As he entered the fight against flashy Russian Alexander Shlemenko in Louisville, Kentucky, few were privy to the details of Bryan Baker's physical condition. Unbeknownst to few more than his trainer, his doctor, a few family members and friends, 24-year-old Bryan Baker was competing in the biggest match of his mixed martial arts career while in the midst of a fight with cancer.
As he began to prepare himself for his first bout in the middleweight tournament, something was clearly wrong. During training, Baker – with a 13-2 record and nicknamed "the Beast" for his ability to outwork everyone in the gym – found himself with little energy and constantly in a state of fatigue. More troubling: he couldn't complete his workouts.
"At first I thought, 'Maybe it's staph? Maybe it's mono?" Baker's coach Thomas Denny recalls. "But I began noticing more and more problems. His skin was turning green, his back was bothering him, he was having headaches. He was the workhorse, but slowly, his workouts dropped off to nothing."
Denny called everyone he knew asking for opinions. Finally, he contacted a local fight doctor, who advised Denny that Baker should have blood work done.
The detailed tests which he received on April 19 confirmed what doctors suspected: Baker had cancer -- specifically, chronic myelogenous leukemia -- and had likely had it for a while. Complicating matters, Baker had no health insurance.
Dr. Douglas Reznick recommended Baker be put on Gleevec. in cancer treatment. Baker's recommended 800-milligram daily dosage would cost $5,000 per month. After a few calls, Denny, Baker and the cancer center were able to convince the manufacturer to give him a year's dosage for free.
"This drug is not your standard type of chemotherapy," Dr. Reznick says. "Within a matter of one or two weeks, symptoms are already abating. I've got several patients with this, and I've known some endurance athletes in the same position. They go on competing and living a full, normal, active life."
"I always said, 'I'm going to be strong through it, I'm going to beat it, I'm going to go in and do well in this tournament, go in and get my title,'" Baker says. "That's where my spirit and focus was."
With his mind made up, Baker had only two days to prepare for his first tourney bout with Sean Loeffler. Adapting to the medicine, he could barely jump rope for five minutes – the same length as a grueling MMA round -- and yet he still decided to go through with the fight.
Incredibly, Baker won in just 2:43, scoring a technical knockout.
His second fight came a month later. For this fight, he managed five solid days of training, Denny said. Again, Baker improbably rallied, defeating Eric Schambari via triangle choke, this time in just 2:29.
That win put him in the tourney final against Shlemenko. This time, he had two weeks of training. Everything seemed set up for a storybook ending.
When the cage door closed behind him, though, he never seemed to get his offense started. Shlemenko dropped Baker with a knee to the body midway through the first round and followed up with ground and pound offense for a TKO finish.
Baker, though, says he has learned from both the experience of cancer and the experience of losing. On Thursday, he faces respected and grizzled veteran Jeremy Horn at Bellator 30 in Louisville, the site of his recent loss. He says he's at about 90 percent going into the fight.
After months of treatment, Baker's in hematologic remission, with normal blood counts. Within a few months, his doctors hope there will be no leukemia in his bone marrow. And if everything goes according to plan, after a year on Gleevec, all traces of the disease will be gone from his system.