Disclaimer: The Athletic sports article author has been sent corrections on the following statements:
- “William Vandry, a chiropractor, sports nutritionist and jiu-jitsu black belt from Texas who insisted he could help Fitch mostly by adjusting his diet.”
- “Vandry owns a research organization in Austin called The Hope Foundation. He’s worked with several athletes from the American Kickboxing Academy, as well as MMA pioneers such as Bas Rutten and Royce Gracie.”
Requested corrections were sent to writer Ben Fowlkes, and he has stated he will change the errors to:
- Vandry is not a chiropractor, he is a sports nutritionist, and sports medicine and sports injury specialist.
- The organization is called The Vandry Hope Foundation, not Hope foundation.
- Vandry has interviewed and filmed Bas Rutten and Royce Gracie, but Vandry is not their nutritionist. Jon Fitch is the only AKA fighter Vandry has consulted with on nutrition.
On a personal note, I was sad to read that after speaking with Jon Fitch and myself, the author came to the conclusion that changes to nutrition were too difficult to even consider, and surgery was still the best option. The recovery and return to training of Jon Fitch is possible for many athletes, if they are willing to put in the time and discipline.
Surgery is considered a quick easy way out, but statistics show the true rate of success, not to mention the cost and training time lost. My hope is that readers will come away wanting to know more about how Jon Fitch came back stronger and with less pain than ever before through nutrition and supplementation, rather than look at disc replacement surgery as the only answer.
William Vandry ,CSMS, CSIS, CSN, CCPSI
Certified Pain Management and Opioid Misuse, Abuse, and Diversion, Certified Management of Persistent Symptoms after Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, Certified Using EMDR Civilian and Veterans with PTSD
President, Vandry Hope Foundation
Pain in the Neck: After years of grappling and debilitating pain, one writer turned to pro fighters for advice
By Ben Fowlkes Jun 3, 2019
This was back before I’d heard how bad it could get. It was before I’d talked to the fighter who had watched as his own muscles withered and stopped. It was before I’d heard from the one who couldn’t open his own jars anymore or the one who was driven half crazy by the pain, getting up out of bed to punch the drywall in the middle of the night because he hurt too much to sleep.
This was New Year’s Eve, 2016. Jon Fitch had just won a decision over Jake Shields to retain his WSOF welterweight title. The fight itself was unremarkable in just about every way. But it’s what Fitch said afterward in quotes distributed to the media that I remember now.
“I’m getting older, and my body is falling apart,” Fitch said. “I can’t train the way I know I need to, and I feel like it shows. I just can’t grapple anymore. My neck’s been jacked up for a long time. I’ve had a lot of cortisone shots over the years, and the last time I had one, it was a sports medicine doc, and she told me, ‘You’re done, you’re done. Why are you doing this? Stop doing this.’”
I read this and it stopped me cold. I’d very recently had some similar experiences. Or, well, as similar as could be expected considering that one of us was a pro fighter and the other a sports writer who grappled for fun a few nights a week.
I’d also had several steroid shots in my neck. It was not exactly a pleasant experience, seeing as how it involved a giant needle being injected into the immediate area of my spine. There was also the issue of diminishing returns. The first of those shots helped a lot, so much so that I’d been able to return to my normal routine for a while. The subsequent shots helped less and less. The last one helped not at all.
By this point, I’d also been told by doctors, as well as friends and family, that what I really needed to do was stop. As in, give up jiu-jitsu, a recreational pastime that involved getting my neck pulled and pushed and squeezed and cranked on a regular basis. Clearly, they said, it was hurting me. And it’s not as if I could expect to suddenly get better at healing now that I was in my late 30s.
“I think this is your body’s way of telling you that you need to quit this stuff,” a doctor told me when I came in complaining of debilitating nerve pain all down my right arm.
I remember looking at her, this woman in her 60s who scratched out a prescription for opioid pills while offering to refer me to a neurosurgeon. I remember thinking, Well that’s easy for you to say.
But then, there I was some months later staring at Fitch’s post-fight quotes and thinking, yeah, he really should stop. He probably is done. It was the same stuff I’d thought about plenty of other pro fighters diminished by age and injury over the years. Couldn’t they see what they were doing to themselves? Just stop.
Easy for me to say.
Also much easier for me to do.
I took up jiu-jitsu in college, after one year of Division III football convinced me that I’d gone as far as I could with the helmet and shoulder pads portion of my life. I transferred to San Diego State, right in the heart of a city with a thriving Brazilian population and plenty of jiu-jitsu gyms to choose from.
