Editor’s note: This story was originally published ahead of Vince Murdock’s appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series. Murdock is now part of The Return of The Ultimate Fighter.
KIRA MURDOCK STEPPED out of an elevator on the top floor of The Bank food hall in Sacramento, California. Wearing a flowing, white gown and veil, Murdock was expecting to meet her husband, Vince Murdock, to take wedding photos in the venue’s rooftop garden under a sunlit sky. It was Nov. 2, 2019.
The Murdocks had eloped in July and were hoping to have a public ceremony in the fall. But in September, Vince, a pro mixed martial arts fighter, was diagnosed with a serious brain disease called moyamoya that required surgery. So, 11 days before Vince’s operation in November, the couple scheduled a shoot with two photographers.
“Before his surgery, I wanted to have photos of us in my wedding gown and his tux,” Kira said. “We wanted to have that memory in case something did happen to him — God forbid he died or he was paralyzed or something that would go on [for] years. I was like, ‘I want to have that memory if I’m not able to have a wedding.'”
When Kira got off the elevator, she immediately saw her father and was confused. She walked ahead to the garden, and there were all her friends. At the front of an aisle was Vince. He had lured Kira to their surprise wedding ceremony, a grand gesture before Vince’s life potentially changed forever.
“I was just uncertain about what was to come,” Vince said. “I didn’t know anything. Who knows what I was gonna be like? I didn’t know.”
The Murdocks recited their vows that day, a joyous occasion with the next few weeks and months still shrouded in uncertainty. Vince, meanwhile, also had another vow on his mind: He promised himself that not only would he return to MMA but he would fight again within one year of brain surgery.
On Wednesday, Vince will make good on that declaration. He’ll fight Luis Saldaña on “Dana White’s Contender Series” in Las Vegas — nine days short of exactly one year since his operation on Nov. 13, 2019. Vince took what is a life-threatening disease as another challenge to overcome. And he is winning.
“If this happened to someone else, I’d be like, ‘Bro, you sure you even want to fight again?'” Vince said. “But in my situation, it’s literally been the foundation of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s gotten me out of every situation I’ve been in, and I’ve relied on it so heavily, which is also scary. Because if it does really disappear, I’ll have a tough time with identity.”
Kira, Vince said, has been his “biggest supporter” throughout what has been a 16-month ordeal — from discovery that something was wrong to diagnosis to surgery to getting cleared by doctors to compete. But even she had her doubts about Vince’s plan to fight again so quickly.
“The last thing I want to think about is him following his dream and losing him, and then he’s gone,” Kira said. “All because he wanted to fight instead of get the rest of his life. At the same time, I can’t imagine him turning down his dream.”
But that day at The Bank, the worries would have to wait.
“I just broke down crying,” Kira said. “Shaking. Music cued. … Honestly, I could not stop saying, ‘What the f— is happening? What the f— is happening?’ How did he pull this off? How is everyone here from my family? This is crazy.”
MURDOCK, 29, WAS scheduled to make his UFC debut in Minneapolis on June 29, 2019, against Jordan Griffin. He procrastinated on his required prefight medical examinations for the Minnesota Combative Sports Commission, not getting a CT scan of his brain until the day before weigh-ins.
Not every state athletic commission requires a brain scan. It was a potentially life-saving happenstance for Murdock that Minnesota does. The exam produced an odd result. The left side of his brain looked almost dormant. The initial thought from doctors was that it was a mistake. Out of an abundance of caution, Murdock was told to go to the hospital and get further tests.
“When they pulled up my scan, basically they can see the blood vessels in your brain,” Murdock said. “They, like, light up, if that makes sense. On the left side of my brain, it just goes until it doesn’t. The whole left side of my brain didn’t light up. Basically, they’re thinking there’s no blood flow.”
Subsequent exams turned up the same results. Something was definitely wrong, though at the time, doctors didn’t know exactly what. There wasn’t too much concern at first. After all, Murdock was a healthy professional athlete, and if his brain had a severe issue, there was no possible way he could train the way he had been. At least, that was the belief at the time.
Murdock, then a seven-year pro fighter, had to withdraw from his UFC debut. It was a devastating development, but he knew he’d be back. UFC chief physician Jeff Davidson advised him to see a brain specialist and to loop in the promotion on what happened next.
“If this happened to someone else, I’d be like, ‘Bro, you sure you even want to fight again?’ But in my situation, it’s literally like been the foundation of my life for as long as I can remember. … If it does really disappear, I’ll have a tough time with identity.”
For the next two months, Murdock was sitting in doctors’ offices at least twice a week. The word “moyamoya” had come up during that time, but initially only in the context of him having moyamoya symptoms. Finally, in September 2019, he was diagnosed with moyamoya disease — a rare condition in which blood vessels that supply blood to the brain are too narrow. The entire left side of his brain was not getting the blood it needed to function properly. Murdock needed to have bypass surgery.
Looking back now, Vince and Kira acknowledge that there were signs something wasn’t quite right. But they chalked it up to Vince’s fighting lifestyle, always tired and banged up. Vince said he had always fatigued fast, even when he was younger. Kira said Vince had memory issues for about a year before the moyamoya diagnosis. He often would leave his house keys in the door and leave his car door open without realizing it.
“It was just crazy,” Kira said. “It would just blow my mind. Like, what are you doing? What’s going on? It was kind of weird. It was a little freaky. That’s not a common thing. Maybe one time, but multiple? It became a regular thing.”
Initially, Murdock was going to have brain surgery in Sacramento. But with the help of his mentor, Urijah Faber — the patriarch of MMA’s Team Alpha Male — he found Dr. Gary Steinberg, the chair of neurosurgery at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Steinberg is director of the Stanford Moyamoya Center.
Murdock saw Steinberg for the first time on Oct. 14, 2019. The fighter’s condition, Steinberg told ESPN (with permission from Murdock), was “very serious.” He had actually had a small stroke before his CT scan in Minneapolis. It had happened while Murdock was playing a pickup game of basketball. Tests also showed he had a blockage of a major artery leading to the brain. Murdock was “fortunate” to have gotten the brain scan in Minneapolis when he did, Steinberg said.
“If he had continued fighting with that condition, he could have ended up with a severe stroke — or worse,” Steinberg said.
Bypass surgery on Murdock’s brain was scheduled for Nov. 13, 2019. The days leading up to the surgery were a struggle. Steinberg said Murdock was having daily transient ischemic attacks, or small strokes that last just a few minutes. He was experiencing weakness in his right arm and leg, facial numbness and slurred speech. His right hand couldn’t grip, and his vision was suffering.
The operation happened not a moment too soon. Steinberg was able to take an artery from Murdock’s scalp and sew it to a brain artery to redirect blood flow. As a result, Murdock had three times the amount of blood flow to the left hemisphere of his brain that he had before going under the knife, Steinberg said. The surgery took 11 hours.
Afterward, Murdock experienced issues that typically stem from brain surgery. But nothing doctors were worried about. He had a hard time talking for a few days, and writing was even worse.
“I would write sentences and f—, it would just look like a f—ing first-grader was putting together words,” Murdock said. ” … It was like I would just skip words. I would just skip s—, and I’d put together a jagged sentence. But in my mind, it seemed right.”
Murdock was steadfast, though. With every setback, he saw it as just another obstacle he had to overcome. He was always confident that not only would he recover but he would be able to fight again within one year. At times, he admits, he overdid it. He left the hospital one day after waking up from surgery and was working out within a week. Murdock didn’t use any of the medication given to him, which led to intense pain and vision loss. He ended up back in the emergency room.
“No one can control him or hold him down,” Kira said. “If he wants to do something, he’s gonna do it.”
