When Alex Reyes makes the walk for his bout against Charlie Campbell on Saturday in Las Vegas, it will be six years to the day since he last competed.
Six. That’s a lot of years.
“I missed the sport, I missed everyone, I missed the whole thing, man,” beamed Reyes when we spoke earlier this year. The Californian was supposed to make his first start since recovering from a rare spinal infection in February, but a torn ligament in his hand sidelined him again.
“I was so crushed,” he said, but things ended working out for the best, because not only does he return, he gets to do so at T-Mobile Arena instead of the UFC APEX.
“I am ready to make that step, get back in there and do what I do and enjoy the lights, which is awesome,” said Reyes. “Last time it was scheduled for the APEX and, regardless, it's still a huge stage, but being in the arena, nothing compares to that energy.”
At this point, Reyes would fight in an empty warehouse with no one there but his opponent and the referee if that’s what it took to get him back to active duty. That’s how long the 36-year-old has been out after his 2017 Octagon debut against Mike Perry in Pittsburgh.
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For reference, some guy named Kamaru Usman was on that card with Reyes, defeating Sergio Moraes in just his sixth UFC fight. A future title challenger for Usman, opened the show with a knockout of Jason Saggo, and Reyes’s brother, Dominick, had just made his UFC debut three months earlier.
Again, that’s a lot of years. But none of that really matters to Reyes now, because he is back and ready to get down to business again. And truth be told, the moment he walks to the Octagon, he already won, because when the infection took hold, some doctors predicted that he might not walk again.
“There was a point where it's like a year later and I'm still pretty f**ked up and couldn't really move and I'm like, ‘S**t, I'm going to have to go back to construction.’ That was my trade. I was a carpenter before I started fighting full-time and I did kitchen cabinets and remodels and things like that. But I can't move too well, so I'm going to have to get a crew and start a construction business to keep things going, to provide for the family. You go from being a 30-year-old healthy professional athlete to my wife giving me a sponge bath and I'm not moving.”
That reality hurt Reyes more than the defeat to Perry, his first since he lost two fights to start his career in 2007. Sure, he dropped his first UFC fight, but he won 13 straight to get to the big show, and he was fighting a knockout artist at 170 pounds, not the 155 he will compete at on Saturday. None of that mattered now, as years of work in the gym and on fight night were about to be for naught as he looked for a Plan B.
Reyes now went all-in on that Plan B as he studied for his contractor’s license, bought a cabin in Big Bear that he started working on, and he soon adjusted to the new normal.
“It was part of my therapy, climbing up the stairs and using the hammer and moving tools,” he said. “I had a lot of help from friends and family, but it was like a therapy in itself. So I did start contemplating other ways to make money. And as I started getting healthier, I still had my gym, and I was still teaching classes and still staying a part of the sport.”
Then life took a turn on him again.
“As I got better and as I was teaching, I was able to start moving more and showing techniques more and my body started responding and I was like, ‘Hey, man, I can still do this. Let's go.’ My old teammates started reconnecting with me and I was training with them, and the more I did it, as time went on and with physical therapy, my body responded and I was like, ‘Well, I'm going to put the books back down and I'm going to pick the gloves back up and keep them on.’”
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In a metaphoric sense, he hasn’t taken them off. And as much as it’s been a hard road back, Reyes is more than convinced that it’s all been worth it, no matter what happens on fight night.
“I do enjoy the sport,” Reyes said when asked why he made this comeback when he did have other options outside of fighting. “And a lot of it, too, is principle. Life's going to knock you down, and things aren't easy. But I believe if you do the right things and you're surrounded by the right people and you have the right mindset, you get back up. Every man gets knocked down, every man will suffer loss in their life, and you got to learn how to deal with it. You can either let it make you or you can let it break you. And this is one of those things. Every fighter has a tough road to get here, but it's more principle for me in showing to my family and to my friends and supporters that, hey, life can knock you down, but you can get your ass back up, shake it off and get back in there and keep going.”
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