This coming Saturday night sees the UFC return to ESPN for their second show exclusively on the worldwide leader for sports. However, it isn’t just the leading MMA promotion who are making a return to a mainstream audience; it is also the comeback of #10 UFC ranked featherweight, Josh Emmett (13-2), who hasn’t competed since February 2018. This layoff wasn’t made by choice as Emmett suffered a number of serious injuries in the conclusion of his last bout, which was a knockout loss to hard-hitter, Jeremy Stephens.
“After the Stephens fight I had several facial fractures,” said Emmett. “My orbital floor was fractured, my lateral orbit was fractured and the zygomatic arch was fractured. To add to that, my cheek was broken. Then I had a few other things going on with my nose so I had to have surgery. Also, I had a plate put in my face and they repaired everything else. It took some time to fully heal and recover from the last fight. Hence that’s why I took the necessary time off. You’ve seen it before in this sport where people get a concussion, come back too soon, get another one and then their career is over. I didn’t want to do that so I just made sure I was feeling good and in the right state before I got back into practice.”
That story hits far too close to home for Emmett as his coach and former training partner, Chris Holdsworth, was a highly touted prospect in the UFC bantamweight division before back to back concussions grounded his promising career to an immediate halt. The damage couldn’t be physically seen but was massively consequential. The visible injuries from Emmett’s last fight weren’t the only issues that he had to deal with in the aftermath of only his second career loss. There was another factor that still affected the 34 year old just as much, if not worse, than broken bones.
“It took me quite a while before I could start training again. For a few months, I would wake up every morning and I would have the worst vertigo,” explained Emmett. “For people who don’t know what vertigo is, man its horrible! The room was spinning almost as if I was just standing there and spinning as fast as I could. Then when you stop for a second, you get kind of wobbly and things are still moving. That’s what I was experiencing when I just woke up and I was sitting down in bed. If I were to stand up while I was experiencing that, my equilibrium would have been way off and I would have fallen over. Besides everything just spinning like crazy, it feels like you’re on a little boat in the worst storm in the middle of the ocean. The ground is moving and everything – it’s insane and it definitely took me a while, I want to say a good four months or so, before I started getting into training, hitting mits and exercising again. For about a good 2 months, I had that severe vertigo.”
After going through all that the Team Alpha Male product went through following that bout, the majority of people would question whether or not this whole fighting thing is worth it. Does the feeling of prolonged pain really balance out with the feeling of elation when your hand is raised? For Emmett, the thought of quitting never really crossed his mind.
“With all the injuries, I know that this is a dangerous sport – it is extremely dangerous,” acknowledged Emmett. “I talk to people and they are like ‘hey I want to get an amateur fight’ and I’ll ask them about their background. I’ll ask them what they are doing to train for that and I’m just like what’s the point? Don’t do it! For one, you aren’t going to get paid as an amateur and its extremely dangerous. It is a dangerous hobby to have. If you’re not going to give it 100% and you’re not going to try and fight professionally in a bigger league like the UFC, Bellator or PFL, there is no point in doing it because you can get seriously injured.”
“As far as myself, the only thing that was going through my mind when I was experiencing all of these injuries was is it ever going to get better? Will I ever be able to fight again? This was early on after the fight when I was experiencing all of the vertigo and just feeling horrible,” Emmett stated. “It was definitely a low point in my career but I just knew that the injuries would go away and I’d be back to fighting. The thing that was really difficult for me was the financial side. It was a struggle. I only fought once in 2018 so I only got paid one time. I lost the fight so I got half my cheque which was tough. I was thinking about whether I would need to get a job or do something to supplement my income because I didn’t know how long it would take me to recover.”
“As far as my family and friends, they are always there for me. My wife is my biggest supporter. I owe so much to her and we are in this together,” said Emmett. “We’ve struggled to get to where we’re at and she’s truly my rock. I’m blessed to have her in my life. My mum is always right there with me too. She’s not the biggest fan of fighting but she supports me 100% and I have such a tight, core group of friends. They are all supportive and are always willing to lend a hand. My support system is the best that there is but it was definitely a rough 2018 and I learnt a lot about myself and other people. I’m just glad I’m finally back!”
To add insult to the injuries, the blows that caused all of the damage to Emmett may not even have been landed if the referee in the bout called a halt to the action after Stephens threw an illegal knee. Emmett was a grounded opponent when the knee was thrown and connected with his head which would leave many fighters feeling bitter at the outcome. Although it annoyed Emmett at first, he has now accepted what happened and is looking forward to progressing in his career.