— Urijah Faber (@UrijahFaber) November 3, 2020
About three months after surgery, Murdock was sparring again. He wanted to help teammates Cody Garbrandt and Song Yadong prepare for their upcoming fights. In sparring one day, Garbrandt, a former UFC bantamweight champion and one of the hardest hitters in that division, nailed Murdock with a right hand to the part of his skull that had been cut open during surgery.
“Like a f—ing bullet,” Murdock said. “I know he didn’t mean to hit me there or anything. … In the moment, I thought about it. But afterwards, I was like, ‘F—, man, I guess I’m fine.'”
Murdock saw Steinberg on May 28, 2020, for his six-month check-in after surgery. With no symptoms lingering, not even that fatigue that had hampered him for years, Murdock was cleared to once again compete in MMA. Steinberg said Murdock is healthier now than he was 16 months ago when he was set to make his UFC debut.
“Is it safe for anyone to participate in martial arts or football or boxing?” Steinberg said. “But I think it’s as safe for him as it is for any other martial arts athlete.”
Steinberg said Murdock is the first professional athlete on whom he has performed moyamoya surgery. “I have such admiration for him for what he has accomplished in the last year since surgery,” Steinberg said. “It’s a real testament to his fortitude, determination, drive and strength that he’s able to do this. … It’s remarkable.”
THOUGH STEINBERG CLEARED Murdock six months ago, getting the UFC and the Nevada State Athletic Commission to approve Murdock was a longer process. He got the OK only last month, and the bout with Saldaña was made official about two weeks ago.
Like everything else that has come with moyamoya, Murdock took the lengthy process in stride. Just another challenge en route to his goal.
“What could you possibly f—ing do to me that I can’t [overcome]?” he said. “I’ve been punched, I’ve been knocked down, but have you tried brain surgery? I didn’t feel bad for myself, not one time. I didn’t cry a single time. Not one time did I throw a pity party.”
If anything, this entire experience has steeled Murdock’s mindset. Before the moyamoya diagnosis, he said, he was going through the motions in his career. There was one point at which he wouldn’t even say the letters “UFC” because he didn’t think he deserved to be in the sport’s leading promotion. Even though it felt as if he was all-in on his MMA career at the time, he realizes now that he was not.
“It’s so weird saying that,” Vince said. “I was so naive in my approach before. I was so uncommitted. But if you would have asked me then, I would have been like, ‘I train every day,’ blah blah blah. You know what I mean? And I did do all those things, but my mind wasn’t in the right spot. Maybe that’s because I only had half of it. But it really was an awakening experience for me. I dedicated everything to this. I wanted to be back.”
Murdock probably could have held out a few more months and gone right into the UFC. But it’s tough to get a fight these days during a global pandemic. So when he was offered the “Contender Series,” he jumped at the chance. He had vowed to fight within one year of surgery, and he will be fulfilling that.
“I am just fortunate enough that they picked me again,” Murdock said. “The reality is they don’t have to use me. They could easily be like, ‘Bro, you had brain surgery. Get the f— out of here.'”
Getting his career back on track is just part of Murdock’s battle. The visits with Steinberg, the surgery and the treatment afterward were not covered by insurance. Surgery alone ended up costing $280,000, Murdock said. Though Murdock was hesitant, Faber persuaded him to start a GoFundMe that ended up raising more than $36,000. Team Alpha Male has also run several fundraisers. Murdock also does private training sessions and seminars to earn money to put toward his medical payment plan.
Faber also helped Vince organize the surprise wedding for him and Kira. The UFC Hall of Famer will be in Murdock’s corner Wednesday. Kira, meanwhile, will be racing to a friend’s home after work to watch her husband on TV.
“Even now, it’s still terrifying to me,” Kira said. “I’m just gonna be a crying mess. It’s the person you love in there getting hit in the face. Even add [brain surgery] on. … But I can’t stop him from his dream.”