A jaw shattered and a dream broken, but not crushed.
Written by Riley Tanner
Photos by Frankie Najor
I haven’t eaten anything solid in more than a month. I’ve lost almost 30 pounds in as many days, and the most satisfying “meal” I’ve had through a jaw wired shut is blended lasagna and chicken stock.
“This is just God’s way of telling you to do something else with your life,” Dr. Yanney told me after my final surgery. “You should never fight again.”
As a child, I was reclusive and had little interest in sports. My parents, in an effort to get me outside and away from my science fiction novels, signed me up at a karate dojo. I was in love with martial arts from the first time I sparred. Each moment in the ring only increased my appetite and, before I started middle school, I’d attained my black belt.
During high school, I trained in Kenpo/Jiu-Jitsu under sensei Richard Cespedes. Kenpo is a Japanese martial art that primarily focuses on strikes, but includes some ground work. Jiu-Jitsu is a Brazilian art with Japanese origins, similar to wrestling, but with the victor submitting an opponent on the ground via choke or joint lock.
Cespedes often scheduled newer students to fight larger or more experienced opponents in an effort to toughen us up. Although these unbalanced matches broke five of my ribs, they strengthened my resolve to keep fighting.
After high school, I studied Krav Maga, an art that was developed by the Israeli military with the goal of disabling an opponent as quickly as possible. The art is a compilation of the most effective and brutal techniques from multiple fighting styles. I also studied Jeet Kune Do, a similar mix of various martial arts and philosophy developed by Bruce Lee. Both arts favor the practicality of weapons in combat, so I trained with knives and machetes.
The cost of formal training quickly left me broke so I started a free, martial arts club at Saddleback College. While we were allowed to recruit next to other student organizations, we were branded a fight club and barred from practicing on campus.
Soon after I transferred to Cal State Fullerton, I was introduced to the aggression-oriented art of combat-submission wrestling. Much like Jiu-Jitsu, the objective of this non-striking game ends when one opponent admits defeat by tapping out to avoid being choked unconscious or having bones broken.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life training in martial arts and taking a few shots to the face comes with the territory. But, a few months ago, I took one on the chin harder than I’d ever thought possible. And it wasn’t from a fist.
I was coaching my female, club volleyball team through their first travel tournament. The girls were off to an ideal start, winning every match of their first day of play in Phoenix, Arizona.
“You owe us a backflip. We never lost a single game,” my players reminded me before our first match on day two of the tournament.
Foolishly, I’d promised the team that I would do a backflip if they went undefeated during an entire day of play. It was a tough goal, so I figured an act from my "you owe us a backflip. we never lost a single game."gymnastics background a fair incentive for exceptional performance.
I stepped off the padded court to the raw cement of the gym floor and prepared for a trick I’d done countless times before. I don’t remember much after that, but I suspect my feet slipped out during my jump. Somewhere between takeoff and rotation, I managed to land on the right side of my chin with a resonating crack.
Now, I’ve never been knocked out in a fight, but I imagine I came close as the cement pulverized my chin. My vision immediately went blurry. Blinking through the haze, I rose to my feet, swaying. It hurt, but I could stand, so I figured I’d play it off as no big deal.
This plan was debunked when the girls pointed out the blood coursing down my shirt. I quickly headed towards the bathroom so that I could try and pull myself together. I knew that I had to act fast, because our next game started in 10 minutes.
I knew my chin was split, but I was concerned that I had dislocated something. My mouth’s range of motion was impaired and any movement brought waves of intense pain.
I forced my mouth open enough to throw up a few times, then moved to the sinks to check the damage and clean my face.
Looking into my hazy reflection, I saw that a few teeth on the left side of my mouth were shattered. I cobbled together a bandage from Band-Aids and toilet paper, then returned to the courts to coach.
“Listen, what happened to me, it’s not important. I’ll be fine,” I mumbled through a lopsided mouth during our pre-game huddle.
“This game, this is right now. You need to focus on the game, and not worry about me. I always talk about fighting your way through obstacles and being tough. You go be tough right now and play hard.”
Not the most inspirational speech, but I needed to direct the team’s thoughts away from my situation and towards the game. I was a mess. My hands were shaking so much that a team mom had to write the lineup for me when I couldn’t put pen to paper.
