One email can change the direction of your life.
For the Fisher family, it arrived on Jan. 13, 2017, the day the UFC’s then-chief legal officer informed Emily Fisher that the services of her husband, former UFC lightweight Spencer Fisher, would no longer be needed.
“I’m glad to hear that your family’s holidays were memorable,” it began.
“Regarding Spencer’s independent contractor agreement ending on April 30, 2017, unfortunately the new company is not going to renew the agreement. That decision is nothing personal regarding Spencer, the new company is simply trying to cut costs.
“I know this is not the news you wanted to hear, but please know that we appreciate Spencer’s time with the UFC and we wish him, you and your family all the best.”
Ending Fisher’s contract helped put UFC on track for a planned $6 million reduction in business expenses under new ownership. Only fighters UFC President Dana White liked, guys like UFC Hall of Famers like Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, were known to get a deal like Spencer’s.
Stars like Liddell and Hughes hardly did more than press palms and pose for pictures. On paper, that was Fisher’s job. But he hadn’t done any appearances for awhile. And yet, the $5,000 checks he’d been guaranteed showed up every month. They kept him afloat, and after being evaluated by three medical providers – including two neurologists – as having symptoms consistent with a future diagnosis of CTE, he decided to keep quiet.
Emily, herself a former fighter, had tried to prepare Spencer for the day the money stopped coming. She told him not to depend on the UFC to take care of him forever. The UFC was a business, fighters were a product, and eventually, the well would run dry. Spencer, though, believed White would figure something out, find some way to keep him working, make him useful. As his symptoms worsened, he wrote long texts asking for help, asking what he could do to earn his money, trying to appeal to his boss’s heart.
After the company sold in 2016 for approximately $4 billion, White stopped responding.
The month the attorney’s email showed up, Spencer’s health insurance had jumped to almost $550 per month, and Emily had already written a plea to the UFC’s attorney. She’d written how she’d forgone full-time work to care for her husband and their kids. Spencer had recently been declared permanently disabled and unable to work by one neurologist. Emily needed medical records so he could continue his treatment, but she said the last clinic where the UFC had sent Spencer refused to release the records, directing her to the UFC. When athletic commissions had refused to license Spencer, the UFC had offered help. Now, it appeared they were done helping.
“F*ck,” Emily thought as she read the email. “What the hell do we do?”
When you watch an MMA fight, do you think about what happens after the fighters step out of the cage? What happens in the hospital transport, on the plane ride home, the two weeks after the event, five years after a career comes to an abrupt halt? You don’t often hear that story told, and it’s not often in an ex-fighter’s best interest to tell it.
It’s been eight years since Fisher last stepped out of the octagon, and seven since he was forced to retire. Casual fans might remember him. Hardcores, most definitely. In 2016, a Bloody Elbow fan poll named “The King” the retired vet they’d most like interviewed.
If you’re of The Ultimate Fighter generation, you should remember Fisher’s most famous picture, plastered on billboards all over the world. It was one of those great punch-faces that perfectly encapsulates this beautiful and brutal sport. Sam Stout had thrown a leg kick, and his hands were down, inviting a counter. And there was Fisher to oblige, throwing a perfect cross that rotated Stout’s chin and announced to the world, “These guys are really going at it!”
The date was March 6, 2006, roughly 11 months after The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale, and the event was UFC 58. The UFC was beginning to dig itself out of a $40 million hole. There was a new TV deal and opportunities abound for guys like Fisher, who got his start as a portly 5-foot-7, 218-pound mountain kid with a reputation for knocking out 300-pound opponents.
Fisher got his start fighting in rec centers, and by the time he made it to the UFC, he had 15 professional bouts on his resume. Back then, you needed a lot of experience to fight in the octagon, and two losses got you released from your contract.
Fisher had a Hostess Cupcake in his hand when his manager offered the Stout fight on two days’ notice. In that time, he cut 23 pounds to make weight for the fight. When his teammates at Miletich Fighting Systems – home to several MMA champions and an infamously tough gym – locked him in a sauna, he sucked air from the bottom of the door. Less than 24 hours later, he relied equally on heart and his training at Miletich to deliver a “Fight of the Year” candidate. Two of the gym’s most decorated fighters, founder Pat Miletich and Jens Pulver, competed to see who could drop Spencer first on his first day at the gym. Both lost.
Whether he was training or fighting, Fisher was always advancing on his opponents, taking punches and returning with some of the fastest hands at 155 pounds. His wrestling was … OK. He and Stout were the first lightweight bout after the UFC, running at a deficit, had shuttered the weight division for almost two years. Spencer lost a split call that night at UFC 58, but he impressed White. Soon, “The King” was on posters and DVD highlight reels as the sport grew into a juggernaut.
Fisher never made more than five figures for his “show” purse, the minimums paid to fighters. But in those heady days before Reebok was the promotion’s exclusive apparel sponsor, he made up to $200,000 a year in endorsements. He got more fighting opportunities than most, competing 17 times in the octagon. Twice, he got close to a title shot. He lived a life of modest fame.
“Spencer ‘The King’ Fisher has been one of my favorite fighters in the UFC for a while now,” White said before a No. 1 contender bout against Frankie Edgar at UFC 78 in 2007. “This kid, when you think of the word fighter, and what a fighter is supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do, Spencer ‘The King’ Fisher is the epitome of a fighter. This kid’s been in some of the best fights in UFC history – some of his fights now are classic fights in the UFC.”
Those classics came with a physical price: broken hands, torn shoulder, torn retina, fused neck, bulging discs, a plastic buckle in his right eye, and the lesions on Fisher’s brain that retired him before his planned retirement bout. They may also have caused severe neurological symptoms that left him unable to hold a regular job. The money he made over seven years in the octagon is long gone. He had no idea the ultimate cost of fighting.
“I’m just beat up, and it’s just gotten worse, like all my injuries are catching up with me now, aside from the brain thing, which is the biggest one, because it adds, it adds the depression, and putting things, thoughts together and staying on track,” says Fisher, now 44. “It makes all that tougher to do, too.”
The list of former UFC fighters to go public with self-reported and diagnosed neurological issues from fighting remains short. Aside from Spencer, none have said they received income from the UFC after diagnosis. As a generation of UFC fighters from the mid-2000s move to the next chapter of life, serious questions remain about the outcomes they face. The UFC and other fight promoters continue to bankroll research into the effects of brain trauma. But the industry leader’s long-term plan for those who’ve suffered permanent damage as the result of their time in the octagon is unknown.
In response to a detailed list of questions about Spencer’s history with the UFC, a promotion official declined to comment for the story.
