrapped around a tree.
A little later, Samman’s phone vibrated again.
“You get the wind knocked out of you, you just can’t catch your breath.” He tries to describe the moment when he learned about Hailey’s fatal crash. His happiness and future plans had gotten ripped apart in the blink of an eye, something that can’t be processed on the spot and left Samman with a feeling of painful emptiness that nothing could’ve prepared him for.
Two years after the crash, something still breaks in Samman’s voice when he talks about it. In particular, one crucial detail is still haunting him to this day.
“We never got confirmation, but it’s always been my suspicion that it was related to texting and driving and she and I were the last ones to be texting each other. (Pauses) So for me, besides all the grief and just loneliness and sadness that I was feeling, there was a tremendous amount of guilt because of the way that it happened. That’s something that I still deal with and struggle with every day and I’m not sure that’ll ever go away.”
One week after the accident, Samman brought himself to give a touching eulogy at Hailey’s funeral, in which he honored her as the person who, in the short while that she could, had taught him more than he “could ever have thought possible”. She was “a giver and not a taker,” whose determination to reach the top of Red Rock Canyon while climbing in Nevada would always stick in his mind as one of the best memories of his life.
Those shared moments, though, had Samman involuntarily revolting against the realization that these memories were all that he had left from the love of his life.
“Just try to imagine the most monumental things in your life and then removing those things and never having them again,” he says. “It’s just an enormous loss; there’s no way that you’ll ever be the same after something like that. There’s nothing that could’ve happened in my life that would’ve been worse than that.”
He couldn’t even let off grief and guilt at the gym, as the same knee injury that had already hampered him in the TUF house had worsened to the point where he needed surgery and was forced out of a fight with cast mate Uriah Hall. Days, weeks, and eventually months he spent alone at home, dragging his physical shape down to the level of his emotional state.
Samman had never had more success in fighting and, of course, people around him soon started asking when he would return to the cage. Too soon, they did.
“It was really frustrating to me because I was barely keeping my head above water and these folks were asking when I’m swimming a marathon,” he describes.
Without the most important person in his life lovingly pepping him up after a hard practice, there was no way he was putting himself through another training camp.
“It was the strangest situation for me because I felt like the things that had happened to me in my life were a function of my own misbehavior and that’s all anybody wanted to see, at the time, was me being more destructive and hurting more people.”
Samman’s emotions reach their boiling point as he steps into the Octagon, as he feels the mat beneath his feet for the first time in 612 days at UFC 181. Describing what that turning point of his life felt like would be impossible, he will say later, and then try it anyway. He is beyond excited to have made it back. Upset because Hailey is not with him. Honored because he is fighting on her birthday. Terrified of losing on this day. Add the usual nerves of competing against a trained wrecking ball in a locked steel cage and you’ve got yourself a mad mix of feelings that are impossible to control. When Eddie Gordon enters the Octagon, frowningly staring him down, Samman knows that his life’s direction hinges on these next three five-minute rounds. It is do or die for his battered soul.
Today, Samman knows that his surroundings were looking for signs of him returning to the active / exciting life he used to love.
“They wanted to see that I was doing things that were productive and I was doing things that were going to be good for me, and fighting was always good for me.” At the time, though, Samman still couldn’t have dealt with the stresses that a full circle of training and fighting brings.
“I was just finding who I was and who I wanted to be and what I still had to contribute in the wake of something tragic like that.”
In early 2014, the UFC announced their April return to Orlando, not far from where Samman was still vegetating. The desire to fight was still there, he realized, albeit from now on it would be for the experience rather than the prize. The difference between what he wanted to do and what he was currently able to do made him finally decide that he couldn’t lose himself in grief no more. When he dragged himself back to the gym, he realized that his friends were right indeed; the training routine and the task ahead really did reignite a sense of purpose that he was missing ever since August 30.
Less than two weeks out from the fight he had begged the UFC’s matchmakers for, Samman twisted his leg while grappling and tore the hamstring off the bone. Then his stepfather died. Then Hailey’s mother, then his coach’s son. Just when he had found the strength to pull himself out of the deepest dirt and as if he hadn’t learned this lesson enough, life again reminded the once so brash world beater how little control he actually possessed over his path.
“It was earth-shattering for me. I had worked my way back up, I had gotten healthy again, I was back to the lifestyle, I was working out every day, I was eating clean, I was feeling good and optimistic again and then the plane circles around and drops some more bombs on me (pauses) after being so ready to get out of the darkness.”
The usually always-active Samman, who runs his own fight promotion and loves challenging hiking trips between fights, was again incapacitated without much he could do, consoling his mother on top of the heavy burden he was still carrying around. April 19th in Orlando should’ve been the day he would finally stop catching up on his life and start progressing again, but now “that finish line had been pushed back beyond sight”, he’d later write.
This time, though, Samman was able to turn the struggle into motivation. “I said to myself ‘I have to (fight again), for myself, for Hailey, for everyone around me.’”
He didn’t at all resemble the boy who had almost lost a leg to his own stubbornness at age 21, but in one regard, he had never changed – once he sets a goal, he doesn’t give up until he succeeds.
“I had already committed myself to coming back. No matter what happened, I would fight one more time. At least one more time.”
Some long months later, after healing up and sorting through the UFC’s event calendar, he stumbled across UFC 181. The last big show of the year, on the very December 6 that would’ve been Hailey’s 24th birthday.
"When I saw that date, it just gave me chills, it gave me goosebumps and I knew that that had to be the day that I had to return. I had to fight on that day.”
Amidst the superficial illusion that is the Las Vegas strip, the direction that Samman’s life was about to take would be decided once and for all. He might’ve been booked to compete on the prelim portion of an event that had no shortage of title bouts or star power, but likely there was no fighter on the card who had so much at stake, whose life would change so drastically solely depending on the end result of their fight.
With reignited fire, Samman returned to the gym once again, not-yet-healed hamstring be damned. Adapting was key.
“The only way I’ve ever gotten injured is by wrestling and by grappling. I didn’t want that to happen; I just lifted weights, did my cardio, hit mitts, sparred every now and then. And practiced a lot of kickboxing.”
He particularly practiced the left kick. Finishing that fight, and with it the darkest portion of his life, with the leg that had almost given up on him would be the most meaningful way to transition to the next period of his life, he decided. Having Hailey’s initials – H and K – tattooed on his rib despite his aversion of ink, would make the knockout via head kick all the more poetic if he could in fact pull it off. He had set the stage; now he just had to take full advantage of the opportunity. When Samman touched down in Vegas, he was as ready as he could’ve been and as unprepared as he could’ve been.
“My lover’s got humor, she’s the giggle at the funeral,” Hozier’s “Take me to Church” blasts trough the speakers in the still half-empty Mandalay Bay Events Center during UFC 181’s preliminary card.
Samman had visualized walking out to this song a thousand times in his mind, yet that moment had seemed so far out of reach for so long that he was unsure if he would ever get there. Now he is indeed standing in the tunnel, one last moment of calm, every hair on his body standing up, with only a thin curtain separating him from the crowd’s electric energy inside the arena bowl.
“Knows everybody’s disapproval, I should’ve worshipped her sooner.”
The production crew pulls away the curtain and Samman sprints into the dazzling spotlight, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“If the heavens ever did speak, she’s the last true mouthpiece.”
One last 15-yard run, shaking off the camera crew and leaving security staff behind, and he has finally, finally arrived. No matter how tough the task ahead, he is ready to take on life and all its challenges again.