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The Mitchell Paradox - Part V: Losing Time

Previously: Months after a drugs bust a now broke David Mitchell gets his first UFC win. However, victory in the Octagon is not all it’s cracked up to be. Following the fight a heavy depression descends on David and sticks with him, leading up to the worst loss of career.

Artwork by Chad Stanhope

“I think, because of how badly I was concussed and knocked out in that fight, I kind of lost time before and after where... fuck, I don’t really remember.”

That’s David Mitchell trying to recount the summer of 2013 and the lead up to UFC 162, where he’d face Mike Pierce. That January he picked up his first UFC win, a dominant decision over Simeon Thoresen in Chicago. He remembers that, but not what he did with his purse.

David can’t remember his training camp for Pierce. He assumes it went relatively well, since he would have been well healed from the impinged nerve that had him “snake-bit” – as he often says – during his earlier UFC experiences.

Those six months that passed between beating Thoreson and losing to Pierce are mostly a mystery to David. The period represents one of the longest, and most significant, gaps of ‘lost time’ that he can describe. He doesn’t know if the erasure of those memories is because of what happened in the cage with Pierce on July 6th or if it’s because of the damage he would take in the years that followed, which has been substantial. Most likely, a combination of blows, before, after, and certainly during the Pierce fight are to blame.

But the culprit is immaterial. Knowing the when and how does nothing for David. He’s still left with a terrifying void in his mind. The lack of memories, the inability to recall information is a sickening reminder that he has been hurt. And that, along with that pain came a theft.

After something is stolen it feels like nothing a person has, or ever will have, can be safe. When what’s stolen is some money or a car, at least the victim knows that they can get those things back in one form or another. But memories aren’t like that. They are unique, priceless. Precious. And when someone loses them, there’s often no chance of recovery.

I’ve experienced lost time and missing memories just twice in my life. Once was thanks to an embarrassing incident in college where I got blackout drunk and was later served a bill for a broken table. I don’t know what I did, but CCTV alluded to some sort of wrestling match.

The other occasion coincided with the only time I was ever knocked unconscious. That happened on a school yard, I have no idea how. My memory of coming to doesn’t include my eye-lids raising like garage doors or a slow and murky fade from black, just an instant realization that I didn’t know where I was or why everyone was standing around me—why some of them were laughing. I remember a bigger kid walking away, smiling through his train-tracks (braces, where I’m from) and my friend Danny saying, “Don’t worry about it.”

I was terrified. The inability to recall what had just happened left me feeling un-tethered from reality. My mind had been attacked and, for the first time, something had been robbed from within it.

In that moment I had suffered post traumatic amnesia. My brain had been rocked violently enough that whatever note it made of what caused the injury was not saved. Instead it was crumbled up and tossed into God knows where.

These interruptions of short term memory retention are common after a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI — the correct term for injuries that lead to symptoms associated with concussions). To lose long-term memories from blows to the head, as David has, points to something different and far more serious.

Chad Stanhope

David has likely suffered short term amnesia more times than most people. This would account for him not remembering the moments precisely before or after being TKO’d by Mike Pierce inside the UFC Octagon. However, David has also suffered enough head trauma that his memories – and well being – are preyed upon by post concussion syndrome (PCS) and, possibly, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Those more serious, and life altering, conditions are most likely why David can’t remember things that happened a week or a month before the Pierce fight. PCS can affect people who’ve had one mTBI or many of them. It causes the sufferer to experience symptoms of concussion – including headaches, dizziness, irritability, anxiety, memory loss – for some time after the injury. For most people PCS lasts days. For a few it lasts weeks and maybe months. For a small percentage of people it can last years, or even a lifetime.

It’s thought that PCS might be a result of structural damage to the brain, specifically damage that causes a breakdown in the messaging system between the cells that form the ‘memory cities’ of our minds. The symptoms of PCS can be treated to be more manageable. However, if someone is suffering PCS, there is a good chance they are also suffering a number of other ailments as well. Some of which – like CTE or mTBI inflamed mental disorders – might not have a cure.