Now, Spencer wants to tell others about what happens when you take punches and don’t have an exit plan. He doubts the message will be heard. It took him seven years since his career ended just to voice it.
“If I can stop anybody else from having to deal with it, that would be good,” he says. “But I don’t think they’ll listen. They have their dreams. I don’t know if I ever listened.”
Glory Martial Arts and Fitness sits next to a tanning salon in a squat, brick strip mall off Main Street in Sylva, N.C. The town of 2,724 near the Tennessee border was the backdrop for the train crash scene in “The Fugitive.”
The 1,000 square-foot gym used to be a Curves. In the workout area, there’s a single treadmill, a steel rack with a single heavy bag, a double-end speed ball and a heavy rope. The gym’s front desk is an old office model strewn with flyers and a solitary UFC hat. A smattering of kids’ toys sit next to a bathroom and closet. The gym’s wrestling mat was acquired from a local high school.
The signature of Glory’s co-owner is there in the little touches. A black-and-white picture of a vintage carnival wrestling match. Glass-encased fight shorts. And there is the man himself, posing beside two other headliners from the 2000s, Rashad Evans and Hermes Franca. It’s an odd choice for a showpiece, considering it was one of the worst nights of Spencer’s life. He could take it down, but he’s not sure if there’s anything to replace it. To the dozen students on the mat and the outside world, posters like these are the marker of his credibility. If you want to learn to fight from an actual UFC fighter, this is the place to go. You’ll get to know a very reluctant sensei.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, Spencer stands at the front of a class and calls out combinations. As the students try out the moves, he parks himself in front of a dry erase board and checks a stack of papers on a shelf. He takes a step back, mimes a combo, then checks the papers again. A round bell rings, and he calls the next combo. Emily steps up to be the striking dummy. She thinks there’s an extra hook in the combo and smiles when she adds it to Spencer’s order. “No,” grunts her husband of 19 years, and her smile drops. She turns back to her partner, game face back on, and the class resumes, the assortment of weekend warriors and one guy with muay Thai shorts following the UFC veteran.
If you want to be a fighter, Spencer doesn’t make things easy. A couple of rounds go by, and it’s apparent nobody is headhunting, and that’s by design. Spencer doesn’t want them hitting each other there, he explains later. The sign out front says Glory Martial Arts and Fitness, not Glory MMA, because he doesn’t want to attract MMA fighters. The random guy who showed up and suplexed a training partner without warning was kicked out the same day.
Still, fighting is what Spencer knows, and what he’s good at. It’s part of his advertising. So when he has to, he lets them get a taste of real combat with a light sparring session. He also has an MMA class taught by a substitute. But now, it bothers him to see people get hit.
At the end of class, Emily upsells disinfectant wipes and announces dues, and a handful of fives and 10s hit the desk. She runs the business side of the gym; Spencer doesn’t like confrontations or dealing with money, she says. This modest dojo is helping the Fisher family stay afloat; Emily’s day job as a fitness coordinator at a hospital was cut to part-time when the pandemic hit.
When they lived in Bettendorf, Iowa, home of Miletich, after the end of Spencer’s career, there were good state assistance programs. But in 2017, when they moved to North Carolina to start over, they made just over the monthly income required to qualify for Medicaid. Spencer has not applied for social security disability, though he likely would qualify. Right now, it’s Emily’s part-time job that provides the insurance they need to cover Spencer’s medications. Even then, he occasionally goes without.
This dojo is more than a job, though. It keeps Spencer connected to his lifelong love of martial arts, and it keeps him moving, which doctors believe is good for his brain. When he stops, his symptoms are much worse.
“You want to fight again, kid from North Carolina?”
It was 1994. The organizer wanted a third fight. Fisher had almost whupped the second guy. But just as he started to turn the tide, a draw was called. In the first fight, Fisher had already been choked out in seconds by Joe Pardo, a future UFC fighter.
Fisher was 18 when he drove across the country with a couple of friends to answer the Gracie Challenge. There was nothing that could deter him from his mission of finding the truth in martial arts. Growing up in Cashiers, a small town favored by the rich for country homes and serviced by suburbs of blue-collar workers, he’d drive 30 minutes to West Carolina just to watch an Iowa MMA promotion, Xtreme Challenge, on his friend’s computer.
Rickson Gracie, the most mysterious and legendary of the Gracie family, was his god. The Brazilians were the first family of no-holds barred fighting and the driving force behind the first UFC. Jiu-jitsu was their secret weapon, and they used it to show their superiority to all those who showed up (often with cameras rolling) at their gym in Torrance, Calif. The organizer kept asking Fisher to fight until he was exhausted: After brutal back-to-back matches, he fought to a draw with guy No. 3.
It was in Rickson Gracie’s image – with a little hillbilly hat tip – that Fisher sought the biggest challenges anywhere they could be found. A Dairy Queen, for example. Folks in line for Blizzards got quite the show when Fisher and a buddy went 2-on-2 on the tiny lawn outside the restaurant with guys from a local dojo. Fisher filmed it for his own version of “Gracies in Action,” the VHS tape considered holy writ among fighters.
“It wasn’t to beat people up,” remembers Gary Steuber, a childhood friend who practiced martial arts with Spencer and often tagged along for the fights. “It was more for him to see what he looked like and see if he could keep his composure, and he would always try to use jiu-jitsu and the things we learned.
“I knew Spencer was special in that he would fight anyone at any time. That’s where we differed. I think I had a little more empathy, and that’s what made me realize I’m not a fighter, being around Spencer.”
One day, Steuber says, their teacher sat them down and warned them that professional fighting would probably leave them broke and broken. But Fisher had already made up his mind. He drove to Stecoah, a tiny venue outside Asheville, to fight Toughman and mixed rules fights. Kickboxing-only, MMA, anything goes, Spencer did it all. He won five Toughmans and pocketed $5,000.
His boxing coach, Reggie Holland, told him he’d never get anywhere in small-town North Carolina. He and Emily had taken a seminar with Miletich – actually, he rolled and she watched, cash being low – and figured he’d kickstart his career in Iowa, home of Xtreme Challenge.
In the early 2000s, Miletich Fighting Systems was a brand name in the world of MMA. Those who represented the team carried instant credibility in the octagon, and those who sought to join were forced to prove they could withstand inhuman amounts of punishment.
The abuse started on Fisher’s first night in Bettendorf. Miletich guys called him Billy (short for hillbilly), and aimed liver shots to short-circuit his body. After his first crucible of sparring rounds, he went to the bathroom to fix something with his nose. When he returned to the floor, his sweatshirt was a shotgun spread of blood booger.
