"My parents raised me to believe, ‘No matter what, never quit.’ I’m
stubborn, so having a doctor tell me I would never walk again … I’m
going to decide that." - Cole Escovedo
Wins and losses are but one measure of a fighter. How he copes with suffering and adversity is another. Some men bleed more, endure more pain and climb from deeper depths of despair and hardship in the relentless pursuit of mission improbable than others. Cole Escovedo, without question, is one of that super-tough breed.
A decade into his career, the northern Californian finds himself days away from his UFC debut. It is a surreal achievement considering the wave of injuries that have threatened not only Escovedo’s athletic career, but also his life. How many fighters can say they underwent heart surgery as a teenager? Throw in a facial reconstruction. And the most wicked opponent of them all – partial paralysis and a doctor’s prediction that Escovedo would be lucky to ever walk again of his own volition.
“Fighting in the UFC had always been a dream of mine,” Escovedo said. “I just honestly never really thought it would ever happen. I thought that window had shut forever.”
Most everyone else who knew Escovedo presumed the same following the 2007 episode that quickly reduced Escovedo from MMA standout to disabled, bed-ridden hospital patient. The woes that besieged the former WEC featherweight champion – the first-ever to hold the title began with little warning. The life-changer started as a tiny red bump on his left forearm. No cause for alarm, Escovedo thought, it’s probably a pimple or ingrown hair.
Within a few days, the red bump kept getting bigger and bigger.
“I started to lose feeling in my hand,” he said, “and my fingers started to go numb.”
He visited a doctor, who prescribed a course of antibiotics, pierced the wound and drained part of the infection.
But the infection continued to spread aggressively and out of control.
“It made its way into my spine and then my bloodstream and went to work,” Escovedo said. “Then the paralysis started. I started having a hard time going to the bathroom. I couldn’t urinate much. Then everything from the waist down started to lose function. I stopped urinating and using my bowels altogether. I couldn’t feel my legs. My body was shutting down. At this point I had no clue what was going on. I had a million things running through my mind. I feared it was just a matter of time that this thing will spread to my other vital organs and my heart. I had a ‘this-is-how-I’m-going-to-go-out’ kind of fear. This is how it’s going to end. I’m going to end up dead.”
Late January 2007, early morning, Escovedo underwent emergency surgery. A neurosurgeon attempted to remove a huge lump of staph that had collected in the fighter’s spine and was eating away at it.
Escovedo spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, hooked to a catheter and tubes that pumped a powerful antibiotic into his body.
“I’d gone through so much stuff in my life, so for me it was just one more thing I had to go through,” said Escovedo, who is part Apache Indian and was raised in Madera, California in California’s Central Valley, near Fresno. “My father went to prison for rape when I was 12 years old. That was a starting point for everything to come in my life. I grew up poor. My parents didn’t have much. Until age seven we lived in trailers. My parents raised me to believe, ‘No matter what, never quit.’ I’m stubborn, so having a doctor tell me I would never walk again … I’m going to decide that. I was never willing to accept the idea that I’ll never be able to fight again or never be able to walk. I always thought I would fight again.”
It took him roughly six months to re-learn how to walk without assistance, Escovedo said. Two years later, after working himself into tip-top form, he returned to the cage against a highly-promising and unbeaten prospect by the name of Michael McDonald (then 7-0). As matchmaking goes, it seemed unwise for Escovedo to face such a tough foe after a nearly three-year hiatus and a brush with mortality.
“The best Cole Escovedo ever showed up,” he said. “I pretty much felt I controlled the whole fight.
Escovedo prevailed by second-round TKO.
In a rematch, McDonald would turn the tables and triumph via second-round knockout. Escovedo (17-6) has mad respect for the 20-year-old phenom, predicting McDonald has the makings of a future UFC champ.
“Without question,” Escovedo said. “He’s young and his mental attitude is what will carry him to the next level. He’s hungry and has committed himself to this sport and it being the only thing he wants to do. That’s selfish, but you have to be that way if you’re going to be champ.”
Since the staph scare that could have easily pushed him into retirement, Escovedo has won six of eight headed into his May 28 clash with Renan Barao (27-1, 1 NC). Barao, a feared finisher and celebrated teammate of UFC featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo, is undefeated in his past 28 fights and is equally adapt standing and on the ground. The Brazilian poses a tall order for any bantamweight in the world, let alone a man making his UFC debut.
Yet, as Escovedo’s resume demonstrates (He’s fought some of the sport’s biggest names in Urijah Faber, Jens Pulver, Bart Palaszewski, Antonio Banuelos and Yoshiro Maeda), he has never been one to turn down tough opponents or challenges.
“The UFC doesn’t call you every day so I feel this is an opportunity to get in where I belong,” said Escovedo, who has submitted 12 foes and TKO’d 6 others. “At the end of the day, his (Renan’s) record is just a number and he’s just another man. On any given Sunday, that’s how I think. He’s in my way of a better lifestyle for me and my family.”