On March 1st, 2015, David Mitchell woke up with a headache that wouldn’t go away for two years.
The night before, he had beaten Dave Huckaba – on short notice – to win the West Coast Fighting Championship heavyweight title. That victory came on the tail of a year-plus hustle on the NorCal fight scene, following David’s release from the UFC. Over that span he had won seven-fights in a row and lifted three belts.
The streak earned him an invite back to the Octagon. But David wouldn’t return.
“By that time I had so much anger and resentment built up,” said David remembering the time he said no to Joe Silva. “I was too angry to make a good decision and that really kind of continued for just a couple of years there; where I just started spiraling. Whether it was concussions or the depression, I don’t know.”
Concussion symptoms were catching up to David, fast. And the damage to his head was augmenting his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. After declining the UFC’s offer, David immediately began regretting his decision. It’s a decision that, depending on his mood, he still regrets to this day.
“2014 was a really good year and then 2015 I just totally crashed out. Crashed and burned and turned down Joe Silva and took a fight for $1,000. I did some really idiotic stuff.”
After Huckaba and the Silva-call, David sunk deep into feelings of worthlessness; the wins, the belts, did nothing for him. His imposter syndrome made him feel that, no matter how much he won, how much he earned, he was a failure. It didn’t matter that he had just beaten a man that loomed over him like a giant. David felt weak, afraid and – as he often did in these times – deserving of punishment.
To punish himself for what he saw as a bad decision – turning down the UFC, despite loathing his time there – David sought out something, or someone, that would bring him pain.
On June 6th, 2015 he met Marcel Fortuna for the Dragon House light heavyweight title.
David said he didn’t train for the Fortuna fight. He didn’t care enough to try. Even if he wanted to train, his head was too banged up to let him. At this time there a was constant ringing in his mind, bright lights made him sick, and even the lightest sparring sessions had become dangerous. Just a glancing blow could make his world spin.
He walked into the Fortuna fight like a zombie. He knew this was a reckless decision, but he was confident he could survive the beating and bank another check. Planning past that was beyond the capabilities of 2015-David Mitchell.
The fight was in Oakland. Fortuna, who was repping American Kickboxing Academy at the time, was 29-years-old—six years younger than David. He debuted with Dragon House in 2012, losing to two-time TUF veteran Jesse Taylor. He won his next four fights in a row, however, capturing the promotion’s title in 2014 and defending it twice.
The fight went the distance, with Fortuna shutting David out on all three scorecards. It’s a fight David looks back on with disgust. He barely wanted to talk about it. Much of it he’d forgotten, either because of degraded brain tissue or because he had forced it out of his mind.
Against Fortuna, David was too tough for his own good. And once again, that meant he got seriously hurt. Fortuna was a second degree Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. He took David down throughout their fight. He attempted submissions and attained full mount on a handful of occasions. But David had enough BJJ acumen to defend every bad position. He got out of every submission attempt and was able to escape mount after taking just a couple of licks of ground-and-pound.
Thanks to David’s craft and toughness, Fortuna couldn’t deliver a single burst of massive damage—the kind of thing that stops fights. Instead the bout dragged on. The slow, incremental beating didn’t look savage, but it may have done more damage than a quick KO ever could.
David was exhausted and foggy at the final bell, but he managed to smile, nod in respect and raise Fortuna’s hand.
He walked out of the arena feeling sick. He doesn’t remember (or at least didn’t want to share) much else.
Everything he felt after the Huckaba fight was heightened after his loss to Fortuna. To make matters worse, three days later David got rocked in sparring. After that it was impossible for him to deny the damage that had been done. He began understanding that, thanks to fighting, training and a few other circumstances along the way, his quality of life – and income – was seriously under threat.
If he couldn’t fight, David didn’t know what else to do. He’d tried the civilian life... and hated it. The thought of a future unknown, and the ending of all that was familiar and reliable – albeit damaging – shook him. Feeding into his crisis was the constant buzz and blur that had strapped itself to his consciousness. It was all getting to be too much. He couldn’t breathe. His feet itched. He was going to run, again.
David then received life-altering news. The news would result in the greatest source of happiness in his life, but in 2015 it served like a starter’s pistol. It sent him sprinting as far away as he could go. And when he did, he ran so far that he almost never came back.
