Jordan Williams has a backpack with him wherever he goes. It rarely leaves his side. That's the way it has been since he was a teenager. In college, it sometimes made him the butt of jokes at parties.
"People were like, 'What do you have a backpack for? You selling drugs?'" Williams told ESPN. Not selling them, no. But there are drugs in Williams' backpack. A few bottles of them, plus usually some marijuana. There's also a large jug of apple juice in there and other sugary snacks, as well as a blood glucose meter.
When Williams was 19 years old and a junior college wrestler, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, the hormone needed to allow sugar into cells to produce energy.
Doctors initially told Williams he shouldn't compete in combat sports. He gets fatigued faster than other fighters. They told him his body is weaker, and he bleeds more easily. The Santa Rosa, California, resident didn't listen then, and even now, at age 28, he isn't listening. Actually, he has doubled down. After wrestling at Sierra College, Williams made the transition to MMA. On Tuesday night in Las Vegas, he has a chance to earn a UFC contract in his second opportunity on Dana White's Contender Series, facing Ramazan Kuramagomedov in a middleweight bout.
"I've kind of had that mind state of, 'This is a hard sport,'" Williams said. "Being a diabetic and being in a hard sport, even though it makes the sport harder, it still takes my mind off being a diabetic, if that makes any sense. I've been an athlete my whole life, even before I was diagnosed as a diabetic and now long after. I always try to go my hardest and always try to train and push myself to the limit."
Williams says he manages his condition well enough now. At first, things were scary. He lost 20 pounds in less than two weeks in college and had no idea what was wrong. A woman he was dating was taking medical assistant classes and noticed potential signs of diabetes. She took his blood sugar level, and it was sky high.
Williams said he was initially diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is when the body becomes resistant to insulin or fails to produce it. Type 2 is sometimes tied to poor diet and obesity. Williams still wasn't feeling right during treatment, and eventually doctors realized he had Type 1.
All this was happening during wrestling season. Williams initially dropped weight and was competing at 174 pounds. When doctors put him on insulin, he ballooned to about 214 pounds and could no longer make that weight class, forcing him to wrestle at 197 pounds.
"This voice is going off in my head all the time. And as well as it should be, because it's trying to make sure that I live and live healthy." Jordan Williams
"I went through rapid body changes," Williams said. "It was kind of hard to manage my weight and everything for a minute when I was first diagnosed."
It has been nearly a decade since he was diagnosed, and Williams has things mostly figured out, though it can be stressful. If Williams' blood sugar level gets out of line -- too high or too low -- it could lead to serious medical issues. Williams said his vision gets hazy when his blood sugar level is too high. He also experiences color changes in his hands and feet when it's too high.
He knows where he needs to keep his sugar level before different kinds of workouts. Williams is constantly using the blood glucose meter that he keeps in his bag, and when his level drops too low, he picks up the jug of apple juice and drinks from it.
Williams said his body usually tells him when something is wrong, but sometimes it has to come from his coach, David Terrell, who notices when Williams is mumbling, slurring his words or acting off.
"Sometimes he'll just come out on the mat," Williams said. "He'll see how I'm moving and he'll come out on the mat with a sugary drink and give it to me."
One of the remedies Williams has used for stress relief had an impact on his career last year. Williams (8-2) beat Tim Caron via third-round TKO on Contender Series in June 2018, but the win no longer stands on his record. Williams tested positive for cannabis metabolites in an in-competition drug test, and he was suspended for six months by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The victory was overturned to a no contest.
Cannabis, or marijuana, is a vital part of Williams' life. He said he smokes from a water pipe up to four times daily to "soothe the symptoms of diabetes." Williams doesn't like the fact that he has to taper down or stop his consumption as he gets close to a fight, due to cannabis being prohibited in competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Smoking marijuana, he says, helps him calm his body from frequently reacting to blood sugar changes and the stress that can cause.
"This voice is going off in my head all the time," Williams said. "And as well as it should be, because it's trying to make sure that I live and live healthy. Sometimes you use some marijuana, it doesn't shut the voice up, but it makes it talk to you way better. It's just a way more manageable conversation I have with the physical side of myself when I'm taking care of my diabetes. It is stressful, I'm not gonna lie. It does wear on you."
In an addition to self-managing some of the side effects of diabetes with marijuana, Williams is still on two forms of insulin -- one long-lasting version and another that takes short-term action. However, Williams doesn't have medical insurance and cannot afford the treatment. So he buys insulin that's sold for dogs at Walmart for $24.99 per bottle. Williams said it works for him just as well as insulin he'd be prescribed, which could run up to $470 per bottle.
"I'm super lucky that someone reached out and told me that I could do that," Williams said.
Williams' life outside of fighting is more difficult due to diabetes. Some of the inconveniences are small, some more serious. The key in his mind is a simple mentality: MMA is a hard sport no matter what, and having diabetes is just one part of what makes it particularly difficult for him.
"I feel like the reason why I got this burden was because I'm strong enough to carry it," Williams said. "It's not a thing to me. That's how I feel about that."
Williams feels very fortunate he was chosen to be on Contender Series again after what happened last year. "It's like do or die," he said. "I've gotta go out there and put it all on the line."
Dana White's Contender Series, Week 5
Middleweight: Ramazan Kuramagomedov (5-0, Russia, 22) vs. Jordan Williams (8-2, California, 28)