But then Siraj got sick.
“In 2020, I ended up getting a brain infection,” began the now 29-year-old featherweight, who returns to action this week against Ryan Rohovich at BFL 78, airing exclusively on UFC FIGHT PASS. “I had to go into a coma, and in healing from that, my body developed an auto-immune disease that was attacking my body’s connective tissues.
“I ended up septic in the hospital a bunch of times, and then I was put in another coma and almost died at the beginning of 2022,” he added. “ In the past three years, I probably spent a year-and-a-half in the hospital.”
Living in the same region, covering the sport, and knowing Siraj, I can tell you that the quick version of things doesn’t paint anywhere near as grim a picture as watching things unfold during that multi-year stretch did, as teammates and friends within the MMA community offered heartbreaking updates about the myriad serious issues the constantly smiling young fighter was dealing with at the time.
It wasn’t just that his career was on pause – it’s that his life seemed to be hanging in the balance, and positive progress would suddenly be followed by another string of genuinely frightening health issues for Siraj.
While diagnosing and treating the different maladies that waylaid his fighting career was the priority, the self-described “psychotically competitive” fighter never allowed his dreams of competing again to fully fade.
“MMA always stayed in my head for some reason,” said Siraj, who trains at Pinnacle Martial Arts under former UFC middleweight Denis Kang. “Even when I was critically ill, doing walking therapy again, doing the most basic things, in my mind, I was always like, ‘I’m going to get back to fighting.’ At certain points, it got put a little more on the back burner, but the idea of getting healthy enough to compete was always in my mind; I wanted it so bad.
“Some days were a lot darker than others — there were definitely days that were more challenging than others where I didn’t care about fighting; I just wanted to live and be healthy and happy again — but the second that I was healthy again, I was always thinking about getting back to competing again.”
Three years, 10 months, and 14 days after he registered the eighth win of his professional career, Siraj notched win No. 9, and rightfully fell to his knees, his face in his hands, the emotions understandably pouring out of him.
“It was surreal — that’s the best way I can describe it,” he said of his return to the cage in June. “It felt like I was fighting again for the first time; it was an incredible feeling.
“I really wanted a tough guy to come back against because I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t need a step back. I’m not one of these guys to pad my record, and I wanted to go out there and make a statement. I got to shut him out, and afterwards, it all just kind of hit me — everything I’d been through these past couple years hit me all at once, and it was pretty intense.
“To be honest, there was nothing in the world that could bother me for about a month; I was on Cloud 9,” answered Siraj when asked about the euphoric state his return to action and getting another victory produced. “It felt every bit as good as I thought it was going to feel getting in there again.
“It was probably even better than I anticipated because of how vindicating and validating it felt to get back in there, get back to doing what I love. It was an incredible experience and one of the best nights of my life, for sure.”
BACK ON THE RISE, ARMED WITH A BULLETPROOF MINDSET
Since returning to full health and being back in the gym, Siraj has been surrounded by a collection of like-minded individuals that all reside in a similar position — sitting on the cusp of graduating to the next level in the sport.