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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Sports

MMA fighter ready for comeback on big stage

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TAMPA — Professional mixed martial arts fighter Corey Hill was confident fame and fortune were in his future when he signed with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2007 as a hot prospect in the lightweight division.

Hill achieved the fame, for all the wrong reasons, and none of the fortune.

During a UFC fight Dec. 10, 2008, Hill suffered an injury so horrific that his name remains attached to it. He threw a leg kick, his opponent blocked with his own leg, and when their shins met, a bone in Hill's right leg snapped in half.

The final scene of Hill's short UFC career is him lying on the mat, screaming in agony, as his ankle and foot dangle to the side. If former Washington Redskin Joe Theismann is the poster boy for brutal NFL injuries, for the compound leg fracture he suffered during a game, Hill is the UFC's.

The incident sticks in the minds of UFC fans, to the point that many relived it when another fighter suffered a shocking injury Dec. 29.

Hill, a 35-year-old native and resident of Spring Hill, was wakened shortly before 1 a.m. that day by a text message from a friend that read simply, “Ouch.”

A few similar messages followed.

Hill soon learned about the UFC fights that had just ended. In the main event, middleweight champion Chris Weidman defended his belt against former champion and UFC legend Anderson Silva.

Hill did not watch. But he said he knew what must have happened.

“The first words out of my mouth when I answered the phone when my manager called were, 'Who broke their leg?'” he said.

It was Silva. Known as one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport, he suffered the same break as Hill, in the same manner.

Within moments, sports websites around the world were describing it as “a Corey Hill-like break.”

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“I feel for him,” Hill said. “It was horrible to endure, mentally and physically, and I would never wish that on anyone else. However, if there is a bright side in it for Anderson Silva, it's that he is Anderson Silva.”

If Silva never fights again, said Hill, he was at least able to fulfill his potential.

“It happened to him at the tail end of his career. My career was just getting started.”

He's now working toward a comeback.

Following two years of rehabilitation, Hill has competed eight times for regional promotions, but the UFC — the big leagures of mixed martial arts — never gave him a second chance.

The UFC suggested he work his way back into fight shape with smaller regional promotions.

The results have been mixed. He is 4-4 since returning from the injury, fighting for a few promotions including the Tampa-based Xtreme Fighting Championship.

His .500 record won't earn him back his spot in UFC. Only an extended win streak can do that.

Hill was 28 when he was hurt. At 35, he is too old for the world of mixed martial arts, where the mean age of current UFC champs is 27.

Hill said he is considered disabled by “drop toe,” the inability to lift the front end of the foot.

“I'm not one to complain or use excuses,” Hill said.

“I've overcome too much. Toe troubles aren't going to stop me. I'm just going to keep fighting and getting better. I achieved my UFC dream once. I know I can do it again.”

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An All American wrestler at Springstead High School in Spring Hill and national champion at Colby Community College in Kansas, Hill was what fight experts call a freak.

“He trains harder than anyone I have ever met and has immense physical gifts,” said John Prisco, president of the XFC.

Hill stands 6-foot-4 but has a muscular, lean build and competes in the 155-pound lightweight division. Current UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis is 5-foot-10. Former champion Benson Henderson is 5-foot-9.

With a reach advantage over most fighters in his weight class, a wrestling pedigree and quick hands and feet, Hill got his shot at the big time within 18 months of starting his mixed-martial arts career when he was cast on a UFC reality TV show, “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Sixteen prospects lived in a house together and competed in a tournament that brought the winner a six-figure UFC contract.

“A lot of money,” said Hill, who was working odd jobs at the time.

With only two amateur fights on his resume, Hill was the greenest of the competitors. Others on the show came from famous fighting families or had already fought under the banner of the UFC.

Hill won his first tournament fight before losing his second to eventual tournament winner and future UFC lightweight title challenger Nate Diaz.

Still, UFC signed Hill to its roster.

“It was crazy,” Hill said. “I had almost no experience but walked into the toughest organization in the world and held my own.”

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He split his first two UFC fights, winning the first by technical knockout and losing the second by submission.

Then came his third and infamous UFC fight.

Early in the second round, he threw the kick that would change his life.

Rehabilitation from such injury is like a part-time job. Working his way back to fighting shape became a full-time job, without a paycheck.

Compounding matters, as a prospect, Hill was on the bottom of the UFC pay scale, earning around $30,000 for his three fights. He had to pay his trainers and manager as well.

One year after breaking his leg, his savings were gone and he lost his house. Hill and his family had to move in with his parents.

“It was humiliating,” he said. “I'm a man and couldn't care for my wife and kids.”

But his wife and three kids agreed it was worth it. The light at the end of the tunnel was the UFC. And they thought that because of the notoriety from his leg break, the UFC would promote it as a major fight.

“Corey Hill returns from a career-threatening injury,” he exclaimed, as though promoting the fight.

Hill admitted there have been nights he wondered if it's all worth it.

“I'm a fighter,” he said. “My family is supportive and that's all I need.”

Ultimately, he wants his name to be associated with competitive success — not injury.

When he fights next, on Jan. 24, it will be in Pennsylvania. He couldn't remember the name of the promotion.

On Feb. 22, the XFC presents a fight card at the USF Sun Dome. If Hill is cleared to fight, Prisco wants him on the card.

“Corey can go very far in this sport. He is still a top prospect,” Prisco said. “There will be opportunities for Hill to write his own final chapter.”

Added Hill, “It's a long road back to the top, but I'll get there. I have to. I cannot complete this story until I get back to the UFC. I want that storybook ending.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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