Andre Fili’s first knockout in over four years should have been the story of his fight week.
In all likelihood, he’ll remember UFC 296 for what happened in the days leading up to it.
On Saturday, Fili picked up a spectacular first-round TKO of Lucas Almeida to return to the win column and keep his UFC record above the .500 mark. The 14-year veteran entered the contest with a heavy heart as he had to put down his beloved dog Harley a day before flying to Las Vegas to compete.
Fili recounted the story during an appearance on The MMA Hour.
“It was really tough,” Fili said. “I didn’t grow up with pets, I didn’t really grow up with animals. It wasn’t really a thing we did, we just didn’t have pets. So I got this dog eight years ago, and he became my best friend. I was mentally prepared for him to get old, I understand he’s eight years old, I understood he wasn’t young. I thought he had a few more years left. I was able to wrap my head around the idea of him getting older and him passing away; I knew that was an inevitability.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was him just being gone one day. Dogs, they love you so much, and they’re always in the moment, they’re always happy, they’re always sharing the moment, so they don’t show a lot of pain. Obviously, they can’t speak to you and articulate what they’re going through, so I think he had a tumor that had been growing for probably a long time, but it wasn’t something that I was aware of.”
Fili recalls going to bed last Sunday and waking up Monday to find Harley wasn’t moving and was struggling to breathe. It was obvious that something was wrong, and the timing couldn’t be worse with Fili and his team set to fly out Tuesday.
The fighter hoped that it would simply be a matter of paying for a treatment that would bring Harley back to health, but when they went to the vet, they received a grave diagnosis.
“So I take him to the vet, I’m expecting to give him some antibiotics or some expensive bulls***, and he’ll feel better,” Fili said. “Literally, when the doctor came back into the room, I could see in her face that it was not that. I asked her, I just immediately said, ‘It’s bad, huh?’ She shook her head and said, ‘Yeah, he has a tumor that’s grown very aggressively in his spleen, and it’s causing internal bleeding, and he has blood loss and that’s why he has low energy.’ She basically referred us to a surgeon—mind you, this is Monday, we leave for fight week Tuesday—it’s 3:30 in the middle of the day, I’m on the phone with one vet who’s essentially saying, ‘We can do emergency surgery tonight for $10,000. It’s going to be a very hard surgery on the dog, and we’re not sure if it will fix the problem.’ Ten thousand dollars, it’s going to be very hard, and he might not survive it. If he survives it, he will probably have to go through chemo. If you put him through chemo, and the chemo has any real adverse effects, which it probably will, we’ll suggest you put him down.
“So it was like on one path was this long string of invasive things that would make my dog’s quality of life bad, and then literally on the other line, I have a vet saying we can put your dog down, but our last appointment is at five. And this is 3:30 in the middle of the day, so I have an hour and a half to make a choice and say goodbye to my dog essentially. And I’m cutting weight and I’m packing my bags to leave for fight week. So I just sucked it up, I went and cut some weight in the garage, rinsed off, and I had about 45 minutes to say goodbye to my dog and then we drove him to the vet, we put him down and said goodbye to him and came home, packed our bags, and went to sleep. Woke up for fight week.”
Astonishingly, Harley’s death wasn’t the only recent tragedy that Fili had to deal with.
Fili mentioned in his post-fight speech that he also saw two friends pass away during his preparation for UFC 296. It was a series of experiences that wounded him, but also provided valuable perspective.
“I also had a friend get hit who was riding his Harley Davidson, he got hit by an Amazon truck and died almost instantly,” Fili said. “He was like a little brother to me. That happened at the start of the camp, six weeks out. Two weeks after, my friend got hit on his motorcycle. I had another friend who I’ve known for 20 years pass away, he overdosed.
“I’ve had all these things happen. I’ve dealt with all these things, and the only choice was either to dwell on it and just wallow in it, or just hopefully take the lesson of none of this s*** is guaranteed. I don’t mean to be morbid, but this could be the last time you and I ever speak. None of this is guaranteed, and it’s a cliché, people say it all the time, but it never registered until recently. You really have to appreciate each moment. You might only get to do this this one time, and being able to do it this one time is a gift. So I went into fight week like it was my debut. I went into fight week like I was doing everything for the first time.”
Through it all, Fili persevered, taking Almeida out inside of a round to score his first finish since a first-round knockout of Sheymon Moraes in July 2019. Watching Fili’s performance and celebration, one could be forgiven for not realizing the inner turmoil he was hiding up until that moment.
Once he had some time for himself, though, it was a different story.
“When I win the fight, and I hug my teammates and I tell my coaches I love them, just be present and be grateful and enjoy it, because I understand that loss is part of life, but the losses I’ve taken recently have happened so fast that the only way that I can deal with is to just take the lesson of being grateful for right now,” Fili said. “That’s what I leaned into this fight week. Every moment of the fight and every moment of the process, even the weight cut, every single piece of this fight camp, and this fight week, and this fight-night I practiced gratitude for.
“And then I left the arena, shook hands, laughed, hugged, said all the ‘I love yous,’ got escorted from the front of [the] New York New York [casino] into an elevator to go back to my room. I was in an elevator by myself, I was finally alone for the first time the entire week, and then I broke down and cried in the elevator by myself. I was able to finally get it out, but it took a whole week of not being able to process it.”