MMA Fighter Keri Melendez Talks About Returning to the Cage After a Scary ACL Injury
After tearing her ACL while training back in 2017, Keri Melendez contemplated giving up on her MMA career. Here, she shares why she ultimately made the comeback and continued to stay in the fight.
Most fighters dream of the day they can step into the ultimate fighting cage in the center of Madison Square Garden. Back in 2017, that dream was actually coming to fruition for me as I was training for the biggest fight of my career.
My debut fight, just one year earlier, had earned me a good rapport with the MMA community. And while the fight in Madison Square Garden was just my second MMA (or mixed martial arts) fight ever, my support system of coaches and fans had faith that I had what it took to fight on such a huge platform. But given that I was still very much just starting my career, the pressure was so high. To prepare, I put myself through an intense fight camp that involved 10 weeks of intense technical training and cage practice twice a day, six days a week. I was about six weeks into training when the unthinkable happened sent my dream of fighting in MSG crumbling to the ground.
Tearing My ACL
I was in fight camp, in the middle of a training circuit, when my teammates started taking turns wrestling with me with the goal of recreating potential real-life fight scenarios that take place in the cage. During one of these mock fights, someone accidentally stepped on my leg causing a jolt of sharp pain in my knee. Still, it was nothing I couldn't handle. Injuries are common in MMA and some level of pain is to be expected. So, I continued training—not just that day but for another week, until my leg actually gave out.
From the first day in the training cage when I felt that surge of pain, a part of me had an inkling that the injury was worse than I was letting myself believe. I kept hoping it was just a meniscus tear that would allow me to get through this fight and then I could focus on recovering after. But when I visited my doctor, he confirmed the worst: I'd completely torn my ACL and would need surgery.
An ACL injury is terrifying for many reasons. For starters, the ACL is the most important ligament in your knee. It plays a key role in stabilizing your knee joint. Without a normal ACL, the knee becomes unstable and can buckle, especially when the leg is planted, and attempts are made to stop or turn quickly—both of which are key movements in MMA fighting. Once torn, surgery is commonly necessary to help with the repair. Then, there's the recovery time. For most people, it takes at least six to nine months, sometimes a year, to regain proper function. Even then, some people never end up feeling the same as they did before. It's no wonder that an ACL tear was often thought of as a career-ending injury for professional athletes. (Related: The Scary Reasons Women Are More Likely to Tear Their ACLs)
As an athlete myself, I was well aware of these statistics, but I still had hope. I told my coaches, one of whom is my husband, that maybe I could get through this fight by just boxing my opponent and not kicking. But after a lot of convincing I realized that if I ever wanted to fight again, I needed to press pause. The frustration of putting my career on hold after just one fight plus forfeiting the opportunity at MSG was overwhelming. It hit me hard.
I knew that I wasn't young in the sport, plus I was a mom, a wife, and a gym owner. So naturally, I contemplated whether or not I even wanted to fight anymore given everything else I was already juggling. But when I looked back at what I'd gone through to get to this point, I knew I owed myself another shot. After all, I'd spent years working up to this point of finally making a name for myself in the world of fighting.
The Long Road to MMA
I first got into martial arts in 2005. My go-to fight-style at the time was Thai Boxing (aka Muay Thai), which was having a moment in the Bay Area, where I'm from. For a while there, this style of fighting had tons of momentum and it seemed to have the potential to really take off in the U.S. But coming up right beside it was MMA, and this style of mixed martial arts blew up in popularity seemingly overnight. Still, I continued Thai boxing until I met my now-husband, Gilbert, who was all about MMA, a few years later.
Gilbert is a former UFC (or Ultimate Fighting Championship) fighter in the featherweight division and mixed martial artist. He is also a two-time Strikeforce Lightweight Champion and a former World Extreme Cagefighting Lightweight Champion, making him one of the best 155-pound MMA fighters in the world. Through him, I gained an interest in jiujitsu, a type of Japanese martial arts, and MMA. But my strength was still in Muay Thai, particularly striking, which is the act of punching, kicking or heading butting your opponent to subdue them. At that point, though, there wasn't much of a space for women in MMA, which is heavily inspired by jiujitsu. There was an underground presence but nothing mainstream. So I continued training in Thai Boxing, MMA, and jiujitsu just in case an opportunity came to light, but, for the most part, I took on the role of supporting Gilbert in his career since he was doing so well.
