Stephen Elsenbeck is a local mixed martial arts fighter who was supposed to get into the ring for the very first time last summer. But the pre-fight medical checkup took him off the card. Doctors found testicular cancer and as our Brian Dwyer reports, Elsenbeck's fight became a fight for his life.
LIVERPOOL, N.Y. -- Like so many others, Stephen Elsenbeck found the world of mixed martial arts for a reason.
"This place, martial arts in general, has really helped me out in my life because it's gotten me away from not good things, bad things," Elsenbeck said. "It just makes me feel better. It keeps me motivated."
A sport that many say, in a way, saved their life. Elsenbeck would soon mean it literally.
Last summer he began training for his first ever amateur fight. An American Fighting Alliance bout in Watertown scheduled for August 25th.
"Part of our requirements are a physical, blood work pre-fight, a doctor's physical at the event," AFA Co-founder Marc Stevens said.
That physical, something Elsenbeck admits he may not have gotten otherwise, didn't go as planned. A doctor found a small lump in his testicle.
"I could tell something was wrong because he was kind of quiet after he gave me the exam. He kind of shook his head and said, 'I'm going to be honest with you,’" Elsenbeck said. "’It looks like a tumor.’"
That doctor referred Elsenbeck to a specialist in Syracuse who confirmed everyone's worst fear. He would no longer be fighting in August. Instead, cancer would be giving him the biggest fight of his life.
"It was pretty shocking. At first it didn't seem real," Elsenbeck said.
Feeling helpless, Elsenbeck found himself fighting to keep from slipping back into life before MMA.
"I got pretty angry. I was pretty down, miserable and angry," He said.
But there was a glimmer of good news. The cancer was found in the early stages. He wouldn't need chemo. He'd have surgery to remove the testicle and a full recovery was likely. After a couple months, Elsenbeck got a clean bill of health. But mentally, he was still on the mat, not sure if he'd get back up.
"I came back a couple of times and, unfortunately, just at the time, I was so down, I tried to train and I was healthy, but right now (then) I just didn't care about anything in my life. I was still miserable and down," He said. "I don't know what it was. I guess I started looking at some magazines at my house, older magazines and I just kind of started getting that drive again."
And with every punch and every kick at the Tai-Kai Jiu-Jitsu gym in Liverpool, Elsenbeck finds himself, just six months after cancer, with another first chance. He's set to finally make that debut Saturday night at the AFA fights in Liverpool.
"Fighting alone is a scary thing," Elsenbeck said of Saturday night and the crowd of nearly a thousand people expected. "Obviously going through that makes it not as scary. It makes it not as frightening."
"To see Steve come back. To see anybody come back," Stevens said. "I consider Steve a teammate. I train here at Tai-Kai. To see somebody that I know and that I'm close to come back from something like that. It's incredible."
"We have guys who are fighting pro at UFC or Bellatore and in this situation, instead of Steve looking up to them, they're looking up to Steve because it's just such an amazing experience," Tai-Kai Jiu-Jitsu owner Ken Kronenberg said.
And in almost fitting fashion, late last week, Elsenbeck's fight Saturday was nearly called off. Not for health reasons, but because his opponent dropped out.
But Stevens wasn't going to have it, getting what he called no sleep the past few days and finding a fill-in and helping Steve live that dream.
Elsenbeck says he will continue to go to a cancer facility in New York City monthly for check-ups. He'll probably lessen the number of trips over time, but will always continue to go.
Tickets for Saturday's fights at the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Liverpool are nearly sold-out, but there should be some for sale at the door.