John Hathaway is about two weeks away from returning to the cage after an eight-year layoff from the sport due to a battle with ulcerative colitis.
Now 35, Hathaway is set to fight a TBA opponent on Oct. 15 at Oktagon MMA 36 in Frankfurt. He has a four-fight deal with the European promotion, but said if he proves himself, he could be UFC-bound before completing his contract.
Hathaway never considered hanging up his gloves even as he struggled to overcome the often debilitating symptoms of the disease. His love for combat sports never left, and his desire to compete brought him back.
“I didn’t finish my career in the way that I wanted to finish it,” Hathaway said on The MMA Hour. “I felt like it was a little bit taken away from me, and I’m just lucky that I managed to bring this around and get to where I can compete and do stuff again.”
Ulcerative colitis, a form of Crohn’s disease, causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract, leading to pain, difficulty using the bathroom and weight loss. The disease develops over time and can lead to life-threatening symptoms such as bleeding.
Hathaway said the disease came on after his first professional setback, a decision loss to Mike Pyle in 2010. Some camps he could train normally, and others, he was forced to take an anti-inflammatory medicine that resulted in other unwanted symptoms.
“It’s just kind of a general discomfort,” Hathaway said. “It’s not as painful as getting cut, shot or stabbed or anything like that, but it’s just general, low-level discomfort all the time. When it flares up even worse, it gets even more uncomfortable, just very hard to train to a good level really because you’re constantly fatigued on it.”
After turning down three or four fights, Hathaway realized he couldn’t continue his career while he dealt with the disease. He didn’t officially retire, but the promotion gave him time to work out his health issues. The UFC’s anti-doping partner, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, continued to test him throughout his layoff, a fact he wasn’t particularly bothered by.
“They still tested me at least three, four times a year for the last eight years,” he said. “All the guys that came and tested me were super nice. So I don’t mind. I guess the only annoying thing was large parts of it I was on different medications before I had the surgery. I was on random, wacky immune suppressant medication. After the first couple, I made sure it had it written down on my phone, rather than being like, ‘Oh, I’m on these medications,’ and trying to find what ones I’m actually on, because they’d always catch me at the gym teaching, or sometimes first thing in the morning.
“The good thing about it, I guess, in hindsight, in back to doing this is that I’ve been clean for the last eight years or seven years, so I don’t have to have any set-in period where they’re like, ‘Oh, we need to test you a lot for the next six months to make sure you’re not taking anything.’”
After three surgeries, including one to remove a five-pound piece of his large bowel and another to install a stoma bag for waste, Hathaway said he’s technically cured. Doctors initially worried what would happen if he took a body shot in the gym. Eventually, though, he was able to return to normal functioning. He no longer has the waste bag, and he’s able to train like normal, though his dietary choices affect him more than ever before.
It was not an easy process to get back to health. Hathaway’s low point came after his first surgery as he recovered in the hospital. It was near the Christmas holiday, and the private hospital he’d gone to for the procedure was half-empty. Walking around the empty hallways, he felt like the main character in 28 Days Later, carting around an IV bag as he walked to stimulate his bowel.
Why did it take so long for Hathaway to get to this point? A lot of it has to do with where he left off with the UFC. A one-year layoff is a significant absence. Hathaway had been gone more than a half-decade. Many of the opponents he fought were retired or no longer in the UFC. The idea that he could simply come back and pick up where he left off didn’t seem realistic to his longtime promoter.
“They didn’t really know what to do with me,” Hathaway said. “They didn’t just want to chuck me back in with that long out, just in case I don’t have any ability left in me. … So they kind of asked me to have a tuneup fight somewhere. It took a little while to get an organization that would accept me. … And then it’s taken until now to get it all sorted out.”
If things go well on Oct. 15, Hathaway said he’ll start negotiating with the UFC on a return. Until then, he’s going to enjoy his first trip back to the cage. He never expected to be gone this long, but he’s confident that he’s close to where he was when he left.