Then, in 2010 I got pregnant with my daughter. Becoming a mom transformed both of my life and Gilbert's in so many ways. I contemplated whether I should continue training for a fight that would maybe never even come, but I found myself not wanting to give up. Eighteen months after giving birth, I ended up doing a Thai boxing fight but still wasn't doing MMA. It wasn't until 2015 when Bellator, a leading MMA and kickboxing organization, approached me that I finally took the leap to get into MMA. The representatives at Bellator's primary interest were signing me for kickboxing but they were willing to help set me up for my first MMA fight as well. The deal was a no brainer for me as it was something I'd been waiting for for years. (Related: Why You Should Give MMA a Shot)
Shortly after I signed, I got straight to work, winning two kickboxing fights with Bellator. After that, I started training for my debut MMA fight in 2016. That's when the pressure really kicked in, especially from fans of the sport. Since I was Gilbert Melendez's wife, expectations were high but I knew that I could step up to the plate. In late 2016, I got into the cage for the first time and took down my opponent in less than a minute.
It was then that all my hard work, hope, and patience finally came to fruition. I proved to myself that I was capable, that I did have the fight in me even though I was a mother, still kind of starting out my athletic career, and in my 30s, which is older than the typical newbie MMA fighter.
This long-winded story is to all to say that when I tore my ACL a year later, I refused to let it be the end for me.
Getting Back Into the Cage
The hardest part of being injured was being forced to sit on the sidelines and watch all these up and coming girls in the MMA charge forward in their careers. Physically, having trained so vigorously for such a huge part of my life, I knew my body would heal. But mentally, learning to be patient with my injury and giving myself time to recover was hard. There were times I found myself in a dark, depressing place because of how left out I felt. (Related: How to Stay Fit and Sane When You're Injured)
Then, six months into my recovery, at the beginning of 2018, I started seeing the light after my doctor cleared me to start working out again. I was able to start boxing a little bit and dabbled in some jiujitsu. I wasn't able to kick yet, but I was running and lifting weights without pain. Come February, I felt like I could prepare myself for a fight in May and began training as hard as I could while being mindful of my knee. Unfortunately, the closer I got to the fight date, the more evident it became that my body still wasn't ready. I kept getting small strains and sprains all over my body because I was overcompensating for my leg so my coaches felt that it was best to push the fight to June. (Related: Warning Signs That You're Pushing Yourself Too Hard In the Gym)
As I continued training and tried getting stronger, I couldn't help but compare my body to what it was pre-injury when I was going into my first fight. While there's no such thing as "perfect" that's how I felt when I made my MMA debut. I had a perfect training camp, my body was strong and agile, and I was exactly where I wanted to be to win. This time around, things were so different. I felt less than optimal and knew there was a lot I could still work on going into my comeback fight. Not to mention, my opponent was an exceptional striker and I was a decade (!) older than she was. The day before the fight, at weigh-ins, I noticed my opponent smiling ear to ear, looking relaxed and strong—this all really shook my confidence. (Related: How I Recovered from Two ACL Tears and Came Back Stronger Than Ever)
But the next day, when we stepped into the ring, all the doubts I had slipped away. I knew my entire support system, my husband, daughter, and coaches, were outside that cage rooting for me and I couldn't let them down. Plus, I had worked too hard. Even if this fight ended up being my last, I was proud that I'd made it this far and I was going to give it my all, which is exactly what I did when the bell rang to signal the start of the fight.
As we leaped toward each other, my opponent quickly threw some punches and kicks—all of which I successfully dodged. Then as she stepped back, I was able to strike her leg with my foot and go in for a punch to the side of her face, which caused her to stumble backward. As she leaned on the cage for support, I went in with everything I had, throwing punches as fast as I could. Once she seemed completely off her game, I was able to get behind her and put her into a chokehold that had her down to the ground within seconds. Unable to breathe, she tapped my arm, signaling that she'd submitted to a loss. The bell rang again, and I officially won.
It was all over within minutes, but winning that night was the reassurance I needed to realize that I wasn't finished as an MMA athlete—that I did have some fight left in me. Since then, I've done two more MMA fights, winning both. But I have a certain dream that's been paused and I'm hoping to crush it. I have my eyes set on my next big fight—this time, hopefully, at Madison Square Garden.
The Keri Melendez everyone sees and knows today is not the same person as she was before her injury. I'm not sure if it's the injury itself, the recovery experience, or the maturity that came with it all, but I'm different and my body is too. I have learned to train harder and smarter. Rather than being a young hungry lioness ready to take on whoever, I've learned to treat my body kindly and appreciate the importance of recovery—all because now, the goal is to have longevity in fighting. (Related: Why Rest Days Aren't Just for Your Body)
The "hard" that came with my injury made it worth it to be where I am today, and I couldn't be more grateful to serve as a reminder to other women in MMA that anything is possible. More importantly, it's been amazing to be able to set that example for my daughter. She gets to see both of her parents live in such a way that prioritizes healthy living, hard work, and discipline. On top of that, she's watched me fight for my career when I could have given up so many times, and no one would have blamed me. I hope that by persevering, I'm able to show her that no matter what obstacles come in her way, that she can follow her passions, and do anything she sets her mind to. That's what life is all about.