I wrestled for 17 years without getting cauliflower ear even once. My teammates would tease me, “How can you consider yourself a serious wrestler?” I remember kids – I mean young kids – beaming with pride when they first got it, like a badge of honor. Sometimes when I see strangers with mangled ears, I’ll stop and ask, and usually I find we have mutual friends from the sport. It’s like our secret handshake.
Just three weeks before my professional MMA debut, my left ear swelled up during a sparring session. I showed it to Ben afterwards.
“Oh yeah, we’re gonna have to drain that.”
“Do I go to the doctor or what?” In college, the athletic trainer always did it.
“Nah, I’ll do it.”
“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 guys 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 2mL of my blood. I was sweating and panting like a dog, mentally drained.
Cauliflowers ear occurs when the capillaries burst after repeated trauma. The ear swells with blood and must be drained within a day or it begins to thicken. The longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes to drain. If you wait too long, it hardens and becomes permanent. I was fine with having a little bit, I just didn’t want a monstrous deformity, and if left untreated, it will continue to grow.
I always thought that you drained it once and it was fixed. I soon learned otherwise. In preparing for my upcoming fight, I trained hard every day. Soon both ears swelled up. I drained them daily, and like the mythical Sisyphus, I awoke the next day fated to repeat my punishment. Sometimes twice a day. My ears became pin cushions.
A week before the fight, we started tapering our training and resting our bodies. My ears started to get better. They hurt less and I was relieved. One less thing to worry about.
Fight night came and I stepped into the Octagon for the first time. I took my opponent down and got his back easily. I controlled all three periods from top and 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 ear and he looked startled. He examined it for a minute.
“Well,” he finally said after some deliberation, “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, “I don’t think that guy has any idea how to drain an ear.”
“Want me to do it?”
“Dude, you’re up in two fights. Shouldn’t you be warming up?” His hands were wrapped in tape already.
“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.”
“Yeah, I already drained it.”
“Oh yes, of course. Good.”