“I found out I was going to have a baby and I just couldn’t really handle it,” said David. “I left Sacramento the next day.”
David fled to Colorado. He had a fight booked there for July 18th, just six weeks after the Fortuna fight. He went there early to train and ignore any calls coming out of California.
“So, it’s another—I can’t believe for like the third or fourth time, I’m telling you this story,” said David, breaking from the narrative. “I can see the pattern of my life so much clearer. Hopefully, that will help me make a good plan for the rest of it, and not keep repeating these patterns.”
Today that seems likely. But at the time he was headed to Colorado, there was no chance of David recognizing his patterns or doing anything to break them. Leaving town at that time is another thing David looks back on with regret.
“I did not probably handle it the best, but I was not really capable. You kind of lose, when you’re that concussed, your normal. Like it becomes difficult to do a lot of tasks, you know?”
David was concussed in Colorado. He couldn’t really train. He was dizzy every day he was there. The altitude made everything worse. He was doing his best to pretend everything was OK. He just wanted to get to fight night.
“I was in really bad shape and I had a fight scheduled. I was trying to train, I was just kind of—and I knew I had this baby coming at the same time. I didn’t really have much of a relationship, was thinking I wasn’t going to be much of a father. She was pretty much telling me she could handle it on her. I didn’t know what I was doing.
“I was pretty much lost—still trying to fight when I couldn’t even train. But I’m out there, and I’m trying to get a little help, and I go to a chiropractor [for neck pain]. He just kind of looks at my eyes and gives me the rundown and tells me what’s going on. He’s like, ‘I just beg you, please, please do not do this fight. Maybe you can return to MMA at some point. You’re in really bad shape, badly concussed and you need to take a break.’ And I listened to that guy.
“He maybe saved my life or something. I just called the promoter and I said, ‘Man, I got a bad concussion thing, I can’t fight.’ He’s like, ‘Well, I’d like to see a doctor’s note.’ [I said] ‘Well it doesn’t really matter, you know, I’m sorry. I’m not going to fight.’
I should have said that so many times.”
Immediately after that call with the promoter David packed his bags and left town. He hadn’t told anyone else he was going. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He wasn’t sure of that himself. All he knew was that he wanted to drive. So he did. Into the desert.
His general target was home. But David, prone to last-minute changes and risky decision-making, was in a constant fight with himself over whether or not to stay the course. He wasn’t looking forward to the life that waited for him back in California. Visions of disappearing from his responsibilities – from everything – tempted him.
Denver to Sacramento is a 19-hour drive. David doesn’t remember how long it took him. He took the I-80 all the way, curving through Wyoming and Utah before hitting northern Nevada.
He drove through the Great Salt Lake Desert before finding the shadows of Battle Mountain. In 93 degree heat he skirted the Humboldt river and cruised into a valley of lost gold rush towns. The view from the highway was a relentless beige, only interrupted by flashes of tea green from bleached sage brush that had cracked through the hardpan.
As David crept towards the California-border he got into trouble. “I was going up this mountain and I looked down and my shit’s red-lined.”
David’s old station wagon was being driven to the limit. Everything was overheated, failing. He pulled over and popped the hood. Steam flew into his face, barely noticeable against the hot winds of the desert.
He got back in and started the car. It ran, but he couldn’t get it into drive. The gearbox was shot. The only gear he could get working was reverse. “So I was just like, you know what, fuck it.”
David put the car into reverse and spun it around so the rear faced California. Then he drove it, backwards, along the hard shoulder. He drove like this until he managed to crest the top of a hill. At the summit he turned the car back around, but he still couldn’t get it to drive forwards.
“I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no water,” remembers David.
On the side of the road David had plenty of time to think. However, his concussed brain didn’t make it easy. It was difficult to string together coherent thoughts and plans for the future. The headaches and vertigo made planning the next ten minutes hard enough.
Alone by the highway, unable to think far ahead, with past memories beginning to crumble away, time started to lose most of its meaning for David. He has no idea how long he was sat there.
Eventually, though, salvation came; not out of the blue or the recesses of his mind, but out of a truck.
