Tristan Connelly got the bad news, and after letting it sink in, he called his manager, Jason House.
“Retirement is not even a word,” he told House.
Point made, Connelly then got down to the business of figuring out how to fix the disc issue that was causing him excruciating pain. The neck injury happened in a car crash in 2019, and in typical prizefighter fashion, he ignored it the best he could, even fighting and beating Michel Pereira in his long-awaited UFC debut in September of that year.
“I rehabbed it, but there would be flare-ups,” he said. “And it would get worse with inactivity. Then I'd go to training and get my neck cranked on and it would feel better.”
He laughs, knowing how bizarre that sounds, but a lot of things sound bizarre in the reality that is the life of a fighter. And knowing that it took him nearly a decade to make it to the big show, the Victoria native wasn’t about to let some pain slow him down. But when an April 2020 bout with Alex da Silva got shut down due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, Connelly was forced to travel back home to Canada from Las Vegas and deal with more inactivity. You can imagine what happened next.
“It was sitting around for two months doing nothing, and over the course of five days, my symptoms went from 10 percent to a thousand percent,” he said. “It was the worst pain I had ever been in, and the only thing that could have brought it on was inactivity.”
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He tried to rehab the injury again with no success, leaving surgery the only option. That’s when he made the call to House in the midst of hearing some doctors saying his fighting career might be over.
“I had several doctors saying, why do you want to keep fighting with this injury, you should retire, blah, blah, blah,” Connelly recalls. “I had one surgeon tell me I was going to get paralyzed if I fought or got put in a choke again or got punched. I was like, that seems a little strange, how come I never heard of that happening? So I realized then, not all doctors are the same; you gotta do your own research because if someone tells you something's gonna happen, and I can't find an entire example, ever in the history of the internet of my injury ever causing paralysis, it shows the importance of your research and talking to other people, and not just taking the first person you talk to. But I wasn’t even going to consider retirement until I chased every single option as far as it possibly goes. Option one was rehab, it didn't work. Option two was surgery and that went well and now I'm feeling great and ready to go.”
On Saturday, after successful surgery by Dr. John Sun in Victoria and a full training camp in Las Vegas, Connelly makes the walk once more against newcomer Pat Sabatini. It’s a day he always knew would arrive.
“I never lost hope,” he said. “I knew I would get back.”
And here he is, a lot different than he was the first time UFC fans saw him, considering that he’s fighting two weight classes below what he debuted at against Pereira. That seems to be a bit extreme, but considering he took the Pereira fight at welterweight on short notice and usually fought at lightweight, the jump to featherweight isn’t that odd anymore.
“I typically fought at lightweight, but I had some extra time after my surgery to really diet hard and get as lean as I possibly could,” he said. “So I came into this training camp leaner than I've ever been, leaner than I usually am at 155. So I had that extra time to plan, which is something I could never do going into camp.”
Connelly hit his mark at 146 pounds on Friday, so that part’s done. As for the process of reintroducing himself to UFC fans, he’s ready for that part of it, too.
“The thing about the Pereira fight is there was a lot of craziness within it,” Connelly said. “There's a lot within that fight, but it's not really a typical fight. It's not really a good display of me as a fighter, per se, because it's such a mismatch. And it's partially what he did that made it more exciting and why he got tired, right? So I haven't really had a chance to show myself as more of a typical MMA fighter to the world. Obviously, I've had years and years of fighting, but not in the UFC, so this is a very good matchup for both of us, it's really gonna test both of us, and the better man will come out on top.”
Yeah, it’s a bit frustrating for the 35-year-old to somewhat start from scratch again, but he’s not complaining, especially since he’s feeling good for the first time in a long time and ready to throw hands in front of a packed house in Jacksonville.
“Obviously not being able to fight was really huge, but what was really frustrating was the amount of pain I was in,” he said of his time away from the game. “When you're in the amount of pain I was in, everything else kinda falls to the side. But one thing that never changed was my goal of getting back to the Octagon.”