Spencer was this close to quitting. He thought the abuse was personal. “They hate me,” he told Emily. But they did it to everyone. His boxing coach at Miletich, Matt Pena, remembers a newcomer who’d been at the gym for a week and was struggling to finish a workout. Matt Hughes – one of those Hall of Fame fighters who would later enjoy post-career contracts with the UFC – took notice.
“Matt went over to him and told him, ‘Get the hell out. You’re a sickness. You’re contagious, and you’re going to get us all sick,’” Pena said. (Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.)
Fisher didn’t want to be that guy. So, he started running. He stuck around after class. There were more beatings, until there weren’t. One day, Miletich asked him to teach. He became a sparring dummy for Jeremy Horn, a future UFC title challenger, traveling across the country to corner teammates. He signed with Monte Cox, then one of the biggest managers in the business, and racked up wins on the local circuit.
Before Spencer’s octagon debut at UFC Fight Night 2, Steuber, who later directed Fisher in the 2007 documentary “The Man in the Arena,” walked up to commentators Joe Rogan and Eddie Bravo.
“My friend who I grew up with is fighting Thiago Alves,” he announced.
“Well, this might be a rough night for your friend,” Rogan replied. “Thiago Alves is a beast.”
“Well, Spencer’s a beast,” Steuber shot back.
Rogan and Bravo gushed that Alves had beaten Jason Chambers, and Chambers – a black belt in Bravo’s 10th Planet jiu-jitsu system – was also “a beast.”
“I said, ‘Well, we’ll see,’” Gary remembers. “And they actually made me doubt Spencer for the first time. Maybe he’s in the big leagues, and I should keep my mouth shut. I remember Rogan said during the broadcast, ‘Well, supposedly Spencer is tough and has good hands.’”
For much of the fight, it looked like Spencer’s wrestling would be his downfall. But late in the second round, he wrapped his legs around Alves’ neck to secure a triangle choke and a tapout. “We cried together after he won,” Steuber says.
“You’re hobbling,” Emily says as Spencer walks in and plunks down a bill from a private jiu-jitsu lesson. He had to cancel the lesson halfway through when the room started spinning.
Students help keep Spencer on track in the dojo when he gets off track. Some of them know what’s going on. Christie, a yoga instructor, offers to put stuff in his coffee to fix his brain. He does his best to appear normal. In the mornings, he and Emily drill the lesson plan. It used to be he could remember the sequences perfectly. Now, he needs those sheets of paper, and the pile keeps growing.
Spencer drinks a glass of ice water and crunches the cubes as he slumps on the table. Eyes downcast, he scoots his chair back and leans forward, head in his hands.
“Like, I’m spinning, spinning, right now,” he says. “I just get overwhelmed. I had these spells all the time, but sometimes, they get worse than others. When I get stressed out, one thing leads to another, then another, and another. I was trying to think of what I did this morning. I can’t remember, and I didn’t write it down. It was chokes, and I was trying to go over it with her at the gym, and she’s like, ‘This is not what you did. This is not working,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t do it.’ So I just texted my buddy to see if he could cover for me.”
His 5-year-old, Kyra, named after the famous female competitor of the Gracie family, tugs on his shirt. She’s hungry and can’t get his next oldest, Lucia, 13, to make her food. He stands up, and – smack! – his upper leg hits the table, his outstretched leg saving him a fall. Walking to the kitchen, he keeps his right hand close to a counter, tracing a half-circle with his feet on the way to the stove. He finds a pot and a package of Ramen noodles. There’s a long beat as he stares at the pantry. Before he can boil water, Emily re-appears from around the corner and takes over. Kyra now wants a popsicle.
Back at the table, he cradles his head in his left hand, closing his eyes.
“You dizzy?” Emily asks.
“Have you had anything else to eat?”
“Well, let me make you a sandwich.”
Spencer asks whether the air conditioning is on as he labors through a plastic-wrapped bologna sandwich. Kyra gives him another tug. Fine, another bite. A few minutes later, he asks again about the air conditioning. As he gets another glass of water, an ice cube hits the floor. He freezes. Emily snatches it before he can bend over to grab it. “It’s alright,” she says.
“I get like this quite a bit,” he says, and Kyra gives him another look.
“Let Daddy eat his sandwich! You want the Meclizine?” Emily asks.
“Daddy,” Kyra starts.
“Do I need to make another sandwich?” Emily asks.
The Meclizine treats Spencer’s vertigo. Then there’s Memantine to enhance his cognition, Adderall for concentration, Eszopiclone for insomnia, Cariprazine for mania and depression, Ambien for sleep. Downers in the evening and uppers to get him going in the morning. He is used to coping, though, no matter what.
“I keep it bottled up for the most part,” he says. “I was back and forth on [talking to a journalist.] Like, I don’t know, should I do this, should I not. If they’re going to blackball me, but what more could they do? It’s not like I get tickets or anything like that anymore, anything, so I thought, why not? I damn sure wouldn’t want to tell anybody else. But I damn sure wouldn’t want this on anyone else.”
Still, Spencer fears the consequences of speaking out. What people will think. His legacy. Being erased from the history books by the UFC. Losing his current students. He never wanted to be that guy, the one who complained about the price of admission everyone knew, or thought they knew. The decision to tell his story came when he gave up on help from White.
“I thought I might as well do it now, before I don’t have a story to tell, before I can’t tell it,” he says. “I just don’t want to be considered a punch-drunk fighter that can’t put my sentences together.”
No medications can fully take away the symptoms he experiences. There’s only learning to live with them.
“They said, ‘We can’t fix it,’” Emily says. “I’m like, I know you can’t fix it. Just help us deal with it.”
Spencer and Emily met at a party in a parking lot in 2001. Emily asked if anyone wanted anything on a grocery run, and Spencer, drunk, blurted out “doughnuts!” They weren’t the right kind, he teased her when she came back with the treat. But they did start a conversation. He would joke later with friends and family that that was the moment he knew. Emily, a tomboy who made the boys wrestling team in Sylva, asked him to teach her some moves. Soon, they were inseparable.
Like any couple married for over a decade, they’ve been through a lot. In the living room, a photo album traces the arc of their dual careers in combat sports. There are lots of fist poses, of course, and a striking post-fight shot of Emily staring into the audience, her eyes filled with piercing intensity. She explains she was upset when her opponent, getting beat up, cussed her.
No one knows better what Spencer is going through and what he needs than Emily. She is the best historian of his condition and the intermediary he requires. She remembers the man that was the life of the party and the one that struggles to get by. Earlier that afternoon, as she digs through an old filing cabinet in the basement, she draws closer and lowers her voice.