A figure sidled up to David, silhouetted again the harsh low sun. As if got nearer, it’s stature shrank to reveal a short man with blocks for hands. Beyond him vapors made a gleaming big rig dance like reflections in a fun-house mirror. The man moved closer, sun light wrapped around his dark figure, illuminating his scorched skin and look of concern—the block-shaped hands transforming into alms; a gallon of water and a quart of oil.
“Let that thing cool off for a couple of hours,” he said. “It’s thirty miles down hill from here, you should be alright.”
And then he was gone.
David followed the strangers instructions. “I drove that thing the rest of the way to California and somehow made it to where I am today, but I had a pretty tough time back there.”
As it had for centuries of travelers, the desert rewarded David for surviving its perils. Just like prophets and philosophers who – when confronted by the barren vistas – were forced to focus with their inward eye, David left the desolate void with a newfound perspective. He was grateful to be leaving. And he had, for the first time in a while, hope that where he was going would be better.
“When I finally came back it was, okay, figure out what I was going to do. I’m going to stay in my son’s life, I’m going to get some help for these concussions, and that’s what I did.”
None of this was easy. “It was like crawling up a mountain,” lamented David, who knew exactly how that felt.
Though he was committed to getting healthy and building a relationship with the soon to be mother of his child, David was still battling familiar demons. “I was pretty fucked up. I had a lot of symptoms and stuff.”
As he’d done before, David took a break from fighting. He may have hoped it would be a permanent one, but at this point, there were still a few more fights (and a lot more damage) in his future. During this hiatus he took a job at a farmers’ market and focused on jiu jitsu, since that was the only aspect of training that didn’t make his head spin.
During this phase he also turned to his mother for help. She took him in and tried to guide him through his new reality of impending parenthood. She also attempted to ease David’s pain.
“My mom helped me. And I remember being so bad, so badly concussed that I’d fall asleep at maybe 9 o’clock because I was exhausted. But, then I’d wake up at like 10 or 10:30 thinking it was morning. But it was only 10:30 and it seemed like ten hours of nightmares, night terrors, sweating. I would climb in bed with my own mother and be like, ‘Mom, I can’t deal with this situation.’”
With his mother’s help David discovered Mercy Medical, an organization that could offer him free medical care. At Mercy Medical David was officially diagnosed with post concussion syndrome. “It was really clear that I was suffering with PCS,” remembers David who added that Mercy Medical told him his condition was “pretty severe” and “on an NFL level.”
David said that Mercy Medical taught him a lot about how to manage symptoms of concussion. On their instructions he avoided certain foods, stopped smoking weed and played brain games. All of it seemed to help, a little. Around this time he got into therapy, too. He was prescribed anti-depressants, but stopped taking them after a poor reaction.
Despite feeling a little better, David was still suffering from a near constant, and often overlapping, rotation of headaches, vertigo and fatigue. A heavy depression hung on him throughout. He spent many days shut inside his apartment with the blinds drawn.
During his self-isolation, David began to feel the call of the cage again. His head felt better than it did after Huckaba and Fortuna. And he grew confident that he could once again win some fights without getting hurt. “I didn’t really know what else to do,” recalled David. “I didn’t really want to work for 10 bucks an hour at the farmers market forever.”
Six months after his fight with Fortuna, his flight to Colorado and his wild journey home, David accepted another fight. It was for the West Coast Fighting Championship middleweight title, against Max Griffin; the fighter David had been calling out ever since his release from the UFC.
“My mom was really mad that I took it,” said David, his voice ringing with regret. “Obviously it was not the best decision. But I did kind of go in and got some good training. I felt good, but I thought, man, I’m going to stand and fight this guy standing. That didn’t work out for me. I think I was just wild like that, you know? I think it was my head problems. I just wasn’t right. So embarrassing. I got knocked out again. Pretty severely.”
Taking the Griffin fight caused fractures between David and his family that are yet to fully heal. “Me and my family don’t really talk much anymore,” said David, sadly. “I think I pushed them a little too far.”
After the KO loss to Griffin, David had a better idea of how to treat his latest mild traumatic brain injury. He didn’t drink afterwards and instead went home and slept for a few days. “I don’t really remember exactly what happened next.”
Thanks to Tapology I was able to tell David that he fought three more times in 2016. He won each of those fights by submission. He competed under the name ‘Crazy Train’, which had been assigned to him by Justin Bucholz, then of Team Alpha Male.
