Hansel Aquino walked out of a Los Angeles hospital examination room in tears.
Waiting for him in the lobby was his mother, grandparents, and other family members eager to offer their support. On that June 2010 afternoon, despite the tears in his eyes, his vision was clear. A doctor just delivered news that Aquino had a rare form of cancer in his left leg called Epithelioid Sarcoma.
When the doctor said the name, it literally drew a laugh from the then 18-year-old, but what came next induced tears from the teenager. Aquino, a successful high school wrestler at the time, had an opportunity to wrestle at the collegiate level and was just told his left leg needed to be amputated.
"When he told me that I started crying," Aquino said during an exclusive interview with Hayabusa. "That was the first time I started crying. Not even with the cancer diagnosis, I didn't really cry, but when he told me [about the amputation], I was like, no way."
An amputation would surely bring a crashing halt to his dreams of wrestling in college or having a career in mixed martial arts.
Is there something else we can do?
Aquino walked out of the examination room to speak to his family, delivering the news no one wanted to hear. He then told them about the amputation, and as reality sank in, each of his family members agreed he should follow the doctor's advice.
Then Aquino made clear what he wanted. He wanted to fight. He wanted to keep his leg. Clarity came in his defiance.
Although his family disagreed, Aquino was resolute in his decision.
"I go back, and I say, 'Hey doc, I don't want to get the amputation. Is there something else we can do?' And the doctor says no," Aquino recalled. "I'm so sorry, but you have to. He said that I only had like three months left. Some absurd time. They did give me a time where I was going to pass away, but they said if I amputate the leg, I would have more life."
More life to Aquino meant having two legs and fighting regardless of the consequences.
A week later, on June 15, 2010, Aquino was back at the same hospital preparing for surgery. As doctors described the procedure, there was a constant reminder that removing those particular muscles would essentially make his left leg useless. He was told moving the leg the way he once did would be impossible. Aquino's words to his doctor: "I will. Just watch."
I told you guys
Just prior to being wheeled into an operating room, a serum was injected into Aquino’s IV. Before falling asleep, a flood of emotion hit Aquino and he and his mother shared a tearful embrace. It was his last memory before waking again.
Six hours later, the surgery was complete.
Surgeons removed six tumors and six muscles from his left leg.
“When I came out, everyone’s happy,” Aquino said. “Everyone's trying to hug me and I told everyone, ‘Can you just give me some space? I want to get up and move.’ And they’re like, no, you just got out of surgery. What are you talking about?”
Eschewing the advice from family, his surgeon and nurses, Aquino slowly made his way off of the bed and stood on the hospital floor. He then hobbled on that left leg.
“The doctor was looking at his clipboard and then looking at me, going back and forth,” Aquino said. “He looked at me and then looked back down and looked straight back at me really dramatically. His mouth dropped a little bit.”
Aquino, who began shedding tears of joy, screamed, “I told you guys I could move my leg!”
I've never felt this kind of pain in my life
How did he arrive at that moment and when did he know something was wrong?
It was a long, frustrating process. At the end of his senior wrestling season, Aquino noticed pain in his left leg. That pain was later coupled by the formation of boils in the area of the pain. Because they resembled pimples, Aquino wasn’t overly concerned. At least three month passed before he went to a doctor to be examined and by that time, his leg was in so much pain, sitting or sleeping on his left side was impossible. Through internet research, Aquino thought maybe it was MRSA or Impetigo or ringworm from wrestling. His doctor at the time diagnosed him with Carbuncles, a painful condition that shows itself in the form of multiple boils on the skin, which can sometimes be infected with staph.
He was given medicated creams to apply to the sores for the next three months, but things got worse.
“[The boils] just became real stiff and real hard and the pain, man, I've never felt this kind of pain in my life,” Aquino said. “I've never been knocked out, I’ve been hit to the body and that’s painful, but I can't describe this pain. It was the worst pain in my whole life.”
Aquino continued to train — grappling and boxing — despite the pain, wrapping his leg to conceal the injury. He returned to his doctor and she assured him everything was fine. He was given an additional prescription for topical cream and was sent on his way. An additional six months passed without any progress on the condition of his leg.
On his final visit, roughly a full year after his leg pain began and shortly after the boils erupted, Aquino had a testy exchange with the doctor. She was adamant his continued training is what caused the boils to erupt, but Aquino explained there was something more happening with his body.
I’m not going anywhere
Through his persistence during the appointment, it was decided a biopsy of the leg was needed. That biopsy led to his Epithelioid Sarcoma diagnosis.
Aquino’s case was passed along to another doctor, who told him he was the 71st documented case of Epithelioid Sarcoma in the world. According to the studies the doctor read, each of the 70 patients died on average three months after being diagnosed. The doctor also said amputation was the best option to give Aquino a chance at living beyond a few months.
“In my head I was thinking to myself, ‘The doctor said three months but I've been having these [tumors] for a whole year,” Aquino said. “So I’m not going anywhere.”
About two weeks after his surgery, Aquino began six months of radiation therapy to insure any remaining cancer cells were killed off. Since he lived near the hospital, he would walk to his treatments as a way to get exercise. At the beginning, he needed crutches, but eventually, he was walking unassisted. Roughly two months after surgery, he was back at the gym
“But me being stubborn again, the doctor was like don’t workout, don't go to practice, but again, I have to,” Aquino admitted. “If I don’t go train, I’m going to be miserable. Training and MMA and wrestling was the thing that kept me sane through this whole cancer stuff.”
This is why I told the doctor I want my leg
As Aquino progressed in his treatments and his training, he told coaches at his gym, 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, he wanted to test himself in a cage and actually fight. At some point, an opponent was chosen and a date was set. After wrapping up his radiation treatments, Aquino moved to Las Vegas and began training at Xtreme Couture, the gym owned by UFC hall of famer Randy Couture.
“They got me an opponent, it’s in Vegas and I’m pumped up,” Aquino said. “I can’t believe it. This is why I told the doctor I want my leg. So I can fight. And then I’m crying, I’m really emotional because this is my biggest dream come true.”
In all of this, Aquino has had an opportunity to do some soul searching. He admitted before his cancer diagnosis, he was self-centered. Frankly, those suffering from cancer did get his sympathy, but more as an afterthought.
Those things are no longer the case.
“I made it a mission that I go back to Children’s Hospital and tell people my story. Tell the kids about my story,” he said. “I was doing that for a long time, going to hospitals and telling kids about my story and showing kids if I can do it, surely you can, too.”
Through cancer, Aquino has found a much larger purpose for his life. He believes you don’t have to be suffering from cancer to relate to his struggles. Whether it’s an illness, depression or just a bad mindset, he’s confident his message can be used to uplift anyone who is down.
“That's my life’s meaning now, to talk about my story,” Aquino said, “and tell the whole world no matter what situation you're in, even if death is right next to you, staring in your face, if you have the right mentality, you're going to get through it.”
It was that mentality that led Aquino to a sweltering summer night in Las Vegas he won’t ever forget.
I was best friends with death
On July 6, 2012, Aquino faced Kyle Neal inside South Point Arena in Las Vegas during a Tuff-N-Uff event. It was the third fight for Neal, while Aquino was making his amateur debut. The moment was even more special with Randy Couture ringside and Ryan Couture coaching in Aquino’s corner that night.
“I’m there and I’m kind of tearing up walking to the cage just because it kind of hit, I just had cancer like a year ago and now I’m here,” Aquino said. “I just can’t believe how, just a year ago, I was best friends with death. Death was next to me and now I’m here about to live my dreams and to fight in the cage. It was insane.”
It has been 9 years since his surgery and 7 years since that fight. Although his focus is no longer to step into a cage and fight someone, he continues to train his body. Most days he makes the trip to Wild Card Boxing Club, founded by renowned boxing trainer Freddie Roach. The selection process for his boxing gloves is paramount.
Despite his size — he stands 5-foot, 9-inches and 125 pounds — Aquino is known to have power in both hands. Because of that power, he has walked away from sparring or heavy bag sessions with pain in both wrists.
After being introduced to boxing gloves from Hayabusa, wrist pain became a thing of the past.
“When I first saw Hayabusa, I tried them on and I remember the guy who sold them to me he said, dude these have double wrist straps, so when you hit the bag, you’ll feel a difference,” Aquino said. “So when I put the gloves on, the fit was amazing already. Some gloves, the thumb is not good or your hand is kind of loose in there, but when I tried on this glove, I locked both wrist straps on the Hayabusa gloves and started hitting. I was like, whoa, I don’t have that issue anymore.”
Not only is the functionality of the gloves a game changer for Aquino. He also loves Hayabusa’s ability to bring innovation to the combat fitness realm.
“And the fact that you guys are always improving with the gloves. What else can you guys do? Jesus,” he said laughing. “It’s like you guys are the Apple of MMA gloves and product and apparel.”
Hansel Aquino always had a feeling he would have to overcome something in his life. It’s a notion he even had as a child. He never expected it to be cancer and he never thought of the possibility of losing a limb. But what he did know, no matter what it was, he was going to fight — on his terms.