“One thing if you look at him, look at this cheek, it’s atrophied,” she says. (Changes in facial expression can be linked to dementia and other neurological disorders.) “That’s definitely been getting worse. If he’s on his medication, he talks too fast, and then there’s times where he talks too slow, and he’ll drool and spit a lot when he’s teaching. He doesn’t do it all the time. Yesterday, when you came in, he started getting anxious, and when he gets anxious, his symptoms seem to flare up, and he gets off-balance.”
In 2017, they moved back to Sylva from Bettendorf and bought the house, down a lonely road outside town, from her parents. The intent was to start over with some family help for the increasingly demanding task of keeping the family in working order. Then Emily’s parents moved, leaving her mostly on her own to juggle several jobs, three children, and the management of Spencer’s ongoing medical care. One week before the move, he went to the ER complaining of chest pains after a run.
When it was clear he could no longer fight, Emily dug through Spencer’s medical records, hoping to prove his issues were the result of his time in the UFC. A friend referred them to a lawyer who’d worked on the NFL concussion lawsuit and also did jiu-jitsu. Eventually, though, Emily decided she had enough to deal with already. She and Spencer didn’t want to make waves. Around the same time, she took on a personal training client that had Parkinson’s disease. Things started to make more sense.
“I had one guy I used to train, and he could barely walk, couldn’t stay stable,” she says. “But I had him do karaoke, where you move your feet in a twisting, stepping motion, and he would just fly. I had a hard time keeping up with him. This man would come in on a walker. He goes, ‘I used to be a dance instructor.’”
After opening Glory, she and Spencer founded the Rock Steady Boxing Smokies, a club at Glory for seniors with neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The program’s aim was to connect movement to deeper parts of the brain so that simple tasks of daily living don’t become overwhelming. Emily did a lot of learning on the job. The more she worked with patients, the more she understood her husband, and vice versa.
When Spencer does jiu-jitsu, he’s more able to flow, and his symptoms lessen, she says. It’s tedious, memory-based tasks where he’s vulnerable. Back in Iowa, she remembers a “needy pain in the ass” student that repeatedly sent Spencer into a tailspin. Several times, she says, he pulled the car over on the way home and had a reaction.
“He’d just kind of black out and have, like, a slight convulsion,” she says. “It wasn’t epilepsy, but it was a convulsion. I’ve seen him do it a couple of times, where his eyes are open…” She freezes her face and flutters her eyes. “Just kind of, gone. I just sit there and shake him to get him to come back, and he always starts sweating afterward.”
With alpha tendencies and expertise in hand-to-hand combat, the Fishers’ relationship was never placid. But it was after a 2007 loss to Hermes Franca, Emily says, that things started to change. Spencer’s temper grew more frequent and more explosive. He was scary to drive with. He would lapse into depression and withdraw, requiring therapist-like patience to draw out the feelings that had caused him to spiral. At times, she lost it.
“I remember just getting upset and crying and going, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you listening to me right now?’” she says.
In those family papers in the basement, there’s a petition for divorce filed in 2014. It was her second with Spencer.
“I was pregnant,” she says. “I’d had enough. He started going to his doctor’s appointments on a regular basis. We did some counseling. It was a rough time.”
It’s been three years since that email from the UFC arrived. She hid it from Spencer for as long as she could. But her panic didn’t last. Whatever was going to happen, she was resolved to make a plan and take action. She loved Spencer, and she had faced her doubts about the relationship. She’d committed to a life with her husband, however imperfect.
“My worry is just down the road,” she says. “I worry about, I nag him about what he eats, I nag him about his exercise routine, I just nag him about little things. He’s probably sick of me just nagging at him, about how he takes care of himself. Because I know what the future looks like, and seeing how spouses [deal with it], and it’s just tiring. That worries me. I worry about, what if he has another heart issue come up, or what if something else happens, because my clients with neurological disorders, any time something else happens to them, it makes their mind worse. Sometimes, they can come back from it, and sometimes they can’t.”
Spencer and Emily called it “the old man test.” Fighters 36 and older are required by athletic commissions to submit an electroencephalography, or EEG, that records the electrical activity in the brain. Over Spencer’s 10-year career in MMA, he’d never had to take one to be licensed to fight, and as it happened, it was for a bout he said would probably be his last. Injuries had started piling up, and one year earlier, Stout had handed him a second loss in a rare non-title trilogy. That might have been the end of his career. But at the post-fight press conference, Dana suggested he shouldn’t retire.
“I thought Spencer Fisher looked as good as he’s ever looked tonight,” White said. “Maybe he’ll rethink that.”
Fighting was how Spencer made his living, so it wasn’t tough to reconsider. Finding a good matchup for his swan song was difficult.
“Not really choices right now,” wrote then-UFC matchmaker Joe Silva in an email to Emily. “If guys want to fight in UFC it has to be against whom I have available. If everyone got to pick and choose their fights I would never be able to fill my contractual obligations.” (Silva did not respond to a request for comment.)
Spencer had asked not to face a wrestler in his final trip to the octagon. The last thing he wanted was an opponent who’d deny a fistfight. Eventually, Silva offered Yves Edwards, advertised as “a striker who is 2-3 in his last 5,” at UFC on FOX 8 on July 27, 2013 in Seattle. It was the perfect sendoff, Spencer thought. Two veterans scrapping without a thought of a takedown. The UFC sent the bout agreement and made travel arrangements.
Spencer’s now-mandated EEG returned a “mildly abnormal” result, showing “temporal slowing, which could be seen from old structural injury or trauma.” He had reported headaches and memory problems to the doctor. The results had been forwarded to the UFC and the Washington State Athletic Commission. The commission denied his license, and the UFC paid him his show money and took him off the card.
The news was jarring. But the Fishers remember Silva and the UFC’s chief medical consultant, Jeff Davidson, were more irritated than anything else.
“‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’” Spencer says were Silva’s first words. “This is my life we’re talking about. How was I supposed to know? I had no control over this.” (Silva did not respond to an email requesting comment. Davidson, via the UFC, declined comment.)
Soon, Spencer got an email from the UFC extending his contract by six months, the promotion’s standard policy for contractees who are injured or drop out of bouts. Still, he was determined to fight. There was a question of whether his use of the antidepressant Wellbutrin had thrown off the results, so he scheduled another brain examination. Emily inquired about using the promotion’s accident insurance policy; she was told the potential injury didn’t happen in training and wasn’t covered.
