Steve Lopez’s left arm felt like a piece of saltwater taffy. Sitting backstage at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the UFC’s newest lightweight silently suffered while doctors worked to find the best angle for repairing his dislocated shoulder. The first try didn’t take, so they gave it another shot, stretching and pulling the limb in every direction. A few more twists and it finally clicked back into place.
But then, pop! It freed itself from the socket all over again.
“They had to do it a few times before it finally stuck,” says Lopez, who can still recount the incident as if it happened yesterday.
Anyone who witnessed the accident – the result of a seemingly standard left jab – might not have realized the extent of the damage. Lopez immediately conceded in the opening of the second round, but it couldn’t have been that bad. He’d been down this path before; the shoulder was a recurring problem. He even eschewed immediate medical attention to watch opponent Jim Miller have his hand raised in victory.
In truth, the pain was agonizing. “It took everything I had to suck it up and tell myself to deal with things later in the back room,” he says. “I had to keep my game face on – what am I going to do, cry in front of the cameras?”
Tough as nails, he survived the physical pain. More distressing was the mental anguish of dropping his first big fight. An Indiana native who quickly built a 12-1 record in local shows, the 26-year-old had higher hopes for his Octagon debut. He would have even settled for a loss if it had come in any other form.
“Taking the fight on short notice, all I wanted to do was put on a great show,” says Lopez. “I look at it as the Chris Lytle approach – if I could treat it like a brawl and walk away with a Fight of the Night bonus, a win doesn’t necessarily matter. But when a fight ends because of a fluke, it’s another kind of disappointment. I don’t even know what I can take away from it because it’s not like someone grabbed my arm and caused the damage – it happened because I threw a punch. It was my own unintentional undoing.”
Before you assume that his shoulder is now the Achilles’ heel in his game, Lopez warns that surgery and a one-year hiatus have pretty much rendered it a non-issue.
“If I learned one thing about training, it’s to take your injuries seriously,” says Lopez. “The reason things went the way they did in my last fight is probably because I didn’t do the proper rehab on it the first time around. This time I worked with some of the best surgeons and now everything is great.”
With that, Lopez is looking redeem himself on September 25 when he faces Waylon Lowe at UFC 119.
Lowe (also 0-1 in the UFC) will also look to bounce back from a loss – his to The Ultimate Fighter 2 veteran Melvin Guillard at UFC 114. Despite being knocked out with a knee in the first round, the Philly-based fighter still brings eight previous wins in his overall career. The most recent was a first-round KO only five months old.
Lopez isn’t impressed. “He’s a really tough wrestler but I think he’s a little one-dimensional,” he says. “One of the big reasons this is a good match is because we’re both just starting out and coming off of a loss. Otherwise I think I know what type of fighter he is. And even if I’m wrong, I’m ready for anything.”
That level of confidence is largely due to his new training camp, Xtreme Couture. Lopez made the move to Las Vegas in June and says that the opportunity to train with such high-caliber lightweights (the list includes UFC stalwarts Gray Maynard and Tyson Griffin, as well as newcomer Evan Dunham) has helped his game tremendously.
He’s quick to add that he parted ways with his old gym, Midwest Martial Arts, on amicable terms. “We had tough guys at 135 and 185, but that left no one for me to work out with,” he says. “It was all about finding the toughest guys in my weight class, and Couture’s got ‘em.”
Even if his new crew has helped bring him up a level, Lopez knows that he’ll have a hard time proving this to fans. His biggest regret at UFC 103 was not making more of an effort to showcase what was in his arsenal.
“Because of what happened, I didn’t have a chance to go for takedowns or show off any formal technique,” he says. “And I’m not sure if I even wanted to because I wanted to brawl. I don’t really talk about my plan of attack in advance, but I will say that this time you can expect to see some real skill and strategy being executed.”
With the fight being hosted at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, Lopez will also have the home advantage on his side. He’ll have come a long way from time he first tuned into UFC 1 in his living room in South Bend, and he says, “It will mean a lot to have my friends and family see me at a live event there.”
Healthy, happy, and fighting in front of a home crowd, the stage is set for Lopez to do things right this time. An impressive win can potentially excuse his last loss – a chance that many fighters aren’t afforded. But even if it doesn’t, he hopes that you share the same positive take that he does.
If anyone shapes his or her opinion of Lopez based on the Miller fight, he says, “the impression shouldn’t be that I lost, but that I have a high pain tolerance and am always game for any opponent.”
Kind of like his shoulder, just give him another chance to stick.