“I don’t even remember winning three fights,” remarked David. He was deadpan, as if this shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. He took a second to think and some of 2016 slowly started to come back.
“The only one I remember is the one in Croatia,” he said at first, referring to his last fight of 2016. “Oh, oh yeah, I went to Massachusetts, too, that’s right...”
For these fights David trained around his damaged brain. “I just kind of hit the mits. And I got kind of dizzy, and I was like, ‘that’s enough of that, let’s chill out.’ I did a lot of meditation.”
Running and wrestling also made David dizzy. So he stuck to jiu jitsu and only lightly worked the pads when he could stand it. “I didn’t hit mitts like I used to hit mitts. I used to smash, smash, smash—and I’d be the loudest, gnarliest dude in the gym.”
David has trouble distinguishing one fight from another in that 2016 run. He does remember going into one bout feeling dizzy, however. “I remember right away I got hit. It was like that red flash that you get—where my head went back and blood flew up and I had a feeling like, ‘Oh that’s it, I’m done, I’m about to get knocked out again.’ But somehow I held on and got a hold of him and did my jiu jitsu thing and I got him. None of those fights were fights I should have probably done.”
His third win of 2016 scored David another title. These local titles don’t pay the bills, though. David was still struggling to make ends meet. That situation was exacerbated when he quit his job at the farmer’s market so he could train full-time. At 36, he was back to thinking he could make MMA his full-time job again.
“Now I’m recalling that win streak, because it got lost in the memory jumble. Yeah, I got better and better and then by the third fight, I was like, ‘Man, I’m kind of back on my game.’”
However, his next fight would be his last.
On March 11th, 2017 David traveled to Manchester, England to compete at ACB 54. His opponent, Ibragim Chuzhigaev, was 7-4 and coming off three stoppage victories. Looking back on it, David knows he shouldn’t have taken the fight. He knew it in the moment, too.
“Going into that fight was PTSD, mixed with post concussion syndrome, [I was thinking] I shouldn’t be here, I’m really dizzy.” The fight ended in the third round, via TKO.
“When the guy finally got the stoppage on me, I was pretty grateful to just get out of there. Kind of had to curl up for a while after. Had maybe like a near death experience, where I just curled up. Man, I was fucked up.”
Sickened from the damage he’d taken overseas David returned to California. After the positive experience with treatment from Mercy Medical, David knew he wanted to seek more medical treatment for his PCS. He was beyond pretending or ignoring that his head had not been terribly damaged over the past 10 years and 28 pro fights.
This time he didn’t opt for the free care at Mercy Medical. Instead he decided to pay for something more specialized. He could afford that, thanks to finally selling his house in Santa Rosa. He’d bought that property with profits from his old weed business and had rented it out ever since moving to Sacramento.
David explained that going from property rich and cash poor to having several hundreds of thousands of dollars in his hands sent him through a loop. “It was just too much for me,” he said. “I think right after that [ACB] fight I kind of ghosted one last time.”
This time, when David returned from absentia (he didn’t discuss what this period of ghosting consisted of), he still had a lot of money to his name. He took $8,000 of that money and went to Provo, Utah. There he spent a week at Cognitive FX, a post-concussion treatment center.
“It was probably the best money I even spent.”
In Provo, David had the most thorough examinations of his life. The results were unsettling, but not unexpected. The doctors at Cognitive FX told him his scores were comparable to the worst of those collected from NFL football players. He’d heard the comparison before—at Mercy Medical. This time, though, a doctor gave this comparison a context that David had never considered.
They told him that they had experienced NFL players with bad brain injuries wrestling over whether or not to keep playing. Those players had to consider whether their long term health was worth the $3-5 million they could make if they could play through a season.
“She’s like, ‘Are you making money like that?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely not. I’m making dirt.’ And she was like, ‘You really should – we gave you a second chance with your brain – think about what you want to do with the rest of your life, with what you want to do with that chance.’ I don’t think I’ve been hit in the head since then. I was like, that’s it, I’m good.”
In the final installment of The Mitchell Paradox David finds somewhere he can get better.
The Mitchell Paradox - Part VIII: Sanctuary will be released next Tuesday, only on Bloody Elbow.