A July 22 test delivered the same bad news, with a frightening addition: “bilateral destructive lesions” on his brain. Doctors advised more testing. Davidson, wrote the UFC’s medical coordinator, seemed optimistic. He thought the second test was “better than the last one,” she wrote, but he required a neurologist evaluation to clear Spencer.
Planning for the worst, Emily wrote an email directly to White.
“This news has put Spencer in the worse [sic] depressed state I have ever seen him in and brought a huge cloud over our whole family,” she wrote. “To see his spirit broken from being told that the only thing he ever loved to do may not be possible anymore has broken my heart. He’s just not the man he used to be. And I know he is scared of how he’s going to provide for us in the future.
“So, I’m asking you, if the worst-case scenario does happen and the neurologist here does not give the OK for Spencer to compete again, what other options are available for him?”
Allison Sowers was new at Neurology Consultants in Davenport, Iowa, or at least new to Spencer. In the past, fame had benefited him with doctors, whether they admired his octagon work or tried to keep up at the gym. There was no such relationship with Sowers, a physician’s assistant who replaced Spencer’s previous doctor. She looked at the EEG results, took Spencer through the cognitive tests and made up her mind about his condition.
“I discussed with the patient and his wife that his symptoms are very concerning for chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” wrote Sowers in an Aug. 14 report from the visit. “I think he needs to avoid any further head injuries and I would recommend retiring from ultimate fighting. … If blood tests are unremarkable, then I do believe his symptoms are likely [the] result of the multiple concussive and subconcussive head injuries he has sustained from ultimate fighting.”
Spencer didn’t like Sowers, so they got an opinion from a neurologist at the clinic. Same result. “Mr. Fisher’s symptoms are concerning for chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” wrote Rodney Short. “I have advised Mr. Fisher to retire from ultimate fighting.”
Spencer wouldn’t give in. This was how he made a living. He called the boss.
“What’s going on with this stuff? Do you want to fight or not?” he remembers of White’s reaction. “Come to Las Vegas and see my doc.” Spencer thought for sure he was in the clear and headed to the UFC’s home city.
“Unable to perform on [right side],” wrote the doc, neurologist Dr. Andrew Schnure, of Spencer’s attempt to hop on one foot during a test. “Falls to right,” he wrote of a balance test. “Unable to tandem walk.”
Spencer was bouncing off the walls that day, according to Emily. Spencer remembers desperation as he watched the doctor’s reactions.
“I was trying to have Emily help me, because she was in the room,” says Spencer. “They’d ask me what floor [I was on], and I’d look at her. But it got to the point that I was missing too many, and she wouldn’t help me. I’m like, goddammit. I was mad at her, because I was trying to fight. Then she’d start telling all my problems. It just went downhill from there.”
By then, Sowers had put her foot down and wouldn’t run any more tests. Short issued a memo declaring him “permanently disabled and unable to work.” Spencer still wasn’t ready to give up.
In a sport where concussions and subconcussive impacts are not the byproduct, but one of the goals, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to trace the punch that changes everything. But for Spencer, that punch came on Jan. 25, 2007. At the time, he couldn’t remember it. In the stands of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., he looked over at Emily, panicked.
“I’ve got to fight!” he said. He had no recollection of getting out of the octagon hours earlier with Hermes Franca at UFC Fight Night 8.
“No, you already fought,” she corrected.
Eventually, he understood he’d been knocked out on his feet in the second round. Headaches weren’t unfamiliar things before that night. At Miletich, sparring was as close to fighting as possible; it wasn’t uncommon to leave a session with a grinding throb between your ears. This fight was different, though. At the airport the day after the event, Spencer picked out a line on the floor and tried to walk it. His balance was gone. “Goddamn, I’m f*cked up,” he thought. That was the last time he tried to do that.
The immediate symptoms – headaches, dizziness and nausea – lasted for one week. Then came a wave of depression. He rationalized he was just upset about the loss. But from that point on, he says, things never felt the same. Not only did the symptoms pay more frequent visits, but he feared the consequences of a big punch. He reasoned that better technique might decrease the chances of repeating that experience, but he was facing a new opponent in the octagon – himself.
“I felt like something was broken in me,” he says.
The UFC offered him a rematch with Stout, wanting to rekindle that magic. In training camp, he tore his labrum in his right shoulder. Rather than withdraw and lose a payday, he worked through the pain. He developed a serious staph infection. A teammate introduced him to Vicodin; he found the drug acted as a stimulant rather than as the depressant it is.
“I could always guess when he was up, because he was just bouncing around, hyper, talkative, and I was like, well, we’ll give it two hours, and the other Spencer will show up,” Emily says.
When he returned to the octagon, Spencer was never better. After another three rounds with Stout, he was clearly the winner. But even after that high, there was another crash of depression.
Meanwhile, his habit grew. At his peak, Spencer ate 30 five-milligram Vicodins a day, having gotten a script from a doctor. Emily has pictures of Spencer cornering fighters, his face sallow. Once, she had to drag him back on the mat after he quit in the middle of a training session. The pills, which depressed his breathing, left him exhausted.
Spencer had learned to endure the extreme highs and lows of the sport, so the push and pull of addiction wasn’t a stretch – it just rode shotgun with the anxiety and insomnia and depression that encroached as years passed.
In 2010, he went cold turkey just before UFC 104 at the Staples Center. He showed up in the throes of withdrawal; his boxing coach took him to a local GNC to try and flush his system. Still, he was there to put on a show. Backstage in the cavernous arena, Spencer leapt into the air when Dana came by and yelled, “Show me that flying knee,” a nod to his classic knockout victory over Matt Wiman three years earlier. He lost by second-round TKO after he was hit with a flurry of elbows.
Eventually, Spencer decided to clean himself up. Doctors prescribed Suboxone, used to treat opiate addiction, and he kicked the habit. By then, friends had already started noticing small changes in his behavior. Slight ticks in speech, a terrible memory, shifting behavior, doubt. He was still fighting, and he assured friends he’d been checked out, so nobody took it that seriously.
“Emily would go into their little North Carolina [twang] with him being country and try and hide it,” remembers Matt Pena. “They would try and mask it. ‘He doesn’t remember things because he’s been hit in the head too much.’ But then he’s openly telling you, I don’t remember this. You just see little things happening. His moods change quite a bit.”
In the 2007 documentary, Spencer told his childhood friend Gary Steuber, “I don’t want to stay with this so long that my kids can’t have a conversation with me. We were talking about taking beatings, and I have a hard time remembering things that I did when I was 17, 18 years old. I just imagine what that’s going to be like in 20 more years, 10 more years.”
One night, Gary remembers getting a call from Fisher. The tough guy who never betrayed pain at taking a punch was crying. He had gotten lost driving home and had no idea where he was.