I loved it right away. I was never more than moderately good at it, but I kept at it for a long time and eventually gained enough skill to make up for my mediocre athleticism. There was nothing else like that feeling after a good training session. My face could be rubbed raw from someone else’s gi and my elbow made a troubling clicking noise from staying in armbars too long, but I felt almost narcotically tranquil.
I did a little boxing around this time, hit bags and pads with some kickboxers, but nothing else gave me the high that jiu-jitsu did. It was cerebral and yet intensely physical. You got to compete hard every night you were in the gym, and you left exhausted and happy, no matter how many times you’d been submitted.
Jiu-jitsu was, in many ways, the gateway drug that got me hooked on MMA. Dean Lister was an instructor at our gym, so we all followed his nascent career. The stuff we saw on UFC and PRIDE tapes was stuff we tried to emulate in practice. Before I knew it, I was a hardcore fight fan. If I hadn’t walked into Fabio Santos’ jiu-jitsu gym nestled there next to the 8 Freeway – I’d found the place by looking in the phone book, just to let you know what a different era this was – maybe I’m not here writing about combat sports for a living now.
But after years on the mats as a recreational grappler, it was clear I’d done some damage to myself. I remember getting spiked on my head during a 2006 training session in Queens and feeling an uncomfortable warmth spread down from my neck and into my shoulder blade. I remember not sleeping at all that night. I remember that pain, arcing down toward my shoulder like someone running a soldering iron through my body just to show me the precise path of my own nerves. I remember getting up the next morning feeling like a rusted tank.
I had interviews to do at Renzo Gracie’s gym in midtown Manhattan that day. As soon as I walked in, a heavyweight teddy bear by the name of Bryan Vetell called to me. I had to turn my whole body in order to look at him.
“You hurt your neck, huh?” he said.
Vetell wrestled at Hofstra before becoming a pro fighter. He knew that posture, that strained facial expression. He was the first one who told me: Most people who spent considerable time on these mats ended up dealing with some spine stuff at one point or another. He was also the one who told me about teammates in both wrestling and MMA who’d struggled with it, guys who’d gotten hooked on painkillers because taking time off to heal wasn’t an option for them.
I thought about this a couple of days later, when my pain got so bad that I went to the doctor and left with a prescription for hydrocodone. I thought about it some more when I took them for three days and then stopped, only to find my body now ached where it hadn’t before.
Some months later, I remember UFC and PRIDE great Don Frye telling me about his own smashed neck and the opioid pill addiction he’d had to kick because of it. It was the first time I’d heard a pro fighter describe some aspect of his lived experience in this sport and thought, wait I actually know at least a little bit about what that’s like.
I was in my late 20s at the time. So it’ll hurt for a few days, maybe a week or two, I thought. I’ll take time off from the gym and come back when the pain recedes. I would repeat this cycle over and over for the next few years. It somehow didn’t occur to me that this would be an ongoing problem that only got worse as I aged.
Then one day I was sitting in a doctor’s office with pain so bad I could barely think and this woman was asking me, wasn’t this proof that I needed to stop?
And see, I had that luxury. I could just stop doing jiu-jitsu, which I did. I’d be sad and depressed for a while – I was, and I flailed around angrily for a good long while, drinking too much to cover both the pain and the boredom and then wallowing in self-pity and regret – but I could quit without changing my whole life or giving up my career.
Guys like Fitch didn’t have that luxury. So what was he going to do?
I got even more curious about this question when he fought six months later, and then signed with Bellator, vowing to fight on and aiming at the welterweight title on the other side of 40. Good god, what about his neck, I wondered. Had he figured out a solution?
The next chance I got, I asked him. I can admit now that my motives were a little selfish. If he’d figured out how to fix this problem, I wanted in on that. The scenario he described when he first went looking for answers sounded familiar to me.
“I talked to three different surgeons,” Fitch told me. “One of them told me there were two different options. The other two guys, they each said there was only one, but they each picked a different surgery that they thought I should have.”
This checks out, based on my experience. Especially if you live in a relatively small city, as I do, the options for spine surgery are limited. You get referred to a doctor and whatever procedure he does is the one he decides you need.
Fitch didn’t want to have surgery if he didn’t absolutely have to. He was determined to look for another way. It was around this time that he met William Vandry, a chiropractor, sports nutritionist and jiu-jitsu black belt from Texas who insisted he could help Fitch mostly by adjusting his diet.
