There are several reasons Todd Duffee has yet to live up to the immense potential he has flashed since making his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut with a seven-second knockout of Tim Hague in 2009.
From illness and injury to personal tragedy to a lack of a strong support system and even conflicts with the sport’s power brokers, Duffee has endured enough adversity to turn a can’t-miss prospect into another story of what could have been.
But he still has time to avoid that fate. He returns to action against Anthony Hamilton at UFC 181 on Saturday at Mandalay Bay after almost two years out of the octagon.
The heavyweight, who will turn 29 on Saturday, is healthy and ready to resume his career less than a year after thinking it might be over.
Duffee was back in the gym training after a knee injury he had suffered before his last fight, a first-round knockout of Philip De Fries in December 2012, when he started feeling numbness and pain.
Duffee saw “about 10 different doctors” and was eventually diagnosed with Parsonage-Turner syndrome, an inflammation of nerves in the arms, shoulders and chest.
He was told he might never fight again, a prognosis he had a difficult time accepting.
“I had to make a real adjustment. The hardest part was committing to fighting is done,” Duffee said Wednesday. “I literally had given my life to making it in this sport. I’ve heard the statement, ‘Don’t sell your soul to the game.’ I did, which is a huge mistake. I ruined relationships. I ignored any life stuff. I walked away from my (football) scholarship at (Georgia). I chased this dream, and I was left with, ‘Where’s the (expletive) payoff, man?’ ”
It was tough to imagine he would return to fighting. Duffee said he was depressed and lashing out, particularly in the first seven weeks. He had a difficult time using a pen and had to have nurses fill out his paperwork whenever he visited a doctor.
Still, he wasn’t ready to give up on fighting. Duffee knew he needed to make money, but thought if he entered a career or went back to school, it would be the end of his fighting career.
So he opened a gym in south Florida and tried to get healthy. Now, about 14 months after he was diagnosed, Duffee will step back into the cage with no assurances the condition won’t return.
“We’re humans. We’re good at pushing out the obvious and awful things that could be a reality,” he said. “You don’t think about dying, right?”
When Duffee debuted in the UFC, he looked invincible. A big, strong, athletic heavyweight who could move like a little guy and knock out opponents with one punch, Duffee was seen as a future champion. The quick knockout in his debut did little to dampen the hype.
Then came the Mike Russow fight.
Duffee was in complete control until Russow caught him with one shot midway through the final round to knock out Duffee and set off a quick spiral.
Duffee’s dad died a week later, followed by his best friend a week after that. A month after the defeat, Duffee was released from the UFC.
The reasons he was cut remain a mystery. There always have been rumors of discord between Duffee and UFC executives, but little has been said on the record.
Duffee was left to try to carve out a career outside the organization, far from an easy task. He was too dangerous for some promoters to bring in to fight guys they were trying to build up. Others assumed Duffee had an attitude problem before even meeting him. It didn’t help that he didn’t have a stable management situation.
All of that made it difficult for Duffee to get a fight, much less rebuild his career. He was finally brought back to the UFC for the fight against De Fries, only to get sick.
“(Sometimes) I’ll think, ‘God, I had four years of my career taken from me,’ ” he said. “However you want to look at that, they were taken from me whether it was physical or whatever else that may be. It just is what it is now. Yeah, it sucks. But I have another opportunity. Nobody promised me anything. Did I really know what I was getting into? No. I don’t think anybody does. Would I ever advise anybody else to follow the same path? No. But I love it.
“What might have been, might have been. You learn and you grow. Yeah, I could be in a much better situation in life. I could own a car, you know. It is what it is. I am where I am, and I’m happy no matter what. I can’t dwell on that.”
One advantage Duffee might have now is that expectations probably aren’t as out of control as they were early in his career, though he said that was never a problem.
“I tried to downplay the bejesus out of it,” he said. “I was always very realistic about this sport. I’m in the heavyweight division. This is a different beast. I knew I had a lot of growing to do, and I don’t think I was that confident. I’m way more confident now than I was then. I believe in my skills and how much I wanted it, but there still has to be maturity.
“But (the hype) wasn’t unfair. It’s just what happens in this sport.”
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.