Any sparring session with Chad Mendes is a trial by fire. Doing it after several months on the sidelines due to injuries that came directly from getting punched in the face takes a special kind of intestinal fortitude.
Josh Emmett already knew he had that part covered. But would his face hold up after he healed up from the multiple fractures suffered in his February 2018 loss to Jeremy Stephens?
There was only one way to find out.
“My first sparring session, I went in to help Chad Mendes for his fight and he’s one of the toughest, most powerful, explosive fighters out there,” Emmett said. “And I’m going back in there after being on the couch for seven, eight months and then I’m going back and he’s already in his camp full-go and I have to be the body to emulate his opponent. And he hits hard, but after practice, I felt fine, so that was definitely a positive.”
“But I didn’t miss getting hit in the face.”
Before the Stephens fight, Emmett was the one doing the hitting most of the time, and as he won four of his first five UFC bouts, he was rapidly closing in on a title shot at 145 pounds. But after that loss in Orlando, Emmett’s career was in jeopardy.
“It was definitely tough,” he said. “2018, I fought once, I got paid once, I suffered all those injuries and it was definitely a low point in my career and my life. It was tough to wake up and try to stay positive. It was hard when I wake up and the room is spinning. It feels like I was on a small boat in the middle of the ocean during the worst storm of the year. Everything is rocking and moving and I’m nauseous and sick. I would think, ‘Is this ever gonna get better?’ It was a little depressing because I put my entire life and everything that I’ve wanted into this and then it could be over just like that. But I knew deep down inside it would go away and as soon as it did, I would be back in the gym, and once I’m back in the gym, I’ll be back in the Octagon.”
Emmett got better, and after healing up and getting the green light to return to the gym, he went looking for a fight. And he’s got one with Michael Johnson this weekend in Philadelphia. It’s the kind of fight that could put the No. 10-ranked Emmett back in the top half of the featherweight rankings, and in a division in flux, that’s a good place to be when it comes to getting a crack at the belt.
“There are some great up and comers, but I also feel like it’s the same division – the top guys are still at the top, but I believe a big win over such a seasoned vet (Johnson) that has beaten some of the best guys, that’s the reason I took the fight too,” Emmett said. “It motivates the hell out of me because I know what he’s done, and I thought it would get the fans excited about the fight too. Everyone keeps talking about the fight, so I feel like a big win puts me right back to where I was at, it gets people talking about me again, and you never know with the division with injuries and whatever else goes on. If there’s an opportunity and I could take it, I’ll hop on it in a second.”
He would. Emmett is a fighter and that’s something inside him. That’s why he never stopped hoping for a return. The 34-year-old is no fool, though, so he knew there was the possibility that he couldn’t come back. And if that happened, he would move on, but there would be no consoling him.
“I’ve had this conversation with my wife,” said Emmett. “I define success differently in my head, and she knows what I’m talking about. Let’s say it was over. The Jeremy Stephens fight, boom, I can never fight again, that’s it. I’d feel like everything that led up to that was just a waste of my time. I didn’t get to achieve my goal. And that’s just how I think and that’s my mindset. And she said, ‘There’s so many people in the world who dream to be in your position. There’s only 500 people on the roster and you’ve accomplished a lot. You got there, you were ranked number four in the world.’ But, for me, it’s all for nothing if I’m done. I’m just extremely hard on myself and very critical.”
That’s the mindset that got him to this point in his fighting career. It’s also what resurrected that career. Considering all this, maybe the simplest question is “Why?”
Emmett points to the fighting lifestyle, the ability to make a lot of money, and the quest to leave a legacy. But if he had to pick one reason, it goes back to what’s in his heart when the Octagon door closes.
“I feel that with all the stimuli and everyday stress in life, I feel it’s almost euphoric a little bit when I’m actually fighting,” he said. “It’s the only time I feel at peace. I’m not thinking about anything. Maybe you’re stressed out in your personal life or from work, but when I’m fighting, I have no worries and no cares in the world. I’m just in there, trying to solve this puzzle in front of me and do whatever I have to do to get my hand raised.”
On Saturday, for the first time in 13 months, Josh Emmett gets to have that feeling again. It wasn’t easy getting here, but it wasn’t easy getting anywhere in this sport for the Sacramento native, who takes the words and experiences of retired U.S. Navy Seal David Goggins.
“People can relate to him, and I relate to him,” said Emmett. “I don’t really talk about it much, but I feel like I had a tough upbringing. My mom, she worked all the time to provide for my older brother and I, and my mindset has always been like his (Goggins’), to defy the odds. And I love that about him. I can relate to the guy a lot. You can’t feel sorry for yourself, you can’t blame misfortunes on other people as the reason why you can’t do this, and you see it and hear it all the time – people just blame things. ‘This is the reason why I can’t do things, this is the reason why I’m this way, this is why I can’t do this.’ And it’s like, man, stop feeling sorry for yourself and just go do it. If you want to change, change. I just love his mindset and I feel like I have a very similar mindset.
“I feel like everything I’ve done has truly been because I want it and I want a better life and a better life for my family,” he continues. “I’m just defying the odds and I know what I’m capable of in setting these big goals and I’m not gonna stop until I get there. I took a lot of damage and people have no idea what I went through and the whole time I couldn’t wait to get back in there. People thought I was crazy, but I’m not gonna stop and I’m not gonna give up.”