Edmonton MMA fighter Victor Valimaki in battle of his life
'You can be the healthiest person in the world and this can happen to you'
Just over a year ago, Victor Valimaki was in the cage fighting for legions of fans.
Today, he is bedridden, unable to walk and struggling to speak.
Valimaki, a 17-year veteran of MMA and the first fighter from Edmonton to make it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is facing a new kind of battle.
Four months ago, Valimaki, 36, was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, a rare disorder of the central nervous system that mimics multiple sclerosis.
"He's had multiple tests and there's just not a lot of answers, so we just sit here and just wait," said Terry Kopp, a longtime friend. "The way the doctor honestly puts it is that he's a mystery. They don't know what is happening and why.
"In the meantime, his best bet is lying in the hospital bed. He can't do anything."
'You just never know'
Neuromyelitis optica, also known as Devic's disease, inflames the optic nerve and spinal cord, even the brain. It can cause vision loss, paralysis and a myriad of other symptoms.
Valimaki's decline has been rapid and difficult to watch, Kopp said.
"He's the most stubborn, most amazing guy in the world and he can't do anything about it," Kopp said, her voice breaking.
"You can be the healthiest person in the world and this can happen to you. You just never know."
Kopp has been with Valimaki at the University of Alberta Hospital almost daily.
"His speech is very limited. His brain function [has changed.] He was telling me that he was going to be in Germany next week ... but he hasn't left his hospital bed.
"We don't know why all of this is happening."
'It has been horrible'
Kopp has launched an online fundraiser to help cover Valimaki's medical costs. The GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $6,000 in less than a week.
Kopp said it was the first time many of Valimaki's friends learned of his health struggles.
"He didn't really let people know how serious it was," Kopp said. "He's overwhelmed with everyone wanting to help. It makes him feel good. It gives him motivation."
CBC News contacted Valimaki and he answered some questions over Facebook.
"It has been horrible for me personally," he wrote of his declining health.
Valimaki said he was initially reluctant to accept charity from friends.
"I told them not to," he said of the online fundraiser. "Now that they have, it will be a big help.
"This whole thing has been very expensive, and not being able to to work on top of it has been tough. I really have some great friends."
Valimaki, a heavyweight hailed as "The Finnisher," was diagnosed soon after a match against Teddy Ash at Unified MMA 32 in Edmonton's Royal Palace last September.
He had come out of retirement for the fight and it was slated to be the last of his career.
He lost in a knockout in the first round. At the time, Valimaki assumed he had suffered a concussion during the fight. But the symptoms never went away.
Then he started losing muscle function in his legs.
Since then he has gone through test after test, scans, spinal taps and most recently a biopsy on his brain.
He's been hospitalized for the past four months.
"It's been a long year," said Victor's mother Judi Valimaki who drives to the city from her home in Beaumont every day to be with her son.
"That was what was so hard to get your mind around," she said. "He was so strong and so healthy. And to see this happen to him and not knowing at first what it was, it just floored me.
"How could this happen to someone so healthy?"
Judi said she first noticed something was wrong last fall. Victor had moved back home from Calgary and was staying with her temporarily until he found an apartment in the city.
She said her son was usually "always on the go" but he was lethargic and sleeping all the time.
After a whirlwind of doctor appointments, a diagnosis and extended hospitalization, Victor was sent to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital where he would relearn how to walk and speak.
He just wants to go home. He's not there yet but we're hoping we can get him there soon.- Judi Valimaki
Judi thought the worst of their ordeal was over but in October, his condition began deteriorating. He had developed an infection in his brain.
He remains in hospital