Jonathan Pearce had a spiritual experience four years ago that has fueled his MMA career.
It happened not in a church, not even in a gym during an especially transcendent workout. It occurred in an ambulance. Pearce had been training at his gym in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and saw a man carelessly damaging one of the bags that Pearce and his training partners use in boxing drills. No one else was saying anything to the large man, but Pearce had been standing up to bullies since he was a kid. So, riding high off his first pro MMA win just weeks earlier, Pearce confronted the man.
Next thing Pearce knew, he was in an ambulance, dizzy, concussed and falling in and out of consciousness. The bigger man had taken a swing at Pearce when Pearce turned his back, and the punch had knocked him out. The man had followed him to the ground, Pearse was later told, and hit him several more times. Then, after breaking free of someone holding him back, the man kicked Pearce in the face as Pearce was trying to get back up.
As he was being rushed to the hospital, Pearce said, he had a dream that he was riding in his girlfriend's Hummer and was telling her how much he loved her. Then he went to turn the volume down on the radio. She stopped him and told him how much she loved him.
"The streetlights started getting bright in my dream and I started going toward the light, like in a movie -- like they show in the movies," Pearce said. "And she hollered out to me [in the dream], because the people in the ambulance said, 'Hey, he's losing a lot of blood.'"
Pearce said he made a decision at that moment to stay awake -- to live. If he had chosen to go to sleep, Pearce believes, he would have died. This incident is what gives him much of his faith today.
"When I decided to ease off and take this nap, death is like a choice," Pearce said. "And it's the most peaceful -- like God prepared a room for me. ... A lot of people can't pull themselves out of that spot, because it's so nice. I couldn't really explain it for you."
Four years later, Pearce is alive and well and on the verge of realizing a dream. On Tuesday night, he has an opportunity to earn a UFC contract when he fights Jacob Rosales as part of Dana White's Contender Series in Las Vegas. It's been a long road getting there.
"The streetlights started getting bright in my dream and I started going toward the light, like in a movie." Jonathan Pearce
Pearce ended up with his jaw broken in two places in the 2015 attack, with one fracture split right down the middle. One side of his jaw was completely upside down. Pearce had bit his tongue in half and bit 19 of his teeth in half, too. He still has two plates and eight screws in his face. He needed extensive reconstructive surgery. During his recovery, in part because of his spiritual experience in the ambulance, Pearce vowed not to quit fighting. "I made an agreement to myself," he said. "I was like, if I make it out of this, I'm gonna see it out as far as I can. I'm gonna go as hard as I can at this and I'm not gonna stop."
Pearce acknowledges the role he played in creating his ordeal. "It could have been avoided," he said. "I didn't have to confront that guy. I could have just let him do his thing."
But he also recognizes that his actions on that day helped drive him toward where he is now.
"Him putting me in the hospital and having that near-death experience was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and everybody," Pearce said. "I went on, and now I'm gonna be fighting in the UFC pretty soon."
Pearce, 27, returned to the cage just six months after the broken jaw and won a unanimous decision at a regional show. He won two more after that, but then went on a three-fight losing streak. After the third straight loss, in 2017, Pearce went to get medicals done for his next fight and doctors discovered he had a clay-shoveler fracture of two vertebrae in his neck, likely from the 2015 attack. A clay-shoveler fracture is an avulsion in which a small piece of bone tears away from the bigger piece.
The injury was treatable without surgery, and Pearce (8-3) returned to MMA four months after his loss. He won a pair of Bellator Fight Series bouts in a span of two months, both via finish. Two victories later, and the Tennessee native, now training at The MMA Lab in Arizona, has a shot at the UFC.
"I know I'm gonna go out and finish this guy," Pearce said of Rosales. "I know he hasn't battled death. I know he hasn't been through the mental things that I've been through. He may be physically stronger than me, but they always say if you can't mentally envision it and picture yourself there, then you can't physically do it."