“Basically, the idea is that the human body is designed to heal itself,” Fitch said. “You just kind of have to put the nutrients in it and give it the fuel it needs so that it can heal itself. I know it’s hard to believe, but within six or seven months of me working with this guy, my neck was completely different. The range of motion that I have, I don’t have numbness or tingling in my hand. I used to get bulging discs all the time. I used to get really bad stingers. And now I can shoot a nice, hard double-leg on somebody and my neck doesn’t bother me at all.”
A primer on stingers, for those unaware: Sensation in your arms and hands and fingers is primarily controlled by the nerves of the brachial plexus. It’s this series of thick cords that extends out from your spine between the fifth cervical vertebrae and the first thoracic vertebrae, and when your neck gets stretched or compressed it affects that network of nerves.
I first learned about stingers in high school football. When you’re 16, the sensation is just bizarre enough to be more interesting than troubling. A hard or awkward hit in practice, and then you go to pick up the ball and realize your hand isn’t working. One whole arm burns and aches, yet also feels somehow numb. Then it passes and you’re fine again. So you think.
It happens a lot to wrestlers too. They stick their faces in someone’s sternum during a double-leg, and it sends a jolt through those cervical vertebrae. When it happens over and over again, it’s usually a sign that all is not well in the spine, especially in the vulnerable discs between each vertebra.
There’s a genetic component to this as well. In some people, the opening that the nerve root exits from is narrower than in others and therefore is more susceptible to interference. Crunching your neck with repetitive impacts in contact sports doesn’t help. Over time, stenosis can develop – essentially a narrowing in the spinal column as bone spurs crowd the space occupied by exiting nerves – and the discs begin to degenerate.
Fitch had dealt with it for years; bulging discs, advanced deterioration, osteoporosis and early onset arthritis. Then he managed to reverse it all in a matter of months with diet and supplementation alone, he said.
I was skeptical, to put it mildly. Over the years I’ve heard from all sorts of alternative medicine types who swore they had the answer. There was the chiropractor in the creepy old house who never seemed to remember a single thing about our previous meetings. There was the other chiropractor who gradually worked his way up to suggesting that a religious conversion was what I really needed. There was the acupuncturist who very nearly made me vomit with her needle placement before admitting she was still pretty new at this. There was the massage therapist who wouldn’t stop trying to refer me to her chiropractor friend.
Once a woman who described herself as a holistic medicine expert told me something similar about how the body was designed to heal itself.
“Isn’t it also designed to decay and die?” I asked her.
The look she gave me suggested that she wasn’t sure I even deserved to be healed anymore.
But Fitch swore that Vandry had helped him, maybe even salvaged his career. So I gave him a call.
“Have you got tingling, numbness in your fingers?” Vandry asked me. “How about pain in your joints, like your elbow or your shoulder?”
The answers were yes, yes and yes. On good days it’s just the tip of my thumb that I can’t quite feel. Other times it’s my index and middle finger too. Sometimes I try to lift weights and it feels like there’s ligament damage in my elbow. I have to remind myself that it’s just the nerves.
During the worst of it, I’d lay down to sleep and wake up two hours later with my shoulder feeling like it was falling out of the socket. I began to dread sitting down – in a car, a restaurant, wherever – because, after 10 minutes, it felt like my forearm was burning from the inside out.
“Your discs are made of cartilage,” Vandry said. “What I had to do with Jon was regrow the cartilage and get the bone matrix back to normal. The stenosis, or that narrowing that you have, it opens back up. You get your bone density back. And it’s a long process. For Jon, I looked at his diet, detoxified it, pulled the heavy metals out of his body. That’s how you can get the body to start to repair itself.”
Vandry owns a research organization in Austin called The Hope Foundation. He’s worked with several athletes from the American Kickboxing Academy, as well as MMA pioneers such as Bas Rutten and Royce Gracie. He’s also put together a film about his approach to treating everything from chronic pain to cancer and paralysis.
His enthusiasm for these issues is such that there’s no such thing as a short conversation with him about it. But like many people with a laser focus on one topic, he also seems to regard it as the answer to every question.
To hear Vandry tell it, even gray hair and wrinkles can be eliminated with proper nutrition. All you have to do is be disciplined enough to stick with the diet, which, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not entirely sure I could do. When discussing Fitch’s regiment, he described telling him to throw out his morning oatmeal and chocolate protein shakes for being “too fibrous.” I’m not sure I even want to know what he’d think about my regular diet.