After that match, a courtside doctor stitched me up. It was easier to coach without the bloodstained bandage dangling from my jaw and the team kept up their undefeated streak.
I woke up the next morning in a world of hurt. I wasn’t that swollen, but talking was too painful for conversation, or breakfast. Despite my pride in the performance of my athletes, I handed the team over to another coach and rushed to the nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital.
I expected minor damage, but X-rays showed the fall had dislocated my jaw on both sides, broken my mandible in four places and shattered my left condyle: the hinge-like end on the jaw bone.
There were no doctors willing to operate at St. Joseph’s, as the area around the jaw contains several nerve endings that can result in nerve damage from even the smallest of surgical errors.
Unfortunately, there was no one in California covered by my family’s insurance. After a tenacious search, my mother finally discovered maxillofacial specialist Dr. James Yanney in West Linn, Oregon.
My jaw was wired shut during a preparatory surgery to stabilize me for the 16-hour drive to Oregon, restricting me to a liquid diet. It was at this time that I started living on chocolate milk.
After a long, bumpy drive up north I arrived at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland with a sore mouth. At 5:30 a.m. I was wheeled into the operating room where I underwent a five-hour surgery to rebuild my ruined jaw with titanium plates and screws.
My jaw was once again wired shut and I was left bedridden for three, long days during which I was fed through a catheter by my nurse.
I returned to California for the three weeks before my next procedure. I spent this time at my parent’s rental house in Malibu, where I worked on perfecting my cauliflower soup recipe.
The next two months were filled with countless failed attempts to blend just about anything solid. Meat smoothies sounded brilliant in theory, but never turned out. Curry was a purely desperate and terrible decision. Blackberries are delicious, but their seeds clog up the straw.
Throughout my trial and errors, I discovered that the worst thing about blenders is"you should never fight again." how they discard individual food flavors, combining each and every ingredient into a monotonous paste.
Two days before my trip back to Portland, I met with the dentist to have my mouth wires cut. Free at last. Finally, I could speak, brush my teeth, spoon feed myself and eat foods larger than the diameter of a straw. Glorious.
During my last operation, the metal braces were removed from my mouth and I was fitted for a dual retainer to keep my lower jaw aligned. The headgear slurs my speech, but I’m grateful to open my mouth again—even if I do have to wear it for the next two years. Unfortunately, more than just my jawline was altered by that fall.
“This is just God’s way of telling you to do something else with your life,” Dr. Yanney told me after my final surgery. “You should never fight again.” The impact of this advice hit me harder than the cement floor.
His logic was sound; fighting in a cage for the amusement of others comes with a high capacity for injury. The painful irony was that my injury wasn’t related to fighting at all.
Rather than being beaten down by this news, I held onto Dr. Yanney’s estimation that my jaw would heal in two years. I’ve chosen to see that healing time as an opportunity to improve my game before returning to the competition.
Right before my injury, I made significant strides on my quest to become a professional fighter. In December 2013, I won a silver medal in the Sport Jiu-Jitsu International Federation World’s Tournament in Long Beach. It was my first official tournament and I was the only fighter there to medal in any weight class without a coach or a home gym.
Additionally, I began an internship at a start-up business co-founded by Rich i’m not back yet, but i’mon my way.Franklin, a former UFC world champion. I was literally working for one of the greats. The stars appeared to align, only to scatter the moment my jaw met the pavement.
The first month my jaw was wired shut, my muscle mass atrophied and my cardiovascular endurance quickly evaporated as well.
The little walking I did was a short loop between the blender, bed and back. My grappling workouts and running regimen were reduced to maxillofacial exercises to strengthen muscles severed by shards of my broken jaw bone.
It’s now been eight months since my fall and I’m still far from full recuperation, but I’m making progress. Immediately following my injury, drills that were once warm-ups became unbearable for me. Now I’m lifting more weight than ever before.
Every day, I move closer to my former athletic competence. I still can’t spar, but I’m capitalizing on other ways to improve my game—working on striking, flexibility, even salsa dancing to lighten my footwork. I’m not back yet, but I’m on my way. In one year, if my chin is ready, I know my body and mind will be.