John Hathaway is about two weeks away from returning to the cage after an eight-year hiatus from the sport due to battling ulcerative colitis.
Now 35-year-old Hathaway will face an opponent to be announced earlier on October 15 at Oktagon MMA 36 in Frankfurt. He has a four-fight contract with a European promotion, but he said if he does well, he could be tied to the UFC until his contract expires.
Hathaway never considered hanging up his gloves, even as he struggled to overcome the often debilitating symptoms of the illness. His love for martial arts never left him, and his desire to compete brought him back.
“I didn’t end my career the way I wanted to,” Hathaway said in an interview. Hour of MMA. “I felt like it was taken away from me a bit and I’m just lucky that I was able to bring it to life and get to the point where I can compete and do things again.”
Ulcerative colitis, a form of Crohn’s disease, causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract, leading to pain, difficulty using the toilet, and weight loss. The disease develops over time and can lead to life-threatening symptoms such as bleeding.
Hathaway said the illness came after his first professional setback, a decision loss to Mike Pyle in 2010. In some camps, he was able to train normally, while in others he had to take anti-inflammatory drugs, which led to other undesirable symptoms.
“It’s just a general discomfort,” Hathaway said. “It doesn’t hurt as much as cuts or gunshots or stabbings or anything like that, but it’s just a general, low level of discomfort all the time. When it gets hotter it gets even more uncomfortable, it’s just really hard to train at a good level because you get tired of it all the time.”
After turning down three or four fights, Hathaway realized he couldn’t continue his career while he battled illness. He did not officially retire, but the promotion gave him time to deal with health issues. The UFC’s anti-doping partner, the US Anti-Doping Agency, continued to test him throughout his dismissal, which did not bother him much.
“They still checked on me at least three to four times a year for the last eight years,” he said. “All the guys who came and checked me out were very nice. So I don’t mind. I think the only annoying thing was that I was on different medications before the surgery. I was on a random, stupid immunosuppressant. After the first couple, I made sure it was on my phone instead of saying “Oh, I’m on these meds” and trying to find which ones I’m actually taking because they always catch me at the gym or sometimes first thing in the morning.
“The good thing about it, I think in retrospect, is that I’ve been clean for the last eight or seven years, so I don’t need to have some period when they” I say, “Oh, we need to check a lot you for the next six months to make sure you’re not taking anything.”
After three surgeries, including one to remove a five-pound chunk of his colon and another to fit a waste ostomy bag, Hathaway said he was technically cured. Doctors were initially worried about what would happen if he injected himself at the gym. Eventually, however, he was able to return to normal functioning. He no longer has a trash bag and can train as usual, though his dietary choices affect him more than ever before.
The recovery process was not easy. Hathaway’s low came after his first surgery while he was recuperating in the hospital. It was around the Christmas holidays, and the private hospital he went to for surgery was half empty. Walking along the empty corridors, he felt like the main character in 28 days latercarried an IV bag with him on the go to stimulate his bowels.
Why did it take Hathaway so long to get to this point? A lot of that has to do with where he left off in the UFC. A one-year layoff is a significant absence. Hathaway has been gone for over half a century. Many of the opponents he fought were retired or no longer in the UFC. The idea that he could just 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 throw me back for such a long time, just in case I didn’t have any abilities left. … So they sort of asked me to do a setup fight somewhere. It took some time to find an organization that would accept me. … And then everything is still sorted out.”
If all goes well on October 15, Hathaway said he would start talks with the UFC about a comeback. In the meantime, he will enjoy his first return to the cage. He never expected to be gone this long, but he’s sure he’s close to where he was when he left.