But then there was the surgical alternative, which I didn’t love either based on first impressions. The surgeon I was referred to showed me the X-rays and MRIs, how my discs were deteriorating and my cervical vertebrae were developing bony outcroppings that made them look as if they were reaching out for one another.
The surgery he recommended was a two-level fusion. It was also the surgery he performed most commonly. I’d heard about this surgery from other grapplers I knew who’d had it, and most of what I’d heard wasn’t good. You lost some mobility and flexibility in your neck as a result of this surgery. Your pain may or may not improve. It probably wouldn’t get you back on the mats, and it sometimes led to more surgeries as the area around the fusion deteriorated.
As the surgeon admitted, this wasn’t something that fixed people. What it did, instead, was manage the decline.
It also might not make my life any better, as I learned from former UFC fighter Travis Lutter.
Lutter had developed issues with his neck after high school and college wrestling gave way to competitive jiu-jitsu and then a pro MMA career. Imagine having problematic cervical vertebrae to begin with and then sitting in Anderson Silva’s triangle choke while getting elbowed in the head. At one point, Lutter even cracked a vertebra after colliding with a wall in the gym during a training session, though he didn’t know how bad the injury was until he went in for a three-level fusion.
Several years removed from that procedure, he said the surgery had helped but only to a point.
“I still have pain, but it’s a different pain,” Lutter said. “It’s better than it used to be. But it’s not like having a normal neck.”
Lutter had dealt with the pain for years, and he figured it was just one more thing that came with the fighting life. Then one day he found he could no longer use his biceps due to the nerve damage. The muscle simply wouldn’t flex. He couldn’t complete a single pull-up.
“I had just completely lost my biceps,” Lutter said. “I could look at it and see the muscle atrophy.”
A similar thing happened to Rick Story while he was fighting in the UFC. He’d experienced it before while wrestling in college. He got so many stingers and suffered so much nerve damage one year that when he took off his shirt at the end of the season, he could actually see the difference in his pectoral and triceps muscles from one side of his body to the other.
“I was so focused on trying to become a national champion that I was just pushing through everything,” Story said. “My style was the power double. I put a lot of wear and tear on my neck, and at the same time, I was never warned about the possibility of long-term damage from all these stingers. I thought I could just shrug it off, get over it in the moment, and I’d be fine.”
Rick Story turned to artificial discs after a lifetime of neck damage during his wrestling and MMA careers. (photo by Joshua Dahl/USA TODAY Sports)
tory finished as the NAIA runner-up in 2006, losing on points in the national championship match. The next year, he turned pro as an MMA fighter, and two years after that he was in the UFC.
He had a good run, too. He reeled off six wins in a row at one point. He beat some serious opponents, including future welterweight champ Johny Hendricks. But his neck kept getting worse and so did the nerve damage. His strength was draining away in one arm. He found himself suddenly unable to do little tasks. One day, his girlfriend beat him in an arm-wrestling match. It wasn’t because he’d let her win, either.
“I went to the UFC and told them, ‘Look, my neck is messed up.’ I couldn’t lift my head without my arm basically falling asleep,” Story said. “And there’s like a weirdly-excruciating pain. It’s strange. It’s really hard to explain.”
I know that pain. And yeah, it is hard to explain. There’s a sort of numbness to it, except that numbness also hurts. It’s an ache that feels like it’s radiating from somewhere you can’t get to. The pain is dull, but also constant. As if you’re experiencing a mild but ongoing electrical shock. It drives you crazy. It becomes the central fact of your daily life. You become irritable, depressed, unpleasant to be around.
Story asked the UFC for help and got referred to a surgeon in Portland, Ore., named Darrell Brett, who specializes in disc replacements. Perhaps not surprisingly, he recommended disc replacement surgery.
“He just came right out and said disc replacement,” Story said. “First meeting, and he just flat out told me, ‘Your discs are hammered.’ He said I needed new discs. The way he talked about it, it was like it wasn’t really a big deal.”
Story went in for the surgery shortly after that. He was sent home with a neck brace and some pain pills and was told to take it easy for four months. No jumping around. No big impacts. Certainly no grappling.
He stopped wearing the neck brace after a couple of days and only took a few of the pills. He didn’t like the way they made him feel, and anyway, the pain wasn’t that bad. Four months later he went into the gym and shot a hard double-leg.
“I felt fine,” Story said. “The relief was immediate. Now I feel normal.”
When Story told reporters of his procedure, he started getting flooded with Facebook messages from other fighters he knew, fighters who’d been quietly struggling with very similar problems. They wanted to know if it really worked. Could they do it and still keep fighting?