Though lost time has claimed much of David’s ability to comment on and contextualize his fight with Pierce, there’s enough available information for us to at least know what happened on the surface.

Mitchell vs. Pierce was booked for July 6th, 2013. It went down at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. It was undoubtedly the biggest stage David had ever fought on, though watching footage of the fight doesn’t necessarily tell that story. The bout was the curtain opener of UFC 162, and the first few rows of the arena were mostly empty. They’d fill up later on, though, to watch Chris Weidman dethrone and demystify Anderson Silva.

This was Pierce’s 12th fight in the promotion. The All-American wrestler from Portland had been with ZUFFA since 2009. He brought a record of 16-5 into his fight with David and was coming off three wins (over Seth Baczynski, Aaron Simpson and Carlos Eduardo Rocha). His only UFC losses were to title-challengers Jon Fitch, Johny Hendricks, and Josh Koschek—all by decision.

David looked grim during his walkout. The reason why is lost to us. “I don’t remember a lot of things. I don’t remember the second round, I don’t remember walking out.”

David remembers flashes from the first round. Pierce swung wildly in that stanza, bullied David up against the fence and stooped for a double-leg. But David, a two time Gracie Open champion at this point, was too smart to be taken down. In the clinch he avoided Pierce’s power and landed plenty of his own knees and punches.

UFC 162 Weigh-in
David Mitchell faced Mike Pierce at UFC 162 on July 6, 2013.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

On the mic Joe Rogan was impressed. So was David’s coach; Dave Terrell. In the corner, between rounds one and two, the ‘Soul Assassin’ spoke softly to his protege; telling him he won the round. In the opposite corner Pierce was shaking his head, annoyed and probably feeling the same way.

In the second round it all fell apart. “I don’t really remember the round,” said David—quietly. “I just remember I had a kimura trap, and that’s my favorite move. And I should have just gone for it, all the way, and rolled it out. But, it’s like I heard my coach say, ‘Oh let that go,’ or something. And I let it go, and then I got caught.”

David and Pierce clinched right at the beginning of the round and Pierce was, again, unable to complete a takedown. When they separated Pierce threw punches like he was pitching fastballs, desperate to land and get this funky, tricky grappler out of his way.

David swayed out of range, watching mitts fly overhead or just in front of his nose. Pierce stubbornly shot for another takedown, but couldn’t get it. Another clinch ensued. They broke and this time it was David stepping forward with looping punches.

They missed and the two men clinched in the middle of the cage. David landed more knees and punches to Pierce’s stocky body. Pierce powered him back against the cage. That’s when David saw an opening for his favorite submission setup.

As David placed both his hands on Pierce’s right arm, his opponent took an instinctual step backwards; unthreading his arm from danger and then blasting it forwards towards David’s chin. He glanced David with the right, but behind it came a left that cracked against David’s cheek.

When the second punch landed, David started sinking back towards the canvas—like a SCUBA diver tipping off the edge of a boat. David wouldn’t find water at the end of his fall, though. He hit the mat, his head bobbling around the canvas. Pierce followed him, mercilessly.

Count to ten.

That’s how many strikes landed on David’s head before Steve Mazagatti stopped the fight. Each of them chipped away at David’s grip on consciousness. One of them, a forearm smash, made his eyes glaze over.

David wouldn’t remember any of those strikes thanks to short-term amnesia. Because those hits hadn’t been recorded in his mind, he felt fine. He didn’t know why the fight was over. In his corner David looked at his coaches and asked, “Did we go to Brazil?”

This isn’t a story David likes telling, even if his broken memories shield him from the specifics. There’s pain in his voice when he speaks of it. “Pierce man, that shit sucked.”

