Injuries spare no one in mixed martial arts, big star or fledgling newcomer. After running a promotion for more than 22 years, UFC CEO Dana White has become accustomed to getting bad news about his fighters' health even in the days, and sometimes hours, before a fight.
Still, the news from White on Nov. 23, 2022, was particularly jarring. It wasn't so much that Jiří Procházka, then the UFC's light heavyweight champion, was forced to pull out of his rematch with Glover Teixeira that was set to headline UFC 282 on Dec. 10, 2022, in Las Vegas, that was so troublesome.
It was the words White spoke about the injury that hit home so hard: This injury to the right shoulder was one of the worst UFC doctors had ever seen, White said. Shoulder injuries are notoriously slow to heal, as so many baseball pitchers have found out the hard way, and White said at the time he announced Procházka's injury that doctors were suggesting he'd be out for a year.
Knowing he'd be out for so long, Procházka surrendered his light heavyweight title so as not to hold up the division. But he'd be lying if he said he felt it would be simple to get back to who he had been as an athlete.
"An injury like this, it's difficult in many ways," Procházka told Yahoo Sports. "You have to stay calm and control your mind because you have a lot of thoughts."
Most of them aren't good and are best ignored or not considered for long. But Procházka, who said he began rehabilitating his shoulder about 10 weeks after the injury occurred and training around 18 weeks later, believes he dealt with the process as well as he could have.
He's extraordinarily physically gifted, as is anyone who competes at the upper level of any professional sport, and that certainly made his recovery easier. Elite athletes can do things that the normal person can only dream of doing.
That said, they get to the top in large part through the sweat of their brow, and Procházka was no exception. But his strong mind played a key role.
"There is a period of when you get injured, you have to accept what you are dealing with," he said. "And then you said, 'OK, I must remain calm and approach this the right way. And it's working. To fix it, to get back to where you were, or even better, to go from zero to 100, it's going to take work. It's a lot of hard work. When you realize that, you just can be calm, focus on what you need to do each day to be better and you'll see the results [eventually]."
When he makes the walk to the cage Saturday, he'll be able to look across the Octagon and stare into Teixeira's eyes. They put on one of the more memorable title fights in UFC history at UFC 275 on June 12, 2022, in Kallang, Singapore, which Procházka improbably won by rear naked choke submission. But he won't be facing Teixeira this time around. Teixeira will coach Alex Pereira, the former UFC middleweight champion, in the main event of UFC 295 against Procházka.
Teixeira is one of the sharpest minds in MMA, and no doubt he's shared things with Pereira about Procházka that no one could know unless they've competed against him. Procházka recognizes that, but he also insisted it wouldn't make an impact on the fight.
He's one of the fighters who is constantly evolving and shaping his style. After he recovered from the Teixeira fight, he was back in the gym and adding layers to his game. And even after successfully rehabbing his shoulder, continuing to evolve was at the top of his mind once he returned full-time to training.
"I think that no, there is [no advantage for Pereira] because since that fight with Glover, I have totally changed myself and my style," Procházka said. "Maybe change isn't the right word; say upgrade. I've upgraded my style. It's something I've always done, yeah, trying between the fights to take a step up and evolve. That fight was, for me, a big fight and I have to be honest, I was disappointed with my performance."
That was a shocking admission. He beat a legendary figure in a Fight of the Year type of battle in a bout that people were talking about long after it was over.
The great athletes, though, are never satisfied, which is one of the reasons they're great. And as entertaining as the bout was for the fans, Procházka believes he made it far more difficult on himself than it needed to be.
"I was so upset with my performance that I said to myself, 'I need to do something; I need to change something,'" he said. "I needed to do something with my style. That's why I say, Glover can coach Alex however he wants, but they can't expect which Jiří will be in the cage. I totally didn't control myself. In the fight with Glover, I wasn't focused for that fight and it's something I have to delete from my style."
He faces a tall task against Pereira, which he admits. But if he performs the way he did against Teixeira at less than his best, it's remarkable to think of what he might do fully healed, fully prepared and focused on the challenge he faces against the hard-hitting Pereira.