For a while, Tristan Connelly was the greatest thing to hit the universe since a big block of cheese went on sale at Costco.
He jumped up a weight class on short notice in 2019 to beat Michel Pereira, picked up the full "Fight of the Night" bonus since the Brazilian missed weight, and everyone wanted to be in the "Boondock" business.
Then the disc injury from a car accident suffered earlier in 2019 got unbearable and forced him to get surgery. Then the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped an April 2020 bout with Alex da Silva, and while the Canadian did return in April 2021, losing a decision to Pat Sabatini, his time on the active list was short-lived when the other disc banged up in the accident started acting up.
"We hoped the other one could last," he said. "The doctors said it could last forever, it could last a year, we don't know, so I think if I had done both at once, it would have been twice the recovery anyway, so he went and fixed the one and I was feeling pretty good. I was getting excited to fight (Makwan) Amirkhani (last October) and it just got too bad really quick and we had to jump on it. But I think I was able to bounce back a little quicker this time."
How's Saturday for quick? It's when Connelly (14-7 MMA, 1-1 UFC) will make his long-awaited return in a fight that will test his body, mind and spirit – a three-rounder with featherweight toughman Darren Elkins (26-10 MMA, 16-9 UFC).
So is the 36-year-old Connelly at 100 percent now?
"As close to a hundred percent as a 36-year-old MMA fighter can be," he laughs. "But I feel great now. The first month of training that I was allowed to go full contact, I went from zero to 80 percent right away. The weight came off right away, and it's almost like the little bit of a rest was good for me."
It always is for a fighter closing in on the big 4-0, but Connelly's age may be deceiving, considering that he only began fighting when he was 25 years old, leaving him with a lot less wear and tear than if he started as a teenager.
"And when I was 25, I looked like I was 12," he laughs, but fight years or chronological years, 36 is still 36, and he's made the proper adjustments.
"You gotta get more technical as you get older; that's the name of the game," he said. "You're not gonna out-athlete them, don't try that. You gotta outsmart them."
It's what Connelly did in that unforgettable win over Pereira, but will he be able to implement a gameplan against Elkins, or will the 38-year-old Indiana native drag Connelly into his world? It's not a world most hope to visit, but the British Columbia native apparently has his passport stamped and his lunch packed for a long night.
"Oh yeah, that's what I'm planning for," he laughs. "I'm really excited for this fight. I thought I was gonna fight Darren last year and then the date didn't work so it ended up being Pat. He's a guy I've been a fan of for as long as I've been watching MMA. He's been in the UFC since I started fighting. So, one, that's like a giant bucket list thing as a fighter to fight a guy, to me, that's a legend of the sport and has been around forever. He's fought everyone. There's a reason why Darren's still where he's at. He's a tough, tough dude.
"I just don't want to make the mistake that other guys make and think he's hurt and try and put him away or grab some choke and have it super deep and put all my energy into it just to have him pop out, keep coming and do what Darren does and just overwhelm you," Connelly continues. "The good thing is that I do that to people, as well. In the gym every day, that's what I always can do. I think that will be a very interesting fight just to make it a war of attrition. We'll try and fight smarter than that, but when you're in the mix and one thing's not working, it might end up being that way."
No problem, says Connelly, and with a clean bill of health and the opportunity to fight a full schedule again, it's not surprising that he's actually looking forward to the possibility of going to some dark places with an opponent nicknamed "The Damage".
"You don't really realize how much you love something until they take it away, right?" Connelly said. "My whole career, I've never really had any time off training. I've been relatively injury free and I've never had anything that's kept me off the mats more than like two weeks other than these two surgeries. You start getting depressed really quick when everything else goes away, and as soon as I was allowed to even hit pads again, life started getting better. It sounds ridiculous, but nothing makes me happier than getting punched in the face. (Laughs) After a good day of sparring - hitting people and getting hit - I feel great. Maybe I'm sick and twisted, but if just feels right."
This story first published at UFC.com.