The next chapter: Rick Story reveals the reasons behind his extended hiatus from fighting
For the first time in nearly a decade, Rick Story isn't getting ready for a fight.
The 19-time UFC veteran has taken a step back from mixed martial arts following his most recent fight against Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone that saw him suffer the first knockout loss of his career, which also marked the end of his current contract.
Prior to the bout with Cerrone, the UFC had offered Story a new multi-fight contract which he ultimately turned down in hopes of gaining more traction in negotiations with a win.
Unfortunately, Story's strategy fell apart with the loss. And not long after the battle with Cerrone had ended, he was no longer a contracted fighter on the UFC roster. But rather than rush to ink a new deal to give him some sense of security when he was ready to fight again, Story decided to go in a completely new direction.
It was a plan that would give him the chance to prepare for life after fighting for the first time in his entire career.
"I was on a three fight win streak and I let my contract run out so if I beat [Donald] Cerrone I would have more power to negotiate a better contract and that obviously backfired," Story explained to FOX Sports. "Even letting that happen, it opened the door in between contracts or in between negotiations to allow me to go to school and to pursue firefighting in the mean time.
"Really my focus is just directed because after my fight with Cerrone I had to get a double root canal on my two front teeth and they still feel a little unsettled so I haven't even been motivated to get punched in the face. Nobody's really motivated to get punched in the face, but they're sensitive so I figured this is a great time to start something else while I can. That way I'm not trying to balance two things at once like training for a fight and trying to stay focused for all the required schooling to get it done."
Story said he had actually been contemplating a second career away from the cage for some time, but his forced hiatus due to injury — along with his contractual status with the UFC — allowed him to start looking towards the future now instead of later.
"It's been on my mind for probably the last three or four years," Story revealed. "I've just been training for fights and I got injured and then I had to recover from the injury. Then I had to buckle down and get as in good shape as possible for another fight because finances were low. Taking the time to do it just hit the back burner.
"Now it just seems like it's the perfect timing for me to actually be able to do it."
Story has decided to become a firefighter.
The 32-year-old already started the process with testing, classes and training with his current course in Portland scheduled for 13 months. The veteran welterweight contender is also dealing with the aftermath of his injury from the fight with Cerrone but that doesn't mean he's going to give up on training while he's working towards his goal to fight fires full time.
"Yeah just because fighting's not going to last forever and I need to get something else started while I can. Firefighting's a really good career path," Story explained. "I think this is what I need to do for me right now. I'm not cutting off fighting. Once my teeth feel 100-percent, I'll start training again. It's not like I'm going cold turkey and then I get a fight and I've been out of the game for two years."
Story's reasons for exploring a new career in firefighting go beyond just planning for a life after fighting.
During his most recent contract negotiations with the UFC, Story started to truly examine his worth to the promotion and how much they were willing to invest in him considering he's been a top 15 fighter for most of his career.
Story has consistently faced the best of the best in the welterweight division while putting together an impressive 12-7 record overall with notable wins over the likes of Gunnar Nelson, Thiago Alves and former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks.
Still, Story saw other fighters behind him in the rankings or sitting in the win column on his record who were being paid more and promoted better than he's enjoyed at any point during his UFC career.
"I've been with them for a long time and I've given it my all in all of my fights, whether it's a win or a loss, and then to have people that have less fights than me, they have more of a popular following and they get bumped up to a higher pay scale than I am. It's frustrating. It really makes me lose motivation to perform for a company that's going to treat me like that," Story said.
"If I give it my all again, what difference is it going to make? If I'm not jumping through the hoops and just hammering on social media and getting more followers, I'm not going to get a better contract. Even though I'm out there beating people making almost twice as much as me. It's a motivation thing."
It's slightly heartbreaking for Story to admit after spending the past eight years as a member of the UFC roster, but he's just not sure that he means all that much to them.
Perhaps that's a matter of perception versus reality, but Story felt like the writing was on the wall regarding his future with the promotion so he decided to take matters into his own hands for once.
"I just feel that they think that I'm expendable," Story said about the UFC. "It's one of these topics that's difficult to pinpoint exactly what you're feeling. It's one of those things, I'm sitting here and I don't see it getting better now that I'm getting older. So I need to redirect and set up something I can fall back on.
