It was 14 months ago the last time John Makdessi stepped into the Octagon. He was riding a three-fight winning streak for the first time since joining the UFC and a win against Alan Patrick at UFC 169 would have likely propelled him into the top-15. A victory would have been the affirmation Makdessi needed to prove he was a world-class fighter to both himself and the world.
But Makdessi didn't win that fight; the judges sided with Patrick's outside striking and sporadic takedowns.
Losing lead to intense frustrations for the 29-year-old, and he has struggled for over a year to come to terms with the defeat.
"I'm not going to start blaming or pointing fingers, should haves or could haves," Makdessi said. "The thing about fighting people don't understand is imagine you wake up and feel like shit and you have to go fight?
Even when I don't feel good I still have to go out there and perform."
At UFC 186, Makdessi returns to the cage in his hometown of Montreal. With original opponent Abel Trujillo suffering an injury, he'll now face Canadian striker and K-1 World MAX semi-finalist "Shaolin" Shane Campbell in a main card bout.
It's been a year reflection for Makdessi, who has worked diligently on the mental aspects of combat sports in his time away. He had become unhappy with himself both personally and professionally, and it was impacting his life in negative ways.
"I was not in a happy state of mind," Makdessi says. "I had to restructure my personal life, reassess my training and the guys in my circle. I took time off to reflect on my life. Sometimes there becomes more pressure; I was putting too much pressure on myself."
Performance anxiety weighed heavy on him, as it would on most people who perform in a cage for a living.
In the ‘kill or be killed' world of mixed martial arts where putting on an exciting bout is nearly as important as a victory, a dismal performance can be devastating mentally and financially.
"That's why I worked with a sports psychologist," Makdessi says of his anxiety and stress that comes with being a professional athlete. "It's not about the fight; it's about trying to be a better human being. When you're an athlete, you become selfish. It took me in a black hole."
The anxieties of combat sports are often excused with a win; everyone loves a fighter that's victorious. The stress melts away when everyone in love with you. The sponsors, fans and friends all want a piece of the action as long as you're on the rise. But one loss can change things. All of a sudden you're less appealing.
These pressures are rarely discussed. It's not manly to talk about anxiety, and in a sport where machoism is so prominent, such discussions are rarely had. Fighters are so intently focused on the task at hand, there is rarely room left for anything else.
"I can't keep putting stress on myself. My family was stressed, everyone close to me was stressed," Makdessi said. "I had people in my life trying to change me, it doesn't work like that. Most people don't even know what the fuck they're talking about. I'm in the cage, I know what it takes to be in the cage."
From an early age, Makdessi has never been one to be pushed around. One could say he's stubborn as an ox, or perhaps in his case, a bull.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Makdessi moved to Montreal with his Lebanese-born parents at a young age. He grew up in the Italian community and, as he describes it, was always the odd man out.
"I was always the outcast, the one trying to feel a part of the community," Makdessi said. "In elementary school, high school and college, you want to be accepted. I always wanted to feel accepted."
As a kid, Makdessi would fight on the streets of Montreal like so many others. Winning fights would garner attention, and the foreign kid with the olive skin and dark features liked the attention.
"I grew up in an environment where there was no room for weakness, you had to prove yourself," Makdessi said. "My way of proving myself was to fight my way to respect. It got me into a lot of trouble."
He found himself in trouble often with school and the law for what he describes as "defending myself" and what most would call fighting in the streets. In his mind, as is often the case with agitated youth, an argument meant a fight and he had lots of arguments.
Although not always the biggest kid in the fight, his reputation often proceeded him.
"One of my friends would get into a fight and they'd come to me because I had a reputation," he said. "I go in there to help my friends and next thing I know I'm the one in the fight, I'm the one that gets into trouble"
At 17, Makdessi found a kickboxing gym near his home. The dojo allowed him the opportunity to work with like-minded people; he could fight and develop a skill at the same time. Being in the gym, he got out all of the pent-up aggression that comes with being an irritable teenager. He found somewhere to go where he could fight and not get in trouble.
He made his mixed martial arts debut at 23, finding that there was no financial way to make a living in kickboxing at the time. Now nearly seven years into his professional career as a professional fighter, Makdessi is trying to fall in love all over again with the sport he credits as his savior.
There's a weird irony in combat sports as a tool to save someone's life. To commit a potential life-threatening act as some odd form of self-help is one of the peculiar parts of combat sports that only a fighter can understand. To save himself from the streets of Montreal, Makdessi turned to fighting.
After a year away, this fight means everything to Makdessi. Although he doesn't directly say it, there's a do-or-die feel to Makdessi's fight at UFC 186. All the changes he's made, the friends he's given up and the work he's done is for not if he can't accomplish only thing that matters: win.
"After a one year layoff, I'm ready for anything." Makdessi said. "I hope to God that on that night I can focus on my evolution."