“After the fight I was in a different space, I guess. I don’t really remember it and then the first thing I remember was being sent to the hospital. I do remember that. Being alone and waiting for the bullshit tests.”

David now knows how hurt he was, but back then it was hard to tell. “I felt good,” he said. “Kind of euphoria or something—from getting knocked out.”

The ‘bullshit tests’ at the hospital came back negative. David doesn’t know what they were looking for. He said he was then “booted” from the hospital. Alone, he took a cab back to the hotel and arena.

David was used to getting rocked by then. The residual fogginess and headaches he felt after the Pierce fight didn’t concern him. He went back to NorCal eager to get back into the cage.

“I was like, oh cool, I’m just going to train. I’m going to get it back. I think they’re going to give me another shot, because I won the fight before. When you get clipped that hard? When our system fires back up, you’re like, ‘I’m good, let’s go.’”

David’s plan to move on from Pierce like nothing had happened was almost sidelined, however, by a call out of the blue from someone who’d seen the fight and wanted to know if he was OK.

Dr. Gary Furness is a family doctor in Santa Rosa. He’s regularly selected as a ring and cage side physician with the California State Athletic Commission. In 2010 he was in the cage with Fedor Emelianenko, after the Last Emperor’s defeat to Fabricio Werdum. He’s got a picture of his kids with Dave Terrell framed in his office.

After UFC 162 Furness sent David a message on Facebook. “He was like, ‘Buddy you’ve got to come in.’”

At his office Furness shone a light in David’s eyes to observe how he was able to track the light. He told David his eyes were slow and he was concerned. “He said, ‘You need to stop training for a least a couple of weeks. Just chill.’ He made me take like a month off and then I came back in and he tested my eyes and he’s like, you’re cool and you can train.”

When David and I spoke, I’d always have his wikipedia or tapology page open and close by. As he talked about slowing down and allowing himself time to heal, I browsed his record.

David lost to Pierce on July 6th, 2013. His next UFC fight came just a few months later, at UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A turnaround of only 95 days. Three months and change.

I asked David about this quick turnaround and he was shocked. Until I mentioned it, he had no idea that after Pierce and Dr. Furness’ examination he had gotten back into a fight so quickly. “Wow, I didn’t know that. That fast a turnaround?“ David sounded awed that the reality and his memory didn’t match up on this occasion.

Beneath the surprise was sadness, though. Again David was reminded that his brain had been damaged and that, because of this, he couldn’t always trust his memories. “Everything around that time is a little bit hazy,” he admitted.

Yan Cabral was David’s last UFC opponent. Their fight went the distance, with David losing a unanimous decision. The circumstances around the fight were very similar to his first foray into Brazil, when he faced Paulo Thiago. He entered the arena under a shower of boos and the familiar chants of ‘Uh vai morrer’. Like Thiago, Cabral was immensely popular with the hometown fans. He was 10-0 and making his promotional debut after a successful stint on TUF Brazil 2.

The fight was a grueling affair. Much of it was spent on the ground with David using his BJJ to nullify the majority of Cabral’s offense. The Brazilian was able to land some heavy punches, but he got nowhere close on any kind of submission attempt.

“Yeah, my jiu jitsu was good enough that there’s no way some fucking guy is going to finish me,” said David when remembering this fight. “I’m, like, almost too tough for my own good. I don’t know if it’s a confidence thing or what, but I never thought much of any of those guys’ jiu jitsu. They weren’t going to finish me. The only way they were going to get the win was, like Pierce, knock me out. [Cabral] didn’t have nothing like that. So you can take a pretty strong beating in those sort of fights. Because you go 15 minutes. It’s rugged.”

David was exhausted by the time the final bell rang. He put his head in his hands and slowly made it to his feet. Cabral was tired, too. David helped him up and raised the Brazilian’s hand.

He felt woozy after the fight with Cabral, but he said he couldn’t remember much of what happened afterwards. “I don’t recall,” he said when I asked for details of the time spent in Sao Paulo or the trip home. He likely knew his UFC career was over at this point and whether he remembered that time or not, he didn’t feel like revisiting it.

