I wrestled for seventeen years without getting cauliflower ear. My teammates would tease me, “How can you consider yourself a serious wrestler without it?” I remember kids—I mean young kids—beaming with pride when they first got cauliflower ear, like a badge of honor. Sometimes when I come across strangers with mangled ears, I’ll stop and ask. Usually I find that we have mutual friends from the sport. It’s like our secret handshake.
Just three weeks before my professional MMA debut, I was training at my gym in Lima, Peru, and my left ear swelled up during a sparring session. I had no idea what to do so I showed my teammate Ben.
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“Oh yeah,” he said, “we’re gonna have to drain that.”
“Do I go to the doctor or what?” I asked. In college wrestling, the athletic trainer had always done it.
“Nah, I’ll do it,” he said.
“Wait, really? Is that safe?”
“Yeah, I do it all the time.”
We walked down to the pharmacy and bought a syringe. Back at the gym, Ben applied rubbing alcohol to the swollen area. The chill of the alcohol sent a shiver up my spine. I braced myself. He jammed the needle into the soft tissue.
He pushed it further in.
“Tsst. Tsst. Tsst. Tsst.”
I inhaled and exhaled in short rapid bursts through my clenched teeth, like a woman in labor. The other fighters at the gym were all laughing.
He squeezed the swollen flesh to push the fluid towards the needle point.
“STOP! NO MORE!”
He pulled the needle out and handed it to me. It contained 2 mL of my blood. I was sweating and panting like a dog.
Cauliflower ear occurs when the capillaries burst after repeated trauma. The ear swells with blood and must be drained within a day. If you wait too long, it hardens and becomes permanent. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to drain. I was fine with having a little bit, but I didn’t want a monstrous deformity. If left untreated, it will continue to grow.
I always thought that you just drained cauliflower ear once and it was fixed, but I soon learned otherwise. In preparing for my upcoming fight, I trained hard every day. Soon both of my ears swelled up. I drained them daily, but like the mythical Sisyphus, I awoke each day fated to repeat my punishment. Sometimes twice a day. My ears became pin cushions.
A week before my fight, we started tapering our training and resting our bodies. My ears started to get better. They hurt less and I was relieved. It was one less thing to worry about.
Fight night came and I stepped into the cage for the first time. I took my opponent down easily and controlled all three periods from top. Then I used ground-and-pound to wear him out. He didn’t land any major blows to my face, but I got a few dings here and there from stray fists and elbows. I won my pro debut!
I walked back into the staging area. My adrenaline was pumping and I was on top of the world. My teammate came over to congratulate me.
“Holy shit!” he said. “Wow…your ear.”
I reached up and felt my right ear. The entire thing was squishy like a water balloon and it was swollen shut. I couldn’t hear anything out of it.
The fight doctor came to check on me. I pointed to my cauliflower ear and he looked startled. He examined it for a minute.
“Well,” he said after some hesitation, “We’re going to need a syringe.”
I ran over to my backpack and fished one out.
“Ohhhh,” he said. “I come back after next fight, okay?”
I walked over to Ben, who was getting his hands taped for his upcoming fight.
“I don’t think that guy has any idea how to drain an ear.”
“Want me to do it?” he offered.
“Dude, you’re up in two fights. Shouldn’t you be warming up?”
“It’s fine, we can just do it fast.”
Just a few weeks before, I hadn’t trusted him to do it. Now, I didn’t trust anyone else. Not even a licensed doctor. I sat down and Ben went to work until the 5mL tube was almost entirely filled with dark crimson blood. The doctor returned several minutes later to reexamine my ear.
“It looks better,” he said.
“Yeah, I already drained it.”
“Oh yes, of course. Good.”