Former UFC champ Dave Menne reflects on snakebitten career
Dave Menne still fights over a decade after holding the UFC middleweight title
He lost the title in 2002 after catching a mystery virus at the hotel near the fight
From then on, various ailments (including Lyme disease) conspired against him
It took more than 10 years, but Dave Menne finally got a rematch with the man who snatched the UFC middleweight title from him so long ago.
Menne (45-17-2), who became the promotion's first-ever 185-pound champion and held the title for five months until a fateful Friday night in January 2002, met Murilo Bustamante at Amazon Forest Combat 2 last weekend in Manaus, Brazil. Menne didn't win on Saturday, but at least this time the Minnesota-bred fighter didn't have more than one opponent to contend with.
The same can't be said of their first meeting at UFC 35 in Uncasville, Conn. That was the event where a fast-moving mystery virus worked its way through the roster on the eve of fight night, KO'ing fighters left and right in its wake. Menne was the harshest-hit recipient.
At first, some speculated food poisoning: it came on fast, with the telltale symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. Most of the fighters had eaten from a buffet set up in the adjoining room after the weigh-ins (a well-meaning gesture Zuffa would do away with at later shows).
Others swore off room service and the isolated hotel's restaurant -- ironically named The Octagon -- not an easy undertaking when other options were miles away by cars that nobody had. But in the end, there wasn't much that could be done; a promoter's worst nightmare was in full effect.
Those overtaken early enough made their way to a local hospital, where IVs replenished them enough to where they could get their jobs done. Menne wasn't as lucky. The virus hit him Friday morning and progressed rapidly through his system all day and into the night. By fight time, Menne wasn't in his locker room. He was in the bathroom.
"I didn't get any chance to get over it," said the 37-year-old Menne. "They were pumping me with Imodium tablets so I didn't s--t myself in the ring."
Needless to say, Menne wasn't himself that night.
"I remember my hearing was off," recalled Menne. "I felt like I was picking up on people talking on the side of the ring, when usually you're concentrating on the fight. I was watching and hearing stuff around me. I wasn't focused. It was a surreal experience."
Bustamante, a world-ranked Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who'd lost a controversial decision to Chuck Liddell three months earlier at UFC 33, was the aggressor, securing three clean takedowns that secured him the first round. A Bustamante left-right combination downed Menne and the fight was stopped at 44 seconds into the second round.
Menne's teammate, Jens Pulver, who'd successfully defended his lightweight title against a newcomer named B.J. Penn in the main event, was struck during his trip home to Iowa.
"He was on the side of the road throwing up every 20 minutes," Menne said, who recalls Jens asking how he was able to fight with that.
It seemed like an unfair way to go out, but little was made of Menne's misfortune during a time when the MMA-dedicated press was still scarce and limited. The UFC's new owners, Zuffa LLC, had purchased the ailing promotion for $2 million only a year before and mainstream interest in the sport was still a few years off.
"I had a choice of pulling out of the fight," Menne said. "[The UFC] was appreciative of the fact that I fought and was appreciative that I didn't really publicize anything [afterward]."
Though Menne's story was never told, the fight wasn't any less pivotal for his career. Had he retained his title, Menne's paydays would have increased, which would have allowed him to concentrate more exclusively on his training and progression as a fighter. There's no telling where he would have gone from there.
But UFC 35 was only the beginning of a 10-year battle Menne would wage to regain some semblance of his health. Prior to his next fight, Menne separated his shoulder in training and had to pull out of the bout. And nine months later, at UFC 39, he was caught on the receiving end of one of the fastest (18 seconds) and most brutally memorable knockouts at the hands of Phil Baroni.
During the next four years, Menne won nine of his next 13 bouts on the regional circuit, but by mid-2006, when the UFC came calling again for a bout against Josh Koscheck at Ultimate Fight Night 5, he was experiencing strange symptoms.
"My hands were hurting for [the next] couple of years," Menne said. "I'd just figured it was from hitting. Sometimes I wouldn't want to hit the bags because my hands and elbows hurt so much."
At first, Menne shook off the aches, pains and other uncomfortable sensations that would come and go in his body. He was sheepish to talk about it with others; everyone seemed to have an opinion, though no one could feel what Menne was experiencing. When he did seek medical attention, even the doctors had a difficult time pinpointing just what was wrong with him.
"At one point, I just thought I was cursed, because I couldn't not get sick before a fight," Menne said, "but when you're a fighter, this is what you do. You keep going."
When the physical strain became too much, Menne turned to training, focusing on star pupil and former UFC lightweight Roger Huerta. Preparing Huerta for his fights kept Menne going for a while.
"You rev up and live off adrenaline for that period of time you train someone and after that you kind of crash," Menne said. "I would teach and hold pads, then go lie down in my backroom and concentrate on my breath because that's all I could do."
In late 2008, Menne was officially diagnosed with Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can cause muscle and joint fatigue, among other flu-like symptoms. Menne was prescribed antibiotics steadily for the next eight months.
"My immune system was at about a quarter of what a normal person's should be," Menne said. "It was complete hell, because for two years, I didn't know what was going on with me."
Menne, who'd attended the University of Iowa for three years as a philosophy major, read all he could on the disease and found there were two schools of thought about it. One believed the infection could be cured in a matter of weeks, while another said it could take months or even years for Lyme symptoms to recede.
It's taken Menne the last three years to regain his energy and a normal sleep pattern. He's had his good and bad days, with a low point being the day he had to give up his gym because he had neither the strength nor money to keep it going. He's also managed to fight three times.
The last outing was the rematch with the 44-year-old Bustamante, a fight that came and went last weekend with barely a few mentions from the stateside press.
Earlier UFC champions like Menne and Bustamante don't get the same fanfare afforded to their successors today. Their time came before a hit reality TV show made the UFC and its champions household names. Still, fights like this one had to happen for the UFC and the sport to progress and achieve the massive growth it enjoys today, and for that, the story of Menne's life-altering UFC 35 experience should be recorded, finally, and never forgotten.
"[A UFC championship] is a nice thing to have, that I wish sometimes would generate more money for me -- that's something in the last couple of years you start to realize more," said Menne, whose career-high payday remains the $60,000 he made for fighting three times in one night at a 2001 tournament in Kuwait. "But it's an accomplishment and something a huge amount of people will never do. I was once UFC champion. I was once number one in the world. I was once in the pound-for-pound ratings. That's the .1 percent."
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