“These guns have killed more people than anything.”
UFC President Dana White was explaining art on the wall of his swanky Las Vegas office that depicted two pistols representing the Old and New Testament.
After the crushing news of those bad EEGs, the Fishers were there for a meeting with senior executives on Spencer’s future. If doctors wouldn’t let him fight, Spencer reasoned, there must be something else he could do. Emily remembers UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta’s look of concern as she described changes in Spencer’s behavior. Spencer remembers the UFC president’s attempt at empathy.
“Dana tried to tell us that he had problems, too,” he says.
“Because he used to fight, spar,” adds Emily with a snicker.
Ever since he’d gotten into the UFC, Spencer’s goal was to impress the UFC president. White took a shine to him after he broke his opponent’s jaw in his second octagon fight. Here was the most powerful man in MMA singing his praises, talking title shots, holding him up as the example of a fighter’s fighter. Ever since he’d seen the UFC, he’d wanted to fight in the octagon. He grew up an angry kid, raised by his grandparents after his mother died at 43 of an aneurysm and his father, an abusive alcoholic, committed suicide six months later. Father figure might be a little strong, but White definitely held sway over him.
“I really took Dana at everything he said, like, I know it sounds silly – I don’t care if it sounds silly, but most guys do it – I was fighting for his approval,” Spencer says now. “People can say what they want to, but at the end of the day, he hires and fires, and you go out there and put on a show, and that’s what they want.”
It wasn’t a bond on equal terms. In 2009, Spencer flew to Vegas to show White a rough cut of “The Man in the Arena.” White had agreed to let Gary Steuber use UFC footage to finish it. Gary quit his job and spent $100,000 on production. Then White reneged as Spencer held the video in his hand at UFC headquarters (White, via the UFC, declined to comment.)
“So what am I supposed to do?” Spencer remembers. “He gave me $10,000, and I started to say thank you. And he said, ‘No, you’re going to play that.’” They hit the casino.
“I was playing $100 hands,” Spencer says. “We had the table all to ourselves. He lost $50,000 or $60,000, more than that, in 30 minutes. That could have paid for the documentary.” Steuber eventually released the film without the footage.
In 2013, Spencer still didn’t have a clear picture of what was going on in his brain. He knew things were not good, but he also really didn’t want to know how bad. Parkinson’s and dementia weren’t regular topics of conversation at Miletich. If you got rocked in sparring, you sat down and waited it out. If you had a fight coming up, maybe you got back up and went back at it. That was just part of the deal.
Fertitta offered his assistant’s number to start the search for another neurologist. Thereafter, Emily spoke with the then-UFC owner a few times, telling him Spencer sometimes got “explosive.” Spencer told her to keep quiet. If no one knew the whole truth, he might get the right opinion and fight again.
On paper, Dr. Peter Warinner was a Massachusetts-based neurologist “involved in the study, evaluation and treatment of athletes with CTE or potential CTE,” the UFC’s attorney wrote in an email. Emily and Spencer, though, remember him described in another way: a “skeptic” of the neurological disease. They didn’t have the money to do more expensive testing, so they agreed when the UFC offered to cover the bill for a visit to the doctor’s clinic.
One month later, Spencer and Emily sat in Warinner’s office in Wellesley, Mass., recounting all the symptoms that had become part of his daily life. Daily headaches, sometimes so bad he vomited. Insomnia and medication that made him sleep-text, sleep-cook, and once, almost, sleep-drive. Episodes of disorientation. A short temper “substantially more intense” with inability to manage stress. In short, many classic symptoms of a neurological disorder.
In his report, Warinner concluded Spencer had “subjective and objective cognitive impairment-behavior disorder,” but speculated it could be the result of insomnia or depression, or, more likely, a combination of factors. He ordered another battery of tests, including a spinal tap.
Five months after that first bad EEG, the doctor wrote to the UFC: Spencer had “clinical manifestations” that were “concerning for some chronic neurological disorder,” and later added, “in the setting of clinical history of repetitive head trauma, highly suspicious for developing the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” In bold font, he noted the levels of phosphorylated tau protein in Spencer’s spinal fluid – one measure of potential neurodegenerative disease – was “highly abnormally elevated.”
The UFC, Warinner wrote, was “extremely concerned” for Spencer and wanted to help, “being especially desirous to detect CTE, and desirous to make an appropriate ‘return-to-play’ neurological decision.”
Now, the decision was clear: Spencer should never fight again.
The pins on the Google map were UFC gyms. White’s assistant had emailed it in 2014, two months after Warinner’s diagnosis. The promotion offered Sacramento as a single destination where Spencer could teach. A retirement plan, sort of. But moving the family across the country from Iowa, away from any help, was a non-starter for Emily. A PR deal was the second offer.
According to his contract, Spencer was to “attend UFC-designated fan interaction activities,” “act as a brand ambassador,” “report verbally and in writing on a scheduled basis,” and any other services “as reasonably directed” by the fight promotion. The company could order Spencer to do interviews, participate in multi-city tours, or post on social media. Every month, he’d send the company an invoice for “PR and media services.” In return, he’d receive $5,000 a month less taxes. Like most UFC fighter contracts, the deal contained a broad confidentiality provision.
The agreement didn’t explicitly say, “Don’t tell anyone about your potential brain damage,” but that’s the way Spencer took it.
“I wasn’t going to say anything in the beginning, because I knew basically what it was,” he says. “I just figured it was to keep me occupied and keep me shut up.”
Before putting pen to paper, Emily emailed a local attorney to see what rights they had.
“As far as being terminated I was a little confused as to what they could terminate him over?” she wrote. “Is he able to make comments about Zuffa [UFC’s then-corporate parent company] and the UFC in posts on Facebook and Twitter? Will this prevent us from having a future lawsuit in case his health gets worse? This contract is worded a lot differently than his last ones so I want to make sure that he’s covered and that they keep there [sic] end of the deal and that this isn’t a way to give him a job and then let him go for any reason.”
Spencer signed the contract, which took effect May 1, 2014. He vaguely remembers a few events where he served as a special guest of the UFC. But there weren’t exactly a lot of events in the Midwest, so there wasn’t much demand for former fighters from the Midwest. Pretty soon, it was clear he was being paid to do nothing. Frustrated, he texted Dana: I want to earn my money.
“Don’t worry about it, you’ve still got two years left,” he remembers the UFC boss writing via text. “I’m going to take care of you.”
The way Spencer’s symptoms were progressing, that wasn’t much reassurance. With the help of a friend, he drafted a letter to Christopher Seeger, the attorney who did jiu-jitsu.
