Sugar Ray Leonard beat Marvin Hagler.
If Alan Belcher needed any more convincing that he could return to the UFC and make a run at the middleweight title after two surgeries for a detached retina in his right eye, he doesn’t need to look any further than the boxing great from Palmer Park, Maryland, who came back from the same injury to beat one of the best middleweights of all-time in 1987.
Belcher has an all-time great ruling his weight class as well in Anderson Silva, but before he can get to that point, there is the issue of the man facing him this Saturday in New Orleans, veteran submission artist Jason MacDonald. It’s been a long time since Belcher has walked up those four steps into the Octagon, over 16 months, and while the return is a welcome one, it wasn’t always set in stone. In fact, many, including Belcher, believed his UFC 113 win over Patrick Cote in May of 2010 was going to be his last one.
The ordeal began in Brazil, where Belcher began to lose vision in his right eye. He rushed home to the United States and underwent surgery for the retina detachment. His big main event bout against Demian Maia that September was obviously scrapped, and when his vision became blurry again, he was forced to undergo a second surgery.
“That was really bad for me,” recalls Belcher of the days in recovery. “I thought I wasn’t gonna fight again, and we weren’t even talking about it with the doctor. I was just trying to get my sight back. After a while, I started thinking about it a little bit and there definitely was a chance that I wasn’t gonna fight again. Even if you do get good enough to get back in there, do you want to risk doing that again? There are so many different variables, and it was a tough time for me.”
I bring up Leonard’s return and his subsequent win over Hagler, and ask Belcher if he took any inspiration from it.
“I sure do,” he said. “I use that as inspiration, and I hope to do the same thing. But detached retinas ended a lot of boxers’ careers too, and it’s actually a pretty common thing. I guess back in the day guys didn’t really know what it was and they ended up being blind because they didn’t take care of it fast enough. I hope to be another one of those success stories, and the way I’m feeling right now, I think I’m gonna make a pretty strong comeback.”
There were still some dark days to go though, and the straight-shooting Belcher isn’t going to feed you a story about being all rah-rah about making a return right away. Maybe he would have a few years ago, when the only responsibility he had was to himself, and when you believe the invincibility of youth will eventually kick in whenever you need it. But he’s 27 years old now, a family man, and with too much time to kill, you wonder whether you want to make that walk again. So when doctors gave him a clean bill of health and green lighted him to fight again, he didn’t make an immediate decision.
“When you take that much time off and you don’t know if you’re gonna come back, a lot of different things go through your mind,” he said. “Your life changes, and then you’re reinstated exactly where you left off to go back and fight again. You’re like, wait a minute, I was starting to make another plans. I kinda hesitated, and it was kinda weird. I had to actually think ‘do I want to continue to do this? Is it worth it?’ It was one of those times in your life that things get flipped upside down and inside out, and you have to work through it and figure out what’s best. So after a lot of thinking and praying and talking to my wife and my family, my dad and my coaches and friends, we decided that I’m gonna finish what I started, give it my all, take it one fight at a time and go from there.”
The next step was to get back into the ring in the gym and get over the hurdle of sparring for the first time. It wasn’t easy.
“The first couple sparring sessions were pretty nerve-wracking,” said Belcher. “I was really nervous about reinjuring it (the eye), and real cautious about babying it real bad. I made sure I wore a facemask and that kinda stuff, and it seemed like everything was going towards my eye. But I worked through it. It took a couple weeks, I got that going, and now I don’t notice it at all. I see fine, and I don’t miss anything.”
Belcher’s return was welcome news to the fight world, as you never want to see a fighter lose out on an opportunity due to injury. This was never more apt than in Belcher’s case, as he looked to have finally hit a consistent rhythm in which you knew what version of him was showing up on fight night. Yeah, he lost a questionable decision to Yoshihiro Akiyama in UFC 100’s Fight of the Night, but his performance was top-notch that night, as it was in post fight bonus-winning efforts against Wilson Gouveia and Cote. A win over Maia might have gotten him in the title race, but it was not to be. And it wasn’t a good feeling.
“Even the most positive person in the world has those low moments, and that’s the time when you have to remind yourself to dig deep past the negativity and find the good in it, and I think I found it in this whole scenario,” said Belcher. “I was just right there. One more fight and I was right there where I dreamed about being, and then bam, I got it all taken away from me. But as well as I was doing, I was getting to the point where I was needing to work harder and I had to take it up a notch and step it up one more step and keep pushing. You’re almost there, and it was a real stressful time and I didn’t know it, but I was really getting burned out mentally and physically. I think I found the positive part in this whole thing, and it was the break and taking the time off and letting my body heal and letting my mind relax. And all the years that I had been cutting weight and dieting and doing the yo-yo, up and down thing for so many years without stopping, I finally got to take a break from that, focus on some other stuff, have a life for a minute, and I got to come back when I was ready to come back.”
Now he’s raring to go, reenergized and rejuvenated. And waiting for him is MacDonald, who made his own successful comeback to the UFC (from a broken leg) in April when he submitted Ryan Jensen. Needless to say, the kid gloves aren’t anywhere to be seen in the Big Easy.
“I think he’s a really challenging opponent, and I think the fact that he’s been in and out of the UFC just proves that he deserves to be here,” said Belcher of Canada’s MacDonald. “He’s been in here for years, he may lose a couple to the best guys in the world, but who’s gonna knock him for that? He works his way right back up to the top because that’s where he deserves to be. He’s someone who’s not gonna go away and he’s really devoted and dedicated to the sport and being the best that he can be. I don’t think he wants to just be an opponent for the rest of his career. I think he actually wants to be a top contender or a titleholder, and that makes him really dangerous. So it would be a mistake for me to think it was a gimme fight or for anyone else to believe that the UFC would be giving me a gimme fight. Everyone’s tough.”
So is Alan Belcher. Then again, he always was. But he proved it again just by agreeing to fight, and he promises that when the bell rings, he’ll be picking up where he left off.
“(Before I fought Akiyama) I knew that I would never be scared of losing again, I would never underestimate an opponent, and I was just gonna take one fight at a time and be the best that I could and give it my all,” he said. “That was all I was gonna do, and I wasn’t gonna be disappointed either way. From that time forward, I kept that attitude and I believe I still have it. I know it’s really cliché, but I think the mind is the most important part of this game. And when I figured that out, I think that was the key, and that’s something that I’m never gonna lose.”
Alan Belcher's New Beginning in New Orleans
"I know it’s really cliché, but I think the mind is the most important part of this game. And when I figured that out, I think that was the key." - Alan Belcher