Alan Belcher was living the dream. He was married to a beautiful woman and had just become a father. He was training full-time and earned his keep as a fighter for the biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) organization in the world, the UFC.
One year ago, he was preparing to take on Demian Maia in what would be his first headlining bout. After nearly half a decade with the company, he had gained enough momentum that the UFC trusted his name to main event one of their cards.
But then something went terribly wrong.
He began to lose vision in his right eye and was rushed into emergency surgery to repair a detached retina. For a while, it was very touch and go as Belcher was unsure that he would ever be able to fight again.
One full recovery later, he's ready to step foot inside the Octagon on Saturday (September 17) to take on Jason MacDonald as part of the undercard for UFC Fight Night: "Shields vs. Ellenberger."
To commemorate his return, we'll take a look on one of his best bouts; his Fight of the Night from UFC 100 against the judoka Yoshihiro Akiyama.
And away we go!
Akiyama's signing was one of the first steps -- along with hiring Takanori Gomi and Norifumi Yamamoto -- in the UFC's plan to infiltrate Japan. Sign some big names, build them up, and take the Land of the Rising Sun by storm.
The plan that was perfect in theory fell apart in execution.
"The Talent" was supposed to be a solid but passable test for "Sexyama." Instead, the American gave the judoka the fight of his life.
A closer look, if you would.
The two fighters touch gloves and circle the center of the Octagon. Akiyama throws out a jab which is met by a leg kick from the American. Belcher throws another kick that slaps the leg of his opponent knowing full well that the body and legs are key to destroying a man's cardio.
Early on it's also obvious that there is a huge size difference between the two. The UFC debutante is considerably smaller than his American opponent.
Akiyama throws head kicks liberally but none are able to find their mark. An errant low kick from Belcher lands too low and there's a break for the judoka to recover.
Upon the restart, the two exchange punches, tagging each other over and over. Belcher lands a perfect counter right that Akiyama answers back with a stiff jab. "The Talent" continues his assault on his opponent's body and legs, landing several before Akiyama answers back with one that rattles Belcher's ribs.
The American begins pawing his jab out, allowing Akiyama to become comfortable with its placement before he snaps it forward and comes across with a short jab that crashes into the Japanese fighter's jaw. Akiyama tumbles to the mat but springs back up before his opponent can take full advantage.
Belcher grinds Akiyama against the fence but "Sexyama" is able to circle away and get the fight back to square one. The two circle around trading single strikes until Akiyama begins putting together combinations. A head kick is blocked but the ensuing jab connects directly on Belcher's chin. A Superman punch from the Japanese warrior lands but Belcher is able to block the second strike. The third, an uppercut, snaps the American's head back.
The crowd roars as the two begin to exchange almost wildly to close out the first round. Gone is the early fight trepidation and slowly replacing it is muscle memory and instincts.
Akiyama catches a kick from Belcher and counters with a straight that helps the Japanese fighter get his opponent onto the mat. "The Talent" immediately starts working for omoplata before the round expires.
Almost like a continuation of the previous round, Belcher throws a body kick that is caught and gets put on his back. He almost immediately sweeps Akiyama over and takes his back, however. An attempted leglock proves to be an error in judgment for the American and he winds up with "Sexyama" on top landing ground and pound.
With a little over two minutes remaining in the round, Belcher begins to shrimp over to his side -- a technique in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) -- in order to get back onto his feet. A slide and a shimmy later and both fighters are back on their feet exchanging punches.
As the round wanes down, you can tell that both fighters are beginning to feel the pain of lactic acid building in their legs, the burden of fatigue heavy on their back. Belcher continues to assault Akiyama's lower limbs with kicks that leaves the Japanese fighter limping back to his corner.
The final round begins and the tide is definitely begin to turn towards the American. He is immediately back to work on the leg and adds in some punches to the body for good measure. But "Sexyama" still has some fight left in him. He connects nicely with three rights that make Belcher pause.
The last of which is answered back immediately by Belcher. As the fights ends, neither fighter is willing to relent one bit. Each warrior is committed to having their hand raised and work as hard in minute 15 as they did during the first minute.
Akiyama was awarded the split decision amidst a chorus of boos. The $100,000 Fight of the Night bonus Belcher earned took some of the sting out of being on the short end of the decision, I'm sure.
"The Talent" would go on to win his next two fights before nearly having his career ended prematurely. A win on Saturday would mark the first time he wins three in a row in the Octagon.
A win on Saturday should put Belcher in the running for a number one contender's spot.
A win on Saturday could put his career right back on track.