Story recommended it, he said. He felt better. The athletic commissions gave him no trouble about having artificial discs. He developed tinnitus in both ears after the surgery, but he wasn’t sure if the two things were related and anyway he decided it was a small price to pay for the improvement to his life.
His decision to retire from fighting a few years later was more about the overall accumulation of general physical damage than anything to do specifically with his neck.
“My neck feels good,” he said. “My knee is much worse than my neck now.”
I reached out to several of the fighters who had reached out to Story. I knew their names, and chances are you would too, but I’d never heard any reports of them going in for disc replacement surgery. Turns out, that was no accident. They did have the surgery, but they kept it quiet on purpose. You might be surprised who’s out there fighting in the UFC with artificial discs in their necks.
While a couple of those fighters agreed to talk to me, they didn’t want their names included in the story. As one of them put it: “I don’t want my opponents reading it and going, ‘There’s something I could target when I fight this guy.’”
Still, they also recommended the disc replacement. It had not only prolonged their careers but also improved the quality of their lives. I started to consider it. There are a couple of surgeons in my general area who do the surgery. Maybe I could even get back on the mat as a middle-aged man.
It does give one pause, though. The idea of someone cutting open my neck and putting spare parts in my spine seems like something I should avoid if at all possible. There’s also the entitled first-worldness of it all. I messed up my own spine, and now I expect advanced medical technology to just fix it for me.
Plus, as Vandry pointed out, this is a lucrative industry. Gradually improving people’s spines with diet and nutrition is less popular, mostly because it takes more time and discipline.
“But of course the surgeons will tell you that you need surgery,” Vandry said. “That’s how they make money.”
When I called up Dr. Brett, the man who did Story’s surgery, he insisted that the risks were relatively minor. There were relatively low odds of infection or bleeding. It was possible for the implant to slip or come loose, he said, but not common. Chances of death or paralysis, he assured me, were “very, very small.” So that was good news.
“I do a couple hundred of these a year,” Dr. Brett said. He also said the procedure has only become widespread in the U.S. over the past decade or so, which made it hard not to wonder what those artificial discs might feel like in 20 or 30 years.
When I put that question to one of the fighters who’d had the surgery, he laughed.
“Man, I wonder what my whole body is going to feel like that by then,” he said. “I mean, I’ve had nine surgeries and I’ve got, like, 15 pins in my body. The neck is just one more thing.”
This particular fighter, he’s been a pro for less than a decade.
Maybe that’s the other thing that made me want to pursue this topic. In my job, I hear fighters talk about all kinds of experiences that are totally foreign to me. They break their legs and jaws. They snap ligaments and shatter hands. Their bodies are their livelihoods, and their careers involve a near-constant state of risk and a carnival of pain. It’s frankly hard to fathom.
But hearing someone like Story describe the peculiar nature of neck-related nerve pain was like listening to someone read from my diary. This time I knew exactly what he was talking about. Usually, all I can do is guess and imagine.
Now I also have something else to think about. The disc replacement doc I found is about a 40-minute drive down the highway. I wrote his number down on the pad next to my computer. I’m considering it.
I’ve got this habit now, where I pause in my typing and touch my right middle finger to the tip of my thumb just to feel the blank numbness of the impact. I started doing it as a test, something to see how bad that day’s nerve interference was. Then it became part of my routine, the same way I’m careful to avoid sitting for too long or falling asleep in an awkward position. These little things you get used to and then accept. Like this is the only possible reality now.
Now I catch myself touching my finger to my thumb and I wonder. And I look at the folded up jiu-jitsu gi in my closet. And then I wonder some more.
I also think about Story, who told me how he wished he’d known what he was doing to himself, or that pain wasn’t always just a temporary hurdle to clear with the aid of toughness and mental resolve. He wished he’d had better guidance in that department.
I asked him, would he have done things differently then? Taken more time off, not gone so hard on the wrestling mats, maybe chosen a different path altogether?
“I mean, no, probably not,” he said. “But I still wish I’d known.”
Ben Fowlkes is a Senior Writer for The Athletic. He has covered MMA since 2006 for outlets such as USA Today, MMA Junkie, Sports Illustrated, MMA Fighting, and others. His fiction has appeared in literary journals such as Glimmer Train and Crazyhorse, as well as Best American Short Stories 2015. He also co-hosts the Co-Main Event Podcast with Chad Dundas. Follow Ben on Twitter @BenFowlkesMMA.