It's easy to get confused when searching for the Irvine office of Dr. William Kessler-if you're looking for anything resembling a conventional doctor's office, that is. One might not expect to find it in the back of a gigantic fighting gym labeled NO LIMITS. To see the doctor, you must first walk by a wall of mixed-martial-arts gear and merchandise for sale, around the boxing ring where athletes you might have seen on TV are furiously training, past a full-scale caged octagon, and through an array of punching bags hanging from the ceiling like obstacles in an American Gladiators challenge.
But aside from all that, Kessler's actual office looks relatively normal. Though the doctor himself could probably take you in a street fight—with his slicked-back hair and steely gaze, he could easily be a character in a Scorsese movie—Kessler isn't here to kick your ass. He's just standing by to put the pieces back together after someone else does.
Not that he couldn't compete if he had to. "I grew up playing baseball," he says, explaining his youthful appearance, "and I competed in Muay Thai and jujitsu. I'll be 40 in September, but I've got two kids in diapers, so I'm sure the gray hairs'll start coming through any second now." But don't expect the kids to grow up to be your typical Little League athletes; Dad has bigger plans in mind. "My kids are gonna be the first orthopedic-surgeon cage fighters," Kessler says.
Kessler, whom everyone in the gym addresses simply as "Doc," didn't set out to be a fight doc. Once upon a time, he was a regular chiropractor, having graduated from Orange Coast College with a major in biology and obtained a doctorate from the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic. Licensed to practice in 1996, he truly found his groove in 2002, when UFC star Quinton "Rampage" Jackson came to him for chiropractic treatment. Liking the results he got with Kessler, Jackson invited him to be part of the No Limits gym, where he was a part-owner (other co-owners include Bobby "The Pitbull" Gamboa and jujitsu coach Juliano Prado). The gym needed a doctor on the premises, and Kessler knew his martial arts, so the deal was done.
That was in 2004, when the gym took up smaller quarters on Millikan Avenue in Irvine. The new building, just a few blocks away, opened in 2007, with more space and equipment. Ask for the grand tour, and Kessler becomes a fanboy showing off his collection. Framed and autographed pairs of fight shorts worn by MMA stars adorn the walls-some are even embroidered with "Dr. K" or "OC Fight Doc," and yes, the accompanying action photos prove that Rampage et al. actually had that lettering done prior to the fight. All the big names are here: Tito Ortiz, "Razor" Rob McCullough, Jason "Mayhem" Miller, Jackson, Robert Amberson, Jared "J-Roc" Rollins. "Colin Oyama is probably one of the winningest MMA coaches on the planet; he was Rico Rodriguez's coach. . . . Shane [Del Rosario] is our Muay Thai champion-the very first American Muay Thai champion. This sport's actually more brutal than MMA: This is all punches, knees and elbows," he explains. "Tank Abbott was in here the other day; he's taking on another fight."
But as much of a fan as he is of the athletes, they are fans of his. Numerous times during the Weekly's visit to the facility, competitors come up and embrace Kessler, and at the recent NAMMAE convention in Anaheim, his office manager, Jana Countryman, was handing out autographed pictures of him. Asked why she did it, she gushes, "Because he's just that awesome of a doc, and if you come in and get treated by him, you'll know it. And if you talk to any one of the guys out there on the team, they will tell you that. It's something when you can say that you are so proud of the man that you work for."
"J-Roc" Rollins, who recently appeared on Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter, has an equal amount of praise. "Dr. Kessler's actually better than the dude that worked on me there!" he says and laughs. "That doctor, he was a different kind of chiropractor: He dealt with energy and chi and stuff. It was weird because if you'd tell him your left knee was hurting, he would work on, like, the right shoulder, and his explanation was that he had all these different reasons for where the energy was flowing. We kinda got to a point where we were joking around, 'Hey, my right knee hurts—should I tell him my left hand hurts?' He was just weird. But Doc is solid, man. Doc is the basics."
But Kessler's success hasn't kept him from knowing his own limits. Following the TV show, Rollins had nine stitches in his face, which he wanted Kessler to take out. "He was gonna pull 'em out, then he looked at it, and he went, 'You know what, man, I'm not gonna mess with it. I don't wanna ruin your face.'" Kessler then personally drove Rollins to a doctor who specializes in such things.
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MMA is a young sport, so it's hard to determine if there are long-term cumulative injuries common to it, like the brain damage sometimes associated with boxing. Kessler has seen all types of sports injuries, and, he says, he thinks MMA is a lot safer than viewers may believe, more so than boxing, NFL football, or NHL hockey. "Boxers typically take [hundreds of] punches throughout a 15-round bout," he says. "An MMA fighter is usually going to take one or two good ones before he gets knocked out."
The sport's relative newness also makes some people think it's going to be easier than it really is. Kessler won't waste time disavowing newcomers of that notion—they can find out firsthand. If somebody thinks they can take down one of the star athletes in the ring, "we let 'em!" says Countryman. "Just to see what happens, and they are surprised. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience—a couple of people have had rude awakenings."
And when they awaken, Doc's right there to fix 'em up.