UFC featherweight Nik Lentz has a newfound appreciation for competition after his fighting career almost ended unexpectedly following a January 2020 bout.

While this year was tough year for many, Lentz (30-11-2 MMA, 14-8-1 MMA) was faced with unusual and scary hurdles en route to his return to competition at UFC Fight Night on Jan. 16, when he takes on Mike Grundy.

Lentz, 36, last competed 11 months ago when he lost to Arnold Allen. During the fight, Lentz was poked in the eye – and the next nine months of his life were severely affected.

“I ended up having triple vision,” Lentz said, in a recent interview with MMA News. “From that moment on, it was like four-and-a-half minutes left in the fight, I was fighting three guys. I was just trying to hit the one in the middle, I guess. I didn’t work it out at the time. I never had this happen, but in the fight, I was trying to close the eye, but it turns out it’s really hard to try to close your eye when someone is trying to punch at you. It just automatically opens.”

The end of the fight, however, was just the beginning of his struggles. From the moment he left the cage, the reality slowly sunk in. Something was really wrong.

“After the fight, I couldn’t even get out of the cage,” Lentz said. “I couldn’t see the steps. I couldn’t see anything. My vision didn’t return to normal for nine months after that until I had surgery.  I went and had to see a series of doctors. No one could really figure out what the problem was. The eye had healed, but I still couldn’t see right. I still had terrible double vision. I went to specialists and specialists and specialists, and finally I found one.”

Lentz initially thought finding a doctor who knew the issue was a stress-reliever, but things quickly changed. The doctor couldn’t guarantee the surgery would help, though he was willing to try. If the surgery didn’t work, Lentz was facing a grim outcome: having his eye removed.

“(The doctor) pretty much straight-up said, ‘I might be able to help you but there’s a greater chance than half that we could do something and nothing could happen and your eye is just not going to work right,’” Lentz said. “If it hadn’t fixed and I had not (stopped seeing) double, I would’ve had to remove the eye because seeing with one eye is better than seeing double. When they were both together, I had terrible double vision, so I couldn’t do anything. It was a scary nine months. There were a lot of times where this might have been it. This injury might have been my career. It might have been onto the next phase of life.”

However, the surgery did go well. Through some retraining and healing, Lentz’s coordination issues resolved themselves, and he’s ready to step back into the cage with a newfound appreciation for his occupation.

“It’s been one of the hardest years, but also me and fighting have never been best pals,” Lentz said. “It’s something I’m very good at, but I’m an antisocial person. I never wanted to be in the public light. There were parts of fighting that maybe, in the back of my mind, I always thought I didn’t like it.

“When it was taken away from me, I sort of had to switch that mindset. I started seeing all the things that I loved about it and the things that it’s given me. Maybe I take it for granted. All my friends are fighters. All my friends are coaches. My entire life has revolved around this sport. This is where I grew up. This is where I became a man. (Since coming back), a certain pressure of the fight world has been lifted.”

UFC Fight Night on Jan. 16 takes place on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Viewing details have yet to be announced, though MMA Junkie has learned part of the event will likely air on ABC.