Injuries are commonplace when it comes to sports and physical activities. Unfortunately, the human body is not meant to last forever and will break down over time. When you’re supposed to use it as a weapon in something like mixed martial arts, injuries are all the more prevalent.
Obviously, any injury isn’t good. But in the minds of most, there are some that are much worse or more impactful than others. One of the more common and often claimed to be worse types of injuries are related to the knee. Whether it’s tears or sprains of the ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL, whatever it may be, issues with the knees have always been regarded as career-altering. But in reality, how much have they actually affected the careers of fighters? Did they instantly become worse after going through the pain and struggle they were forced to endure? History seems to show otherwise. At least when looking at some of the more notable fighters.
When anyone thinks of knee injuries in MMA, their mind likely will automatically go to former UFC bantamweight king Dominick Cruz. A man who has suffered a litany of injuries to his lower body over the course of his legendary career. Specifically his knees.
Cruz has suffered three ACL tears during his life and they all occurred within a four-year span. At the time of the first injury, he was on top of the world as the reigning undisputed UFC champion having just defended the title successfully for the second time. It was his fourth consecutive defense as a champion.
Sidelined for almost a full three years, Cruz would return to action after two ACL tears on the same knee and a torn groin. In his return fight after being stripped of his title due to inactivity, he took on a top 5 ranked Takeya Mizugaki and finished him with strikes in just 61 seconds. He looked better than ever.
As someone notorious for their innovative and groundbreaking movement-oriented fighting style, many critics put the blame on that for the reason Cruz’s lower body seemingly started to break down. Yet it didn’t stop him from doing exactly what he was doing prior to his absences.
Following the Mizugaki win, Cruz was lined up to fight for the title he never lost … however, fate had other plans as he would end up tearing the ACL in his other knee thus leaving him sidelined for another year. Miraculously, he would come back to recapture the title regardless and go on to add another title defense to his resume afterward. Cruz is undeniably a unique and special case but we’ve seen others have success on grand scales as well. Of course, what he achieved is forever going to be hard to ever top. And if you’re a fighter, you’d preferably never want to have to try and top it.
Widely considered one of the greatest fighters of all-time, if not the greatest of all-time, Georges St-Pierre also dealt with torn ACLs in his career.
The Canadian would score a massive win over former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields in what was at the time the biggest card in UFC history, UFC 129 in 2011. Towards the end of that year, St-Pierre sustained the injury that put him on the shelf for 10-months.
In his return, he faced off with the now interim champion, Carlos Condit. Aside from a scare via head kick in the third round, St-Pierre would dominate the fight in vintage fashion by using his superior wrestling to defeat the threatening striker. St-Pierre then faced off with his bitter rival Nick Diaz who he too defeated with relative ease before going to war with Johny Hendricks and also coming out on top in that one. “GSP” then walked off into the sunset and did so unbeaten.
During his retirement, he got another surgery to repair a second torn ACL and eventually would come back to MMA four years later. Doing so at a higher weight class and for a title, St-Pierre pulled off the unthinkable and became a two-weight champion.
It’s almost as if these guys got better after their injuries… Okay, okay. Yeah, those are two large exceptions. What about some others?
Carlos Condit was mentioned in relation to St-Pierre. He also would suffer an ill-fated knee injury. And we happened to get to see his occur inside the Octagon.
Now two fights removed from his fight with St-Pierre, Condit was matched with former Strikeforce standout, Tyron Woodley. A series of leg kicks from the explosive wrestler turned knockout artist would do Condit’s knee in. Therefore earning Woodley a second-round TKO.
“The Natural Born Killer” returned a year later and put on a classic showing against Thiago Alves to get back in the win column. It would be enough for the UFC to reward him with another title shot despite being 2-2 and alternating wins and losses since his last shot at gold.
Against the new champion in Robbie Lawler, Condit battled valiantly in a fight that many believe he should have won. Instead, Lawler’s hand was raised as the split decision scorecards were read aloud. Since then, Condit has lost four additional times in a row to put him on a skid of five. Having been finished in three of those bouts, he’s undeniably become a shell of his former self at age 36.
But can that be contributed to his knee injury or an accumulation of his 40-plus fights? Perhaps a combination of both?
Similarly to Condit, his fellow welterweight Mike Pierce suffered leg injuries inside the Octagon at the hands of his opponent. Although, the situations were drastically different.
While Condit’s injury appeared to stem from a takedown, Pierce got caught in a heel hook against Rousimar Palhares who wrenched on Pierce’s leg beyond the point of Pierce’s tapping. This level of poor sportsmanship was nothing new for the Brazilian in Palhares and he was subsequently released from the UFC following his actions. Unfortunately, the damage had been done to Pierce and he was out for two years healing his knee and ankle. When he returned in late 2015, he suffered a unanimous decision loss to Ryan LaFlare and would be released a month later. Now 39, Pierce hasn’t fought since and likely won’t.
Sticking with this pattern of mid-fight injury, even Conor McGregor himself had a similar instance happen to him.
In his second UFC bout, McGregor clashed with his fellow future titleholder, Max Holloway. The fight wound up being the first of McGregor’s career to see the final bell and he made it there on one leg and picked up the win. The Irishman returned around 11 months later and continued on with his iconic streak that eventually led to some history being made. It doesn’t exactly need explaining at this point … McGregor was completely unphased by his injury in the long-run.
Essentially, catastrophic knee injuries aren’t extremely common in MMA. And when they have happened, they’ve happened to rather notable competitors and this has gone without even mentioning Tony Ferguson and Joseph Benavidez who have also remained successful post-injury.
As for the likes of others who might not be quite at the same level as those already mentioned, there is Maycee Barber and Thiago Santos who are both currently recovering from their own variants of knee injuries. Seeing how they come back will be interesting as we also consider their respective ages.
Obviously, injuries are never good and we all prefer that they don’t happen. But they aren’t always the end of the world like they are often exaggerated out to be.