James (The Sandman) Irvin has a constant reminder of his battle with prescription drugs. He just has to look in the mirror.
"The Anderson Silva fight, I have 25 stitches across my cheek from when he blasted me," the mixed martial arts fighter told The Canadian Press. "Every day when I look in the mirror, I have a clear reminder of what those drugs did to me and what lies ahead of me if I was ever to start using that garbage ever again."
Irvin accepted the challenge when the UFC decided to give Silva, the UFC's middleweight champion, a go at light-heavyweight in July 2008.
Silva knocked him out brutally in 61 seconds, carving him open in the process. Two weeks later Irvin was told he had tested positive for two unapproved painkillers: methadone and oxymorphone. Irvin was suspended for nine months and fined US$7,500.
Irvin, who hasn't fought in the 20 months since because of the suspension and knee injuries, returns to the cage Sunday when he takes on middleweight Alessio Sakara (18-7 with one no contest) at UFC Live in Broomfield, Colo.
The 31-year-old from Sacramento says he is a new man, blessed to still have a job with the UFC and a body that is drug-free.
The painkillers dated back to knee surgery following a 2007 fight with Thiago Silva. He was prescribed Vicodin and says he had no trouble stopping taking the pills after three months.
But the injuries kept coming. And Irvin, who at one point was training despite a broken bone in his foot, kept taking the pills.
"It wasn't until a time that I just stopped taking them that I realized I needed them just to keep on functioning," he said. "At that time I had become an addict and I was hooked on them.
"I never even heard the word withdrawal," he added. "I didn't know what withdrawals were. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know to speak to a doctor about it. I took it the wrong way, kind of the cowardly path. I just kept on using the prescription drugs, but it's a tough push-pull kind of thing in my line of sport. Injuries are a common thing, it's something you're always dealing with. And when you have bad ones, sometimes you have to take those medications."
Irvin (14-5 with one no contest) now says the positive drug test was a blessing in disguise. He had become trapped.
"I needed to get caught," he said. "I needed to get in trouble for it and wake me up and get off of those things."
"Since then, since I've had that suspension, (since) I've been drug-free, it's been the happiest time of my entire life. I can honestly say that," he added. "A lot of people throw that around, but I can tell you (it's true) with my family, with my wife, my training. I've found a new love in training again, it's something that I had lost while using those prescription drugs and I just feel like a new person."
Unable to make a living as fighter while on the shelf, he threw himself into the Ultimate Training Center gym he co-owns with fellow fighter Scott (Hands of Stone) Smith in Sacramento, teaching and training others.
He has rebuilt his body since another round of knee surgery in August, looking to strengthen his leg muscles. Irvin turned to running, biking and swimming. He found he liked it and has already done two marathons with a triathlon in the plans.
And at least once a month, Irvin looks to tells his story of drug use, visiting a school or talking to other athletes.
"It's been tough," he said. "My father was an alcoholic who took his life, my mother was a speed freak for three-quarters of her life. And I had never touched a drug, any drugs until I made it to the UFC when I had my first injury.
"So then for me to get hooked on any kind of narcotic after seeing my past, you'd think how could I let that happen? ... So to come back from all of that, the only way I can turn it from a negative to a positive is to share with people, to make it up to the people that I've let down, to show people I'm not going to do it again and that I'm a new person. And these people taking a second chance on me, I'm not going to let any of them down."
Fellow fighters are more difficult to reach, he says.
"I'm trying to get to fighters, but it's kind of a taboo thing," said Irvin. "I don't think fighters want to talk about it. Fighters definitely don't want to admit that they have a problem with it when it's obvious they do because more and more fighters are getting caught with the stuff and getting caught with it in them."
Injuries may still be part of his trade but Irvin says he has learned his lesson.
"If I have an injury bad enough where I have to take a narcotic, then I don't compete, then I have to sit out a fight. I'll never put any of those things in my body the rest of my life, again.
"I can't. My life depends on it, my career depends on it."