Seeing Is Believing

Alan Belcher returns to the Octagon.

There are a lot of things taken for granted when waking up in the morning, not the least of which is the ability to see. Alan Belcher was no different. Throughout a six-year pro career, worrying about his vision wasn’t part of his daily concerns. A rising fighter in the UFC’s middleweight division and a winner of four of his last five bouts with four straight fight night bonuses, Belcher was right where he wanted to be—a breakout star in a division that needed some excitement.

In June 2010, Belcher was granted his first UFC main event—a fight against recent title challenger Demian Maia on Spike TV that was to serve as the lead-in for Season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter. Belcher was in the best shape of his career, and a win would have certainly put him in Dana White’s famous “title mix” conversation.

Out of Sight

Belcher was in Brazil training with Daniel Moraes and Rickson Gracie one month before his scheduled fight with Maia. One morning, he got up like he did every day, but something was different. He had trouble seeing out of his right eye, an experience replicated by holding your hand over the center of your right eye where all you can see is the outline.

“I thought it was going to go away,” Belcher says. “I waited another day, but it got worse,”

Belcher went to a doctor who diagnosed him with a detached retina, caused by gradually worsening retinal tears, a condition that traditionally affects people in their 50s. The doctor gave Belcher some easy advice to follow—go home and get surgery immediately. The alternative? Long-term, irreparable damage.

“I got on a plane and was in surgery the next day,” says Belcher. “My world was upside down from that moment on. A lot of things changed and made me look at life differently.”

After surgery, Belcher sat on the sidelines for the duration of 2010. He was green lit to resume training in early 2011, and cleared to begin sparring in the spring. Belcher called the time “depressing,” but the 27-year-old has an attitude that keeps him away from the negative—even when faced with the possibility of a career-ending injury.

“I try to not let anything negative keep me down or weigh on me,” he says. “I found positive things about taking the time off, including letting my body heal from nagging injuries. Really, I feel a lot better. I feel smarter, wiser, like a veteran. Things are going very well.”

Along with his wife and young daughter, Belcher got a lot of positive support from the guys at his new gym, appropriately named the Alan Belcher MMA Club. The 10,000-square-foot facility in D’Iberville, Mississippi, has become a destination point for people—children to adults—looking to train in various disciplines of MMA. Belcher’s vision is to attract both prospective fighters and those who are looking to get in shape through MMA training, without actually competing. While Belcher has been running various martial arts schools for years, the club is the first that carries his name, and, with nearly 30 employees, the venue is a place that gives him a great sense of pride.

“I’ve taken everything that I’ve learned about running my schools in the past and will try to make a flawless masterpiece,” Belcher says. “Hopefully, it will be one of the best programs in the country very soon. I really want to bridge the gap between the spectator and the person who actually learns MMA. I think it’s the future of MMA—people watching a UFC fight on their couch, and the next day, they’ll go train just for the fun of it.”

The Comeback

More than a year after he went under the knife and 16 months after he last competed, Belcher is ready to reclaim his star status when he faces Jason MacDonald on Sept. 17 at UFC Fight Night in New Orleans, Louisiana—a city just an hour outside his home of Biloxi, Mississippi. After being cleared by his doctor, Belcher didn’t want to rush back to the cage unprepared. His team looked at potential opponents and cards, spotting New Orleans and locking it in. MacDonald was the first opponent offered—and one that Belcher is ready for.

“It’s a perfect fight for my comeback,” says Belcher, estimating that 500 to 600 of his supporters will come to the area for the event. “MacDonald is a challenging opponent, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and train for it. I’ll be in top shape. We’re going to put on a great fight.”

Before the injury, Belcher (16-6) was on the cusp of big things. The 11-fight Octagon veteran had a standout 2009, submitting Denis Kang at UFC 93, losing a controversial split decision to Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100, and knocking out Wilson Gouveia at UFC 107. He opened 2010 by submitting Patrick Cote in the second round of UFC 113, earning Submission of the Night honors in the process—his fourth straight event earning a bonus check.

But that was May 2010, and in the fast-paced world of MMA, it feels like a lifetime ago. New challengers such as Brian Stann have emerged, constants like Chris Leben and Michael Bisping have resurged, and new faces like Jason “Mayhem” Miller have joined the Zuffa payroll.

Suddenly, Belcher finds himself needing to re-establish himself and regain the ground that he lost in the last year. That’s fine by him. “Even if MacDonald isn’t a top-10 guy, this is a fight to see if Alan Belcher still has his drive and dedication,” Belcher says. “Do I still have it? Am I rusty? What’s going on? I won’t be judged or ranked until I finish this fight on September 17. That’s my motivation—to go in and pick up where I left off. In my head, I won’t go in there missing a beat. I want to get right back in there and get a top contender slot.”

The Talent

One of Alan Belcher’s most noticeable features is the Johnny Cash tattoo that resides on his upper left arm. What inspired Belcher to put this icon on his body several years ago?

“I was raised on classic country music by my grandparents and especially my dad,” Belcher says. “Johnny Cash was kind of like a religious figure in my family. He’s from Arkansas—not too far from where I grew up. It represents my past, something I had with me growing up. He was from a really small town and became a superstar. It’s amazing to see what small-town people can accomplish. That’s what I want to do—it’s a tribute to that.”

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