“I am experiencing very serious medical issues having to do with my years of fighting in the UFC, including significant neurological damage,” he wrote. “My primary concern is for my wife and kids and then secondarily my failing health and my future.”
Sitting at the coffee table, Spencer picks up the letter and re-reads it.
“Yeah, I don’t even remember this,” he says.
The letter was never sent. It was an uphill battle anyway. UFC fighters sign away most of their legal rights before they enter the octagon. They are considered independent contractors, and the promotion’s obligations to them are limited. Proving causation, or linking his condition to that 2007 fight, would have been extremely difficult. He told doctors of two known concussions; in 2004, he went to the hospital after getting rocked in a sparring session. In almost every piece of paperwork generated from Spencer’s case, a history of head trauma was documented. Other factors like genetics or previous substance abuse may have played a part. There was just no way to know.
Unlike in the NFL, where the league was accused of obscuring the consequences of repeated hits to the head, the UFC is a combat sport with punches to the head that have been known since the early 1900s to cause lifelong health problems. Research now suggests it’s not the punches that short circuit your brain – the knockout blows – that cause irreversible damage, but all of the shots just short of that dramatic effect that, for some, start the clock toward cognitive decline, dementia, and eventually, death. Spencer had taken too many of those to count.
As he started to realize what he was up against, all Spencer wanted to know was what was going to happen when his contract was up. There were more texts to Dana. Sometimes, the UFC president would text back. But there were no clear answers about the future. In 2016, Spencer enrolled in a brain study on fighters and other professional athletes – funded in part by the UFC – at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. On the part of the questionnaire asking if he wanted to participate in future studies, he initially answered no. After his diagnosis with Warinner, he volunteered to be a subject.
In October 2019, the Fishers ran into UFC lightweight Gray Maynard and heavyweight Roy Nelson at the Luo Ruvo Center. Maynard asked how he was doing. Spencer looked at Emily, looked at Maynard, and told the story.
“And I was just like, ‘Oh my god,’” Maynard remembers. “I went in my truck and turned on the engine and sat for about 20 minutes. I sat in my truck and I just cried, man. This is a guy that I competed with. This is as serious as it gets.”
After that, Maynard resolved to start speaking out about the UFC’s treatment of fighters.
“I was just looking to be done with the UFC,” he says. “It put it in my head, dude, I’ve got to start standing up to these people. I’ve got to start helping out the people that I bleed with, the people that I sweat with. To be honest, there’s a lot of guys who are just struggling physically, mentally, financially, and if I just walk away and not try to stand up for these guys and go against the machine…because that’s what they are. They’re a machine, and you’re getting in and out, and they’re trying to make as much money as they can out of you.”
The UFC rolled out the red carpet for its 200th pay-per-view event in 2016. UFC 200 was another validation of its status as a multi-billion dollar sports league. A week of events were planned around the July 9 fight card as “a celebration of the heroes and moments that have paved the way.” UFC stars were invited to Vegas to share in the glow.
Spencer and Emily showed up hoping to get some answers about their future. They could feel the clock ticking on the contract, and there were reports the company was up for sale. When they asked a UFC attorney, he dismissed them as rumors. One day later, White confirmed the promotion was acquired by the company later known as Endeavor.
By then, Spencer was being treated by a local doctor in Iowa that had been briefed on his condition by UFC chief medical consultant Davidson. In 2015, the UFC had paid for another trip to Massachusetts to see Dr. Warinner, who found that while Spencer had improved on certain tests, like the level of phosphorylated tau protein in his spinal fluid, he still should never fight. Warinner recommended Spencer undergo formal dementia-protocol neuropsychological testing and get a prescription for a drug used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
On two occasions, Warinner had painted a grave picture about Spencer’s condition. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the end of his work. In December 2016, five months after the company was sold and four months before the expiration of Spencer’s PR contract, he called the Fishers for “a follow-up interview and to clarify certain facts as they presented them,” he wrote in a seven-page “final report” he sent the UFC that same month.
The report was titled, “re: neurological evaluation of Spencer Fisher.” It’s unclear exactly what prompted its creation; Warinner began with, “The question of chronic traumatic encephalopathy had been raised in the past.” At that point, it had been three years since Spencer was barred from fighting. The doctor noted the report was delayed because he hadn’t received Spencer’s medical records from 2015 and 2016. But he made it clear the report was earmarked for Dr. Davidson upon payment by the UFC, and it noted the Fishers would have to go through the promotion to get it. (The UFC provided the report in January 2017 after Emily requested it so Spencer could receive “proper care” from a local neurologist, she wrote in an email.)
Several of Warinner’s assessments remained unchanged. He again concluded Spencer could no longer fight and needed medical treatment. But overall the report struck a far different tone from his 2013 and 2015 reports. It catalogued a series of alarming behaviors he said Spencer and Emily reported during the interview and, for the first time, cast doubt on Spencer’s diagnosis, his credibility and his overall condition.
The doctor also indicated his entire prior diagnosis was undercut by “a discrepancy” in self-reported symptoms that raised the possibility that Spencer was faking his condition, or exaggerating his physical symptoms to benefit from illness. Spencer was either a danger to himself and others and unable to work, he wrote, or he was not. “This needs to be investigated and clarified,” he wrote.
The tau found in Spencer’s spine that was “highly abnormally elevated” after the 2013 visit was still elevated, “but not to a diagnostic extent.”
In the end, Warinner sounded a lot like the skeptic he was described as at the start of the process. He concluded there was no way to objectively link Spencer’s fighting to his current medical condition and opined that there were likely pre-existing issues that were aggravated by the head trauma “inherent to the sport.”
Indeed, the only way to definitively diagnose CTE is after a person has died. There remains widespread disagreement about the way the disease progresses, whom it affects, and how prevalent it is. In an interview, Warinner once indicated CTE was something of destiny.
“I would offer that many of these people, it’s just as possible they were going to wind up with that fate whether they participated in football, or boxing or MMA,” he told CrossFace Productions in 2017. “I believe it has a genetic relationship. I also believe that some of these people need, let’s call it a violent outlet – boxing, MMA, football – an outlet for a pre-existing condition.
“It’s very possible, and I believe this to be true, that if these individuals did not participate in the sports, that they would actually have a worse life and perhaps a shorter life. Participating in organized sports allows them an outlet, otherwise they might wind up being violent criminals, or in jail, or dead.”