After almost three years and five fights David was out of the UFC. When he arrived there he was an 11-0 champion whose bouts had served like a sort of pre-gaming ahead of the wild nights he and his friends would have at the Tachi Palace afterwards. He was flush with cash back then, too—with a profitable weed farm hidden in Mendocino County. The wins, and training to get those wins, had their side effects – headaches and dizziness, mostly – but those symptoms were manageable enough for David to shrug off. His bouts with depression during that period were far harder to ignore. Those crept up on him throughout his winning streak and spiked just as he signed his first UFC contract.

When he left the UFC his weed farm was gone and he was broke. His previously perfect record now stood at 12-4. His feelings of invincibility – stoked by a reputation for being an unbeatable bad ass fighter – had shrunk, if not completely disappeared. And his health, though not at critical levels of concern yet, had diminished as a result of five grueling contests against the best opponents he’d ever met.

However, some things hadn’t changed. The depression he felt on the eve of his UFC signing had lingered with him throughout the three years that followed, spiking even further after defeats, court dates and overdraft notices.

Being cut from the UFC caused another spike in David’s depression. Years later David would be diagnosed with Bipolar disorder (BD); a condition that causes sufferers to experience both emotional highs, often to a manic degree, and periods of dreadful depression.

For the most part David accepts his diagnosis and can point to many times in his life where he had sprung between manic and depressive episodes. Today, though, he struggles to unpack what role both his lifestyle and his history of concussions have played in this. He doesn’t know if he would have had the same mental health issues without fighting. He also doesn’t know if his highs and lows would have been there without the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.

Brain injury and mental disorders are linked. Numerous studies have shown that people who suffer mTBIs face greater risks of depression. Moreover, some studies have shown a greater risk of bipolar spectrum disorders as a result of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

David doesn’t doubt that his MMA career has drastically affected his physical health. But he’s not all there on believing that MMA has also contributed to his depression and bipolar disorder. It’s hard for him to blame this on MMA, because he knows these things have been with him for a very long time.

“The depression has been a struggle for as long as I can remember, since I was three years old. My earliest memories are quite bad. I’ve had a lot of sadness in my life and maybe that’s why I lived so extreme; fought MMA, partied, did drugs, did everything. Maybe I was trying to find it—a way to get out and get away from that.

“I had some really good times, but it’s a struggle that I’ve gone through my whole life. When I first tried to get some help it was—you know, they just tried to put me on drugs, and none of that stuff really worked for me. I tried Lexipro and Zoloft and probably half dozen other anti-depressants. Really none of that stuff worked.”

David finds it difficult to track the chronology of his treatment for mental illness. He can’t quite remember when he was diagnosed with BD or prescribed medication. “My recollection is a little foggy on that,” he said. He thinks he sought help both before and after his UFC stint, but he’s sure that after getting cut he needed it more than ever.

“I think, when I was 11-0, I was just kind of riding the high and everything was pretty decent. When I started losing, and then my business went into shambles? That combination of everything else, that’s when it got really hard and I started not knowing what to do—and thinking about suicide and stuff like that. And like, man, it’s just been an off and on dial ever since.”

Now removed from MMA, and after having undergone some therapy, David is in a better place now (something we’ll discuss later in this series). Unfortunately, between leaving the UFC and making it to that better place, things got a lot worse.

At 34-years-old the only thing David had made money at, legally, was fighting. He’d been successful on the local scene before, but it was just a hobby for him back then; a cover for what was really making him money. It was a way to boost his ego, to get girls. Now, for the first time in his life, he had to fight to survive.

In the next installment of The Mitchell Paradox David embarks on his post-UFC career where the fights are easier, but life is harder.

The Mitchell Paradox - Part VI: Bulletproof will be released next Tuesday, only on Bloody Elbow.

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