“As far as the controversial ending in the fight, yeah I’m over it. It is what it is. It’s a fight,” explained Emmett. “Yes I took some illegal blows and some elbows to the head but I’m never going to stop and say that’s illegal. We’re in a fight. Partially that could have been my fault too because I’m moving around and I’m trying to get up. The knee that was thrown was illegal even though it wasn’t a direct blow to my head. It still hit me and made contact but wasn’t that hard. However, since there are rules there for a reason, I think the ref should have stopped it and I would have got my 5 minutes to recover. It was really those last 2 elbows that caused all of the injuries that put me out but I’m definitely over the fight. You have to move on.”
“I’m positive and I’m just focusing on what I can control. I can’t control that and it’s in the past so there’s no need to dwell on that because it will just continue to eat you up,” stated Emmett. “I’m 100% healthy now, I’m as focused as can be and I’ve been back to training my ass off. I’m ready for the next one and I’m only focusing on people that are directly in front of me. I’m not looking past anybody so Michael Johnson is my next opponent and I’m 100% focused on that fight and nothing else.”
On Saturday night from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Emmett stars on the main card as he will be facing across from UFC veteran, Michael Johnson (19-13), who will be making his 21st appearance inside the octagon. Not many fighters are able to hang around in the UFC for that long which is testament to Johnson’s ability and toughness. After competing for the majority of his career at lightweight, Johnson recently moved down to the featherweight division where he is trying to make the climb up the rankings. Emmett is looking forward to facing off with him and has visualised many times how the fight may play out.
“Michael Johnson is a tough opponent. He’s been in the UFC for around 10 years so he’s got the experience. He’s fought a who’s who and beat some of the best guys in the world at lightweight,” said Emmett. “It’s just a fight that excites me because it motivates me. I have to work my ass off so I can go in there and compete with him. He doesn’t have to prove anything as he’s already done that whereas I’m still fairly new in the UFC. I want to go out there and prove to people that I belong here and that’s just my mindset and how I feel going into every fight. I feel like I have to prove something. I just have to go in there, impose my will and implement my gameplan. I will do whatever I have to do possible to overcome the obstacle in front of me and get my hand raised.”
“It’s always hard for me to predict what will happen in a fight. I really don’t have any predictions or know how I’m going to win because anything can happen,” explained Emmett. “Two people are going to fight, someone is going to lose and you hope it’s not you. I’m going to go in there and do whatever I have to do, possibly for 15 minutes, to get my hand raised and that’s one thing that I visualize all the time. I’ve worked with mind coaches and I do a lot of visualization where I put myself in bad positions as well as good positions and see myself winning by knockout, TKO or submission. I visualize working off of my back, losing the fight, coming back but at the end of that, it’s always me getting my hand raised and I’ll be prepared for whatever. That’s my prediction – getting my hand raised at the end of the fight.”
In recent interviews leading up to this fight, Emmett has made it known that fighters who aren’t at the very top in the world aren’t paid enough. He isn’t sure if that will change any time soon but believes that fighters should be compensated more for all of the risks that they take for other’s benefit.
“For what we do as mixed martial artists and how much the company is worth, I just feel like of course we don’t get paid enough. We are professional athletes at the highest level,” said Emmett. “In any other league, like the NFL and NBA, they are making a pretty penny and they aren’t really in jeopardy as far as the injuries that we are more exposed to. We are literally going in there and fighting. You can get seriously injured and you can get killed just for people’s entertainment. At the end of the day, like me in my last fight, I suffered some serious injuries and I only fought once since early 2018. I would have fought more but I wasn’t able to because I was injured. The amount of money I made, I could have made that money just by working a regular job. Would I like that lifestyle? Not at all but fighters in general should be getting paid a lot more than we are.”
“Even if it was just a change to how the show/win money is split. You don’t go in there and fight harder to get your win bonus. I go in there trying to win no matter what. That doesn’t make you fight any harder or any less. I want to win. I want to land one punch and be done with it but that’s just not how it goes so I hope some of the pay can change in the near future but who knows.”
UFC Fight Night: Barboza v Gaethje can be watched in the UK on BT Sport 2 at 11pm on Saturday night.
Image courtesy of Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty