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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Nolan King

Back on track: Alex Reyes defies odds of spinal infection for UFC return after five-year layoff

Alex Reyes was told in 2018 he may never walk again. Fast forward over five years later, and see him walk straight to the UFC cage.

Willingly fighting in a cage against another trained combatant is already a semi-superhuman feat. For Reyes, however, the accomplishment extends beyond that, considering the depths from which he’s risen. The comeback is emotional, perhaps improbable, and very unusual.

A bit of a forgotten member of the UFC roster, Reyes is 13-3 as a professional with one UFC fight under his belt. The bout came in September 2017, up a weight class vs. Mike Perry on short notice. He hasn’t fought since, but not due to his own volition.

When Reyes spoke to MMA Junkie in November 2019, his life was monotonous, filled with intravenous injections and uncertainty. It wasn’t easy to be positive after osteomyelitis flipped his world upside down, but he tried his best.

The world was moving around him and he felt stuck. He regained his ability to walk, but life was still a bit of a struggle.

“Mentally, I feel like the train has left without me,” Reyes said. “Where I could be, right now in the UFC, and where I should be, compared to where I am. That’s the hardest part – trying not to let that get me down.”

Nearly six years after his most recent in-cage competition, Reyes is finally back aboard the express engine and beams positivity as it pulls out of the station and toward the UFC Apex for a Feb. 25 bout vs. Trevor Peek (7-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC).

“Doctors were telling me I wasn’t going to walk again, that I wasn’t going to hold my kids, that I needed to change careers,” Reyes told MMA Junkie on Friday. “I had a lot of supporters around me. I had my family, my wife, coaches, management, staff at the UFC. They believed in me and I gave it my best shot and I beat the infection. I didn’t need the surgery. Here I am, man, five years later. My mind never left the sport.”

Health issues began for Reyes when he contracted E. coli through a stem cell injection. The infection caused severe osteomyelitis and a host of other symptoms. Reyes was bedridden and in severe pain.

Meanwhile, the company allegedly responsible for the injection, Genetech, apparently vanished after a warning from the FDA.

“Going from a high-level athlete, leader, and provider to having to be cared for like an infant because I couldn’t take care of myself?” Reyes said in 2019. “Mentally, that was extremely hard to accept.”

Now, Reyes views his life through reverse lenses, as he looks at the distance he’s traveled from disarray to normalcy to high-level professional fighter.

“I’m just blessed that I’m at this point and I’m just fortunate to be at this point in my life and my career to step back in there at the highest level of the sport and compete,” Reyes said Friday. “My body is ready. My mind is ready. I’ll tell you what. The things that I went through, the things I felt were taken from me, the mental toughness that I gained from it – I’m not going to break, man. I’ll take all this adversity I’ve been through and use it as fuel in the fire and know that I can do anything.”

That’s the moral of the story Reyes wants to drive home: Anyone who has spent time around martial arts knows that sometimes fighting mirrors life.

“A lot of things can happen that you don’t account for,” Reyes said. “When those things happen, stay calm, stay patient, stay in the pocket, keep rolling, keep coming forward. Just take it day by day. Stay positive. Surround yourself with good people.”

One person Reyes directly attributes motivation to is fan-favorite UFC lightweight Bobby Green. Training partners from years past, Reyes and Green reunited in recent years. Reyes cornered Green in the UFC. Being an arm’s distance away from the action made Reyes even hungrier to return.

“His positivity and helping me and getting me back to the shape that I need to be in to be at this level, timing and range, he’s been a big help and a big inspiration or motivation for me,” Reyes said.

The walkout will be different, admits Reyes, who was already inactive for over two years when the promotion entered the COVID-19 pandemic-induced UFC Apex era. The smaller show vibe, however, will be a fraction of what’s on his mind.

Reyes, now 36, expects everything he’s been through to cross his mind at once. But when it’s time to fight, Reyes says fans can expect he picks up perhaps even further along than where he left off – 1988 days later.

Owner of his own gym, Cage Combat Academy, Reyes has continued to absorb and dish knowledge over the past six years – even if the physical work was delayed.

The biggest fight of his life has been won, but there are still bigger victories sought. From here on out, Reyes isn’t interested in participation trophies. His goal is the highest peaks of the sport.

“(I’ll) get back on that train – and keep riding it the top.”

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