Via his assistant, Warinner declined to comment on his reports, citing patient confidentiality. Three doctors who consulted with MMA Fighting said Spencer’s inconsistent symptoms could have been misread, a common issue for certain neurological disorders, or the doctor simply could have gotten incorrect readings on objective tests. They cautioned that the overlapping nature of many symptoms could have made it very hard to pin down exactly what was going on. One even called the measure of tau in Spencer’s spinal cord “total speculation” as a predictor of a future CTE diagnosis.
Spencer believes the information was used to discredit him. The episode left him suspicious of doctors. It also made him more confused than ever about what was really going on inside his brain.
“He tried to change his tune,” he says of Warinner. “It was, ‘Oh, you have these symptoms, and then, well you might have the symptoms.’ I was like, do I or do I not?”
It’s impossible to fully understand the intended purpose of Warinner’s report. It might have just been a formality. But Spencer was nonetheless released from his contract at a time when he reported his symptoms were getting worse.
The golf pro profusely apologizes. He is only allowed to use the jab and hit the body in this “sparring” session, but he mistakenly adds a cross and lightly pops the teenager that’s his partner for the day. The teenager is really fine. Seated on the wrestling mat back at Glory, Spencer barely registers a response.
He put these two together precisely because of this interaction. The golf pro has no intention of becoming a fighter; he just wants to get in shape. The teenager thinks he does. But Spencer remembers a day when an opponent matched the teen’s aggression, and the teen turned his back. A lot of people say they want to be fighters, but very few actually are.
As they work, an older gentleman walks in. The badge on his striped shirt says Clyde. On one calf, he has a tattoo of a hammer. On the other, a very detailed raven. He’s between shifts hauling trash and driving a school bus.
Spencer snaps to attention and walks over.
“I was afraid of this guy,” he says, and tells a story of bowing out of a planned rematch with Clyde at Stecoah. Clyde was the guy he didn’t want to fight. The golf pro gets impatient. Back to work.
“We used to beat the hell out of each other,” Clyde says in a smooth drawl. “That’s why he is the way he is.”
Clyde remembers a visit to Spencer in Iowa. He was cooking outside the house and Spencer disappeared inside. When he went to find him, Spencer had forgotten he was there. That’s when he knew it was bad.
After everyone leaves, Spencer stands a few feet away from his 2007 self and recalls the scariest signpost on the road ahead, his first boxing coach, Walter Seeley.
A former super featherweight champ from Long Island, N.Y., Seeley was a regular at Madison Square Garden. “The Fighting Leprechaun” had a record of 30-5-3 and fought on the undercard of the event where Roberto Duran won his first lightweight title. When Spencer later visited Seeley, he was in a nursing home.
“He would always spar into his 50s and 60s, put the headgear on and go,” Spencer says. “But to see him at that stage, he looked like a little old lady laying in bed. I just don’t want my wife to one day say ‘I can’t handle him, it’s too much,’ and put me in a home. People say, ‘Oh, we’ll come and see you.’ But his family never came and saw him.
“That’s my biggest fear is getting put in a home, and not knowing the difference between someone coming to see me and not. I know it’s a reality that eventually, it’s going to come for me. I just don’t know when.”
There are times when the symptoms disappear and his eyes light up, like when he talks about Rickson Gracie. Or the time renowned boxing coach Freddie Roach held pads for him before his final fight with Stout. There are points where nothing about Spencer’s family life looks any different than you’d expect from an old-school tough guy trying, and often failing, to interact with the modern world, a dad with a very specific set of skills. He obsesses over paranormal activity – yes, he knows this makes him look crazy – and brings his kids along for the ride.
“Lucia! Come here a second,” he yells from the dining table. “What year do you remember what happened?
“This isn’t healthy,” the 13-year-old deadpans as she walks into the room. “I shouldn’t know this.”
“What year was it?”
“That’s right. And where was it at?”
“Just outside Roswell, New Mexico.”
“And how many bodies were there?”
“Three. But only one was alive.”
“And how did they run the craft?”
Putting on a spooky voice, she says, “With their mind.”
“Emily said I’m going to hell for this.”
Then there are the quiet moments, the ones away from everyone but his family, and it’s the same set of problems and Emily asks him how he’s doing and the answer is always the same: spinning, nausea, depression.
Right now, Spencer sees a neurologist in Asheville and a local psychiatrist. The latter has him journaling his feelings; she’s the second one after the first tried to get his driver’s license taken away. He didn’t see anyone for a while after that. Multiple doctors have told him to stop driving and give up his guns. But if he says if he can’t drive, he can’t work, and then he can’t provide for his family. And on the latter, you’re talking to a mountain kid here.
His psychiatrist is trying to get Spencer set up for disability benefits. But Spencer has his pride, and that’s often his biggest obstacle to getting help.
What Emily wants out of this whole ordeal is for the UFC to offer some sort of option for insurance. A tiered system based on tenure, perhaps. Not accident insurance with a $1500 deductible, the UFC’s offering since 2011, but something to help cover the gap for medications and treatment. All these doctors appointments and co-pays sometimes don’t get billed right. That’s when Spencer goes without.
The Fishers pose for a photo outside the house. The family dog Judah, already a giant as a pup, has knocked over lawn furniture. An impulse buy, Emily says, and yet another thing to worry about.
Spencer stops on the porch. If there’s anything he wants before things get too bad, it’s a private lesson with Rickson Gracie. That and proof that all his time in the octagon really happened and isn’t some figment of his imagination.
“Can you get me a copy of my UFC fights?” he asks.
He’s certain he’s not the only one suffering from the damage he took in the octagon. At the Cleveland Clinic, he remembers peeking at a list of fighters participating in the study. Some of them are on the same path. Part of the study is asking fighters if they’ll donate their brains to research, and he’s open to it.
There has never been a death or serious injury in the UFC, White has said over and over again as the promotion turned from fringe oddity to mainstream sport. Spencer would like to remind the UFC president that he exists, that every punch you take has a price, that it’s hard to know that price until it’s too late, and that tough guys are more than commodities to be used and discarded.
What he wishes he’d told himself, and what he wishes others who want to be fighters or even think they want to be fighters, is to plan for the future. Because now, he doesn’t have much of a choice about what’s in front of him, and knowing that is one of the worst parts of all of this.
“Every time I talk to a different psychologist or different neurologist, they’re like, ‘Oh, here’s where you’re at, and here’s where you could be in so many years,’” he says back in the house. “I’m like, I don’t want to hear that sh*t. I guess that’s why I’m doing that [brain] study, to find out how severe. … Like, I can remember my very first phone number I ever had. But yesterday is kind of vague for me.”
“When is my birthday?” Emily interjects, hugging him from behind.
“And then she’ll pull sh*t like that on me,” he says. “September.”
She squeezes him and smiles. “Good job.”