SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Chris Cocores is on the mend.
The South Lake Tahoe native doesn't plan to get back to where he was before a horrific car crash on Dec. 28 in San Bernardino County that claimed the lives of his girlfriend, Cecilia (Ceci) Casares, and dog, Nikki, and nearly his. He plans to be better. He plans to be stronger, both mentally and physically.
While the WFC Mixed Martial Arts champion lost his physical strength spending 20 days recovering from multiple surgeries in Loma Linda University Medical Center, he's gained mental toughness.
The 26-year old is mentally stronger than most his age. But that happens when your life falls apart more than once.
His mother lost a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2011. He was struck by a car six months later while skateboarding, but avoided serious injuries. He lost his uncle to alcoholism. And his grandfather died in 2015. He still has his father, John Cocores, with whom he is currently living with in Minden, Nevada.
"I've gotten to the point now where I feel so strong," Cocores said Wednesday from Escobar Training Grounds, the gym that helped him grow into an amateur MMA champ. "It's almost like life has given me this awkward opportunity to go through a ton of things to the point where I'm almost becoming numb to pain, to these experiences. I've become grateful for even my bad experiences because it's creating the person I need to be."
'Mom was my biggest fan'
Cocores graduated from South Tahoe High School through home school. He was training for his first fight at the age of 19 when his mother, Jodi Fisher, got sick.
After she was diagnosed, he pulled himself out of the fight and helped take care of her for six months until she passed.
"She was like my No. 1 fan, man. She always cheered and encouraged me. She was amazing," Cocores said.
About a week before she died, the two had their last real conversation during lunch that will stick with Cocores forever. They talked about him moving forward and making things happen until he was happy. After their talk, they enjoyed a prolonged hug.
"That memory has been, it's been my motivation," Cocores said. "Thinking about that conversation has kind of saved me and kept me on track. It was such an important conversation that I feel like I owe it to her to be a happy man. I know when I'm happy, I'm happy when I'm accomplished. It's become a part of me and I just keep moving forward in her honor."
20 days of being put back together
Cocores went into the hospital on Dec, 28 and didn't emerge for almost three weeks. He spent most of that time on his back, only able to slightly sit up.
His injuries included two spine breaks, his L3 and L4 vertebrae. He broke his wrist. He broke his ankle. He had internal bleeding so bad from the seat belt tearing into his stomach, part of his intestine had to be surgically removed. Two stomach surgeries provided a memorable scar, a 12-inch zipper that starts at his waist and moves north. And he was awake when they stitched the wound.
"They came in with a troop of doctors and hit me with 20 shots on each side and went to town tying me up, 20 stitches while I was awake," Cocores said. "I sat there recording the whole time. It was wild. Coach Cory (Escobar) was there, he watched the whole time. It was a good bonding moment for us."
After spending 15 days on his back, he had to learn again how to walk. He lost 20 pounds of muscle being on an intravenous diet. He lost his motor skills. He was helped to his feet and started by walking 5 feet at a time.
"It felt like I was in bed for a year," Cocores said.
Cocores' team, hometown 'has his back'
It was surprising to Cocores how many people were concerned about his well-being. It was a "real eye opener."
And it started with the gym and Cory Escobar. Escobar has formed fundraisers to help pay for Cocores' mounting hospital bills and visited with him in the hospital.
"He's been the centerpiece of all this support," Cocores said. "And everybody has been pitching in. My team, they are there for me like brothers and sisters. And then the whole town came together and it's making the process a lot easier. Lake Tahoe has my back. And it feels great."
Cocores has massive debt with current medical bills and will have more accumulation as he continues to recover. His insurance doesn't cover all his costs. He owes Loma Linda University Medical Center in the neighborhood of $100,000.
"But that's for saving my life. I'm alive and everything hopefully will work itself out," Cocores said. "I have such a long road to recovery that I have to invest in it."
His team is pitching in Saturday by donating 100 percent of whatever they make in their WFC 84 fights at MontBleu Resort.
"Team Coco" T-shirts will also be sold with all proceeds going to Cocores.
Five locals will fight and donate and that includes Cocores' "Belt Brother" Cameron Church. The two earned their first championship belts at the same event. Church was thrilled to hear Coceres would be able to walk again. He knew his "brother" would be back in the gym, but was surprised how soon.
"If it was me, I wouldn't leave the couch," said Church, an undefeated championship belt holder in four divisions. "I'd be depressed. He seems more motivated than I've ever seen him. I'm excited for when he does come back to fighting. The best news I got was when I heard he was going to be able to walk again, to fight and train again. I knew it would be an outlet for him to focus on."
Others getting in the ring include a 41-year-old first-timer, Tom Potts, Nikki Cruz, a 16-year-old female student from South Tahoe High School, Chris Montenegro and Ryan Wallace, assistant wrestling coach at South Tahoe.
"Chris is a special person and that's the reason I'm doing this," said Wallace, who knows about loss after losing his leg to cancer. He will fight with a prosthetic leg. "We're kind of kindred spirits. He's experienced a lot of loss and we both had to rethink our goals. So we have that same idea of let's show everybody that losing something or a roadblock is not going to set you back."
Cocores, who was supposed to headline the card Saturday night, is doing everything he can to return the support they have all given him.
"I have been putting all my energy into them," Cocores said. "I was in the spotlight for a longtime. I was always the guy on the poster, in the fight and getting the support, it was nice, but at the same time I get to do something different now and it helps me because I get to go home and feel even more accomplished. I'm proud of all of them. I have high hopes. They're all workhorses and they're good people. It's our home. It's our backyard we'll be fighting in so whatever happens I know we'll have a hell of a time."
Cocores has a purpose and is "meant to be here"
Cocores wakes up everyday, smiles and appreciates all the little things. He enjoys going to the kitchen to get a snack. He enjoys driving to the store. He enjoys eating normal food.
"When you get that close to losing it all, everything becomes that much more valuable and worth living for," he said.
He has always kept his body and mind in good shape. He says he stays away from narcotics, prescription drugs and all that "poison" that threatens his safety.
He felt like life was moving fast and now feels he has a better perception of the things around him.
"The crash was a huge eye opener for me. I was going way too fast, and it's funny, but not really, that we had to crash to make me realize that," Cocores said. "But I feel like I'm prepared by telling myself everyday that I'm meant to be here. I think the universe looks out for people that tell themselves that, that believe in themselves. By me assuring myself everyday that I have purpose on Earth, I think the Earth is trying to help and preserve me so I can live out that purpose. I just want to be happy, help my team and inspire the people around me."