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David Mitchell 80-percent healthy, 100-percent stoked

Local MMA fighter feels rejuvenated after neck surgery, first UFC victory

David Mitchell, center, demonstrates a wrist-lock technique on Michael Peters while Marcus Freeman observes, during Mitchell's mixed martial arts class at Nor Cal Fighting Alliance in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Feb. 21, 2013.

ALVIN JORNADA/ PD
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:25 p.m.

David Mitchell is back on the UFC radar. He is not just another MMA guy anymore. He is now being tracked, watched, judged. Mitchell won his first UFC fight in Chicago on Jan. 27. He beat this other welterweight from Sweden, Simeon Thoresen, at the United Center. People surrounded Mitchell, asked him for his autograph, treated him like a celebrity.

“I never had been asked for my autograph before,” said the Santa Rosa resident. “It was really cool. People actually were interested in what I was doing.”

Those people would have been even more interested to know how Mitchell got there. In the 17 months preceding the fight, Mitchell had experienced so much pain and suffering, he came close to quitting the sport. He battled through depression, doubts, loneliness. Truth to tell, the Thoresen fight itself, that was probably the easiest part of those 17 months.

The toughest part? Looking at that piece of paper in March 2012.

You will not hold the surgeon or the hospital liable if something goes horribly wrong, like loss of speech, paralysis or death. Mitchell remembers reading those words, or words to that effect, before he signed the release form. He was going to have neck surgery at Sutter Pacific in San Francisco and he knew neck surgery was tricky, risky business. He had heard the stories. And then to see those words on paper, Mitchell took a big gulp and knew what he had to do.

“The day before surgery,” said Mitchell, 33, “I jumped on my mountain bike and spent the whole day riding in Annadel. I didn't know what was going to happen.”

Mitchell was a professional athlete, a mixed martial artist under contract to the Ultimate Fighting Championship folks. To think that this body he had trained so well that exercise to him was as natural as taking a breath, that it was even possible he would have to drink his dinner through a straw, all that gave him a chill.

As if he had a choice.

“If you had reached over and placed your finger on my head like this ...” he gently applied his right index finger to my knee, “... I would have screamed from the pain.”

Mitchell had no strength in the left side of his body. He was in constant pain. It had begun as numbness and weakness three years earlier and gradually worsened. Most people would have seen a doctor long before Mitchell did. But he is an MMA guy, under UFC contract, and so on Aug. 27, 2011, he fought in Rio de Janeiro. He had no choice.

“It was either fight or get fired,” said Mitchell, who graduated from Laytonville High School in 1998.

Mitchell had tried 10 days' worth of prednisone, an anti-inflammatory. No help. He took a cortisone shot in his neck just before the fight. It dulled the pain but gave him no strength. The pain leading up to that match not only affected his physical abilities but his mental capacities as well.

“Here I am in UFC, the NFL of MMA, realizing my dream, and I'm not as strong as I should be, not in as good a shape as I should be,” Mitchell said. “I didn't feel like I belonged.”

Mitchell lost a unanimous decision to a Brazilian special forces policeman. He made it three rounds but the pain was intense. It robbed him of his confidence, his agility and strength. Afterward Mitchell tried to train through the pain. He tried all-natural remedies. He would have drunk lizard extract if someone told him to. An MMA fighter does not give up the fight easily. Until he must. By March of 2011, Mitchell had what he estimated as only 20 percent function on the left side of his body. It was time to admit willpower wasn't going to solve this.

“It was the same surgery Peyton Manning had,” Mitchell said, referring to the quarterback who now plays for the Denver Broncos.

The surgery became necessary simply for the practicality of it — Mitchell had a life to lead outside of the octagonal ring. Sutter Pacific neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Weber performed the operation. Based on the MRI, it appeared a bulging disk was pressing against a nerve, which would have made for a dicey surgery.

“Instead, they found a bone spur impinging on a nerve,” Mitchell said.

While the surgery still required a deft touch, the chance of a more positive outcome increased. For a month Mitchell was told to remain relatively inert. Don't pick up anything heavier than 10 pounds. Be patient. Take your time. Mitchell knew to do that because time was running out for him. The window of opportunity for a 33-year-old MMA fighter — just coming off serious neck surgery — wasn't wide.

When he faced Thoresen, Mitchell knew he had to win “or I'd get fired.” The UFC folks play hard ball. And Mitchell fought Thoresen with that idea in mind. His career was on the line.

“They say complete feeling, use and strength will take a full year after surgery,” Mitchell said. “That should happen next month.”

With 80 percent of sensation and strength restored, Mitchell works out six days a week at the NorCal Fighting Alliance. Not only is his career rejuvenated, so are his hopes.

“Now I want the UFC title,” said Mitchell, 6-foot-1, 170 pounds. “Before, I just wanted to win a UFC match. Now that I have, I want to go for the title. You know, learning to crawl before you walk.”

The walk has turned into more of a run. Mitchell has seen the couch. He has seen the television. He has seen the chips and he remembers staring at the ceiling and being forced to sit still like a Buddha. He remembers gaining 25 pounds. That 3-inch scar on the back of his neck reminds him of all that. That's why he is training so hard now. David Mitchell has some memories to replace.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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