"Fighting doesn't have retirement and I don't want to start at ground zero three or four years down the road."
At 32, Story knows he still has years in front of him if he decides to keep fighting, but he also can't ignore the damage he's done to his body over the past decade while dedicating himself to mixed martial arts.
Story isn't asking for sympathy in regards to his chosen profession, but he also knows that as time ticks away, his body isn't going to bounce back quite as quickly as it once did and those are all factors that will play a part in whether or not he steps back into the cage again.
"When you're younger you don't even care because you recover and it's like nothing," Story said. "As you've been doing it for 10-plus years, on top of what you've done before fighting, your body starts to grow extra bone, it starts to deteriorate or function less. If I could throw some advice to younger fighters, take care of yourself and try not to push through injuries."
The list of Story's injuries may be more than some or less than others, but it's what he's added up over the past eight years spent competing in the UFC.
At the top of the list was a neck injury that caused nerve damage where Story's right arm was in so much pain that he couldn't even open a jar. That eventually led him to surgery where he had two artificial discs placed in his neck. Story suffered a broken bone in his tibia during the fight with Gunnar Nelson and then in another bout, he dislocated one of his pinky toes so badly that it was nearly dangling off his foot before a pin helped put it back in place.
Story has undergone surgery for a damaged meniscus in his right knee as well as going under the knife to repair a fractured ankle. Then there's the long-term damage of a career spent beating on his body as Story has developed bone growth in his elbows so severely that he can no longer straighten his arms or even reach up to touch his own shoulders.
Despite that laundry list of injuries, Story says his body still reacts when he's training and he hasn't lost a step when he's inside the cage competing with an opponent. Still, Story can't ignore the long-term effects that could eventually come back to haunt him and that certainly played a part in his decision to take a step back now rather than wait until it was too late.
"I'm in a situation where I'm being a little more proactive as opposed to turning a blind eye to it and when it gets too far down the road, it's too late to do anything else," Story said. "My body isn't really expendable. There's a risk/reward thing going on. The punishment is adding up. The reward isn't really worth it as much. When I first started it was more about 'I need to prove to everyone what I've got.' Now it's like everyone knows where I stand but now what?
"I need to do something for me rather than proving to everyone what I have. It makes you step back and think how much longer do I have in this? I personally don't plan on fighting into my late 30s, that's for sure. Some people can do it but personally, I don't want to take the damage. I don't want to take the punches to the head. I want to be able to function 20 years down the road."
Between the punishment his body has absorbed and his general unhappiness about the most recent contract offer he received from the UFC, Story is resolute in taking a step away from the sport for the time being and focusing on bettering himself for a change.
While it's clear Story has grievances with the UFC, he maintains that he holds no animosity towards the promotion whatsoever. His decision to take a break from fighting isn't Story's way of standing up to the UFC, and he's definitely not trying to burn any bridges with an organization he called home for the past eight years.
"It's a business and I understand it. I'm not going to be one of those guys that whines about it. I'm just going to be real about it," Story said. "I'm looking at it and that's what happened. I can't sit and whine about it. I can only control what I do. I don't have any ill will towards them. It's business. They've proven time and time again, they're in it to make themselves money and it's just turned that way over the last five years.
"I can understand it. It's frustrating because you put time and you put your health on the line and you end up helping them progress their company. It's just frustrating."
All this adds up to an uncertain future for Story when it comes to his fight career.
MMA is all Story has known for virtually his entire adult life and that definitely played a part in his decision to look for a new career away from the cage. Financially speaking, there is no way Story could leave fighting behind right now and retire off the purses he's made throughout his career.
As far as returning to the cage, Story can't honestly say whether or not that's in the cards for him right now. He still loves the sport and the competition absolutely fuels him, but Story also knows that fighting can't last forever.
So Story had to look for an alternative. That's what he's hoping firefighting will provide.
And for now, Story is more focused on writing a new chapter that doesn't involve mixed martial arts.
"I haven't really made a decision on it yet," Story said candidly about his future. "I'm not counting it out. Every time I see fights on television, I get more and more motivated. As everything is settling, the motivation comes back.
"I'm not counting it out but I'm just going to plug away and keep doing what I'm doing and when an opportunity arises, we'll see what happens."