With the worst year of his life behind him, Diekmann seeks personal redemption in first fight of 2016

Photo courtesy of Kelly MacDonald
AFTER BATTLING PERSONAL demons both in and out of the cage, Groton, Conn., heavyweight Josh Diekmann ends an 11-month layoff Friday, Jan. 8th, 2016 in a three-round bout against Ashley Gooch of Tennesee on the main card of “CES MMA XXXII” at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I. The Diekmann-Gooch bout is one of six fights on Friday’s AXS TV telecast.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Jan. 6th, 2016) No one’s happier to put 2015 in the rearview mirror than Josh Diekmann.

“That would be an understatement,” he said.

The start of a new year is often considered a checkpoint for people either looking to turn their lives around or usher in a much-needed change, a time to wipe the slate clean, reinvest in family or finally get to work on the resolutions they still haven’t tackled.

Diekmann just hopes to get through a full calendar year without losing another loved one, or going back under the knife.

Over the past 15 months, the Groton, Conn., heavyweight and 4-time Bellator vet underwent three knee surgeries, broke both hands, tore a tendon in one wrist, lost his job, lost his first fight in three years, and buried five close friends – all of whom died tragically within the span of eight weeks – while battling his own personal demons outside of the cage, among them alcohol abuse and excessive self-medicating.

Suffice it to say, the 39-year-old Diekmann couldn’t wait for the clock to strike midnight on January 1st even if, as he says, “Time is man-made.”

“I’m finally dealing with shit I should’ve dealt with when I was 12 years old,” Diekmann said. “It’s kind of pathetic, but it’s where I’m at. Time is nothing more than an illusion, but it’s all I have to cling to right now.”

DIEKMANN’S 11-MONTH layoff and self-imposed exile come to an end Friday, Jan. 8th, 2016. Like everything else he does, both in and out of the cage, “The Freight Train” is back in big way, starring alongside the region’s top talent on the nationally televised main card of “CES MMA XXXII” at Twin River Casino.

Diekmann would do anything for a friend, often at his own expense. This might come as a surprise to some, but not to his closest friends, not to those who knew Diekmann didn’t exactly have a “silver-spoon” childhood.

The product of a broken home, in a manner of speaking, he’s been fighting his whole life. Diekmann was viciously taunted, bullied, and abused. He internalized a lot of it, but some of it naturally manifested itself in a more physical, violent way.

At 15, this behavior led him to an inpatient unit in a mental health facility in Queens.

“Because I was too large and unpredictable to be around the ‘normal’ crazy kids my age, I was housed in an adult unit,” he says.

At 5-foot-11 and a solid 215 pounds, Diekmann wasn’t exactly a gentle giant. Though not quite straightedge, he eventually shed the straight jacket and found a new way to channel his anger.

He began practicing judo and other martial arts, where he eventually met Kent Ward, the owner of Whaling City Boxing in New London and the father of Bellator star Brennan Ward.

Finally, Diekmann’s anger had a positive, productive – if not profitable – outlet. His friendship with the Ward family, and his brotherly relationship with Brennan, led Josh (and eventually Brennan, too) into the tumultuous confines of what most people call, “the octagon.”

After years of being little more than a sideshow act on the underground circuit, throwing hands in smoke-filled rooms where people barely paid attention, Diekmann made his professional debut in 2005, stopping his opponent in 24 seconds. He fired 44 strikes in that timespan – punches, kicks, etc. – successfully landing each one.

Fighting was always therapeutic for Diekmann. It was a way for him to unload all of his problems and pain onto a randomly designated, although willing, stranger. He took comfort in knowing there would be no repercussions, no trips to the mental facility and, best of all, no “gang of over-sized staff, no shots of Thorazine, and no fucking straightjackets.” It was one-on-one therapy in a cold, steel cage.

But the euphoria was short-lived. Even fighting stopped being fun after a while. Diekmann can’t quite pinpoint when it all began to go downhill, but he vividly recalls a loss to UFC vet Josh Hendricks in 2012, a fight in which Diekmann absorbed an inadvertent knee to the groin seven seconds into the opening round of their main-event bout.

“The place was eerily quiet. I could sense the frustration of the strangers, and the empathy from my loved ones, hoping I would get up,” he said.

“The two minutes I was down felt like an eternity, I could hear people screaming – pleading – with me to take my time as I tried to regain my feet. Although I felt the urge to simultaneously piss, puke, and shit, the urge I felt to give the people what they wanted, what they paid their hard-earned money for, superseded any pain or discomfort I felt at the time.”

Diekmann got up, but never regained his composure. Hendricks won by submission via arm triangle at the 2:30 mark.

“I had a bruise from the back of my knee all the way to the middle of my back,” Diekmann said. “That knee literally ruptured my testicle. The swelling was so severe that I had to tie my balls up with an ace bandage to alleviate the pressure caused by the excessive weight from the swelling. It would be three weeks before the swelling subsided enough so I could get an ultrasound. It really fucked my whole body chemistry up.”

He found ways to deal with the pain, both physical and mental – “self-medicating,” as he described it – and continued a troublesome pattern of masking whatever was bothering him with alcohol and other vices. Through it all, Diekmann remained a top heavyweight in the northeast, winning his first three fights with Bellator, including a vicious 47-second knockout win over another UFC vet, Mike Wessel, in September of 2014 at the Mohegan Sun Casino.

AS THE CALENDAR turned from 2014 to 2015, real life eventually caught up with Diekmann; he reached a point he described as something worse than rock bottom.

“The rock was on top of me, crushing my ribs and the very air from my lungs,” he said.

Of the five friends he lost from late 2014 to early 2015, one died just five years after a double lung transplant, a 46-year-old victim of cystic fibrosis named Gina Rochetti.

“Gina literally fought for every breath she ever took. The doctor’s said that within the first five years, the lungs would either take or reject. Just about five years to the day, they rejected and we lost her,” Diekmann said.

“It just crushed me. She had been an inspiration and I became angry and pessimistic after her loss.”

Two weeks later, Diekmann got a phone call informing him another close childhood friend had taken his own life. Three weeks after that – just six days before his Bellator 134 showdown against Raphael Butler in February – his best friend passed away.

“He died right at my feet,” Diekmann said. “To this day, no amount of self-medicating can get that picture of him lying on the floor out of my head. As a fighter, I’ve seen plenty of friends lying unconscious in front of me, but they always got up. I waited for him to get up, but he never did.

“Once all the dust settled, all that shit hit me like the proverbial freight train, no pun intended.”

With injuries having taken their toll on his body, Diekmann underwent to repair a torn meniscus in each knee. He was supposed to go under the knife one more time that year while simultaneously nursing a torn tendon in his wrist in addition to two broken hands. Doctors prescribed painkillers, which only led to more “self-medicating”.

“Maybe I’m dyslexic. The bottle said, ‘Take 1 every 4 hours for pain,’ but, realistically, it was more like four every hour. I’d feel good, pass out, wake up and do it all over again. It was fucking horrifying.”

Diekmann not only lost friends through death, he also lost friends who had turned their backs on him, friends who maybe grew tired of his behavior and or the poor decisions he was making in his personal life and kept their distance. The guilt was also eating away at him from the inside, guilt from wondering whether or not he could have saved a few of his friend had he been there for them in their darkest hours instead of drowning his own troubles in alcohol.

It was, as he described it, “a chemical warfare” raging inside his body with no light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’ve battled a lot of demons, that’s no secret. I’ve had to go through this alone as I lived in my own head. I’ve spent so much time helping others that maybe it was inconceivable to them that I was actually the one who needed help,” Diekmann said.

“Fuck it. Whatever. All of this has made me stronger. I’m still dealing with the guilt. A couple of the people I lost could have been the people who would have been there for me. The time away from the cage turned out to be a blessing. Inevitably, it’s what led me to reach rock bottom.”

BY THE END of last summer, right around his 39th birthday, a routine blood test revealed Diekmann’s red blood cell and platelet counts were extremely low. His “good” cholesterol was virtually non-existent.

“They were checking me for MDS [myelodysplastic syndrome], Leukemia, everything you could imagine, but I couldn’t tell anyone because of the history of cancer in my family and family of my best friend,” he said. “I went to the doctor for follow-up blood work and they eventually pumped me full of dye and gave me an MRI.”

The reality was Diekmanns’ bad habits outside of the cage were finally catching up to him. It was the wake-up call he needed.

“It really scared the shit out of me,” Diekmann said. “I wasn’t necessarily concerned for my own physical well-being, but rather for the mental and emotional well-being of my family and loved ones.”

AS HE APPROACHES his first fight of 2016, a three-round bout against Tennessee’s Ashley Gooch (8-4, 6 KOs), a former RFA (Resurrection Fighting Alliance) Heavyweight Champion, on the main card of Friday’s AXS TV telecast, Diekmann admits he’s finally proud of himself for taking the necessary steps to turn his life around.

“I feel better. I feel stronger. I’m more centered,” he said, “I’ve taken some serious steps in the right direction. I’m doing good today and that’s all I can really concern myself with.”

Some might wonder why the 39-year-old Diekmann would continue to put his body through the wringer in such a demanding sport, but, as he puts it, “For me, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Diekmann wants to stay busy. He needs to stay busy. In his spare time, he enjoys writing and is a surprisingly adept guitar player, something he got away from but has reinvested himself in for his friend, Joe Doto, whom he described as a “virtuoso.” Diekmann has even penned several columns for a local MMA website and is in the process of launching his own site, a directory for people to connect with local gyms as well as an outlet to post his memoirs. He also landed a role as a stuntman in the third installment of The Purge, which will be released in theaters this spring. He stars in a fight scene opposite former Olympian and Rhode Island heavyweight boxer Jason Estrada. He’s since been contacted for additional stunt work.

Writing and learning the film industry has become as therapeutic as fighting, Diekmann says. He’s got a lot going on these days, which is a good thing.

“If I ain’t got something to do,” he says, “then I’m reaching for something.”

Being part of an estranged family – his mother and father had him when they were 21 and 18, respectively – Diekmann also finds comfort in the camaraderie of the fight world, spending time with his training partners and coaches, Greg Rebello; the crew at Tim Burrill’s, Pete and Keith Jeffrey and everyone at Tri-Force MMA; and, most importantly, the Wards, who never left his side even when most of his sponsors bailed on him following his loss in February.

“Maybe that’s part of why I’ve hung around for so long,” he says, “because if I don’t fight, I don’t get the chance to be around all those guys.”

As for what the future holds, Diekmann refuses to look past Friday. What’s motivating him? Even he can’t pinpoint it. All he knows is when the first bell rings, he will finally be at peace, living in the moment, second to second.

“It’s chaos, but I embrace it because it’s the only time I can truly be free from my thoughts,” Diekmann said. “Now that I look at everything that’s happened, it’s all so simple. Go workout, you fucking douche. Don’t get drunk every night. Don’t pollute yourself. It all seems so simple now. All that stuff clouded my mind and my judgment. Stepping away, looking back, I feel like I just left the fucking ‘Twilight Zone.'”

“I still have a tendon I need to fix,” he continued, “but I’ve put it off because I’m so fucking sick of surgery. I’ve made some really bad decisions recently that have affected people I care about. I’ll never live that down. I won’t allow myself. Even if I am forgiven, I’ll never be able to free myself from that guilt. I’ve lost some people, some of whom I’ll never see again.

“I’m not sure what hurts worse, the thought of never seeing them or having to face the people who are still amongst us whom I’ve let down. It all hurts. I’m doing my best to try to deal with it. I just have to keep my chin down, my hands up, and my eyes open. It’s fundamental in fighting, but it’s a fitting metaphor for life as well.”

He’s put the past behind him. One of his worst years (to date) is over. Once that bell rings Friday night, it’s not only the start of a new fight, and a new year, it’s also the beginning of the rest of his life.

“I now look at each day like a different round. Some days I win, some days I lose. Occasionally I get knocked on my ass and have to take a standing 8, but so far I’ve always been able to get back up.

“As long as my eyes are open, and my feet are on the floor, I’ll keep moving forward. I finally feel like my nose is above water. I can feel the moisture in my nostrils, but fuck it. At least I’m still breathing….”

Tickets for “CES MMA XXXII” are priced at $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and available for purchase online at www.cesmma.com, www.cagetix.com/ces, www.twinriver.com or www.ticketmaster.com, by phone at 401-724-2253/2254, or at the Twin River Casino Players Club. All fights and fighters are subject to change.

The main event features a lightweight showdown between reigning CES MMA Lightweight Champion Luis Felix (14-8, 5 KOs) of Providence, R.I., and Bellator vet Ryan Sanders (9-7, 1 KO) of Bangor, Maine, in a three-round non-title bout.

Also featured on the main card of “CES MMA XXXII,” reigning CES MMA Welterweight Champion Gil Freitas (18-5, 6 KOs) makes his first title defense in a five-round bout against Cincinnati’s Chris Curtis (12-4, 4 KOs), who aims to become the third Ohio-born fighter to capture one of the promotion’s titles, joining a list that includes UFC vets Lane and Dominique Steele.

Rising featherweight Kyle Bochniak (5-0, 2 KOs) makes his second appearance on the televised main card as he puts his undefeated record on the line against Taylor Trahan (5-4) of St. Johnsbury, Vt., and undefeated bantamweight Rico DiSciullo (5-0, 2 KOs) of Peabody, Mass., faces 21-fight vet Lionel Young (6-15) of Boston.

The preliminary card features six additional bouts, starting with a featherweight showdown between unbeaten Manny Bermudez (3-0, 1 KO) of Abington, Mass., and Evan Parker (5-3, 1 KO) of nearby Worcester. None of Bermudez’s previous three opponents made it out of the first round and the 5-foot-6 submission specialist is looking to make it 4-for-4 against the game Parker, who choked out Pete Rogers Jr. in his CES MMA debut in June. South Boston featherweight James Murrin (3-3, 2 KOs) faces Mak Kelleher (0-2) of upstate New York and Providence’s Keenan Raymond (2-2) battles newcomer Ryan Todd of Cortland, N.Y.

Also on the preliminary card, middleweights Pat McCrohan (1-0, 1 KO) of Beverly, Mass., and Boston’s Mike Rodriguez (2-0, 2 KOs) put their unbeaten records and knockout streaks on the line against one another and flyweight David Baxter (1-0) of Bellingham, Mass., makes his CES MMA debut against newcomer Joshua Ricci of Whitesville, N.Y. Providence’s Nick Iaciofano (2-0, 1 KO) battles Luay Ashkar of Syracuse in a three-round flyweight bout.

For more information on “CES MMA XXXII” visit www.cesmma.com, follow @CESMMA on Twitter and Instagram and “like” the official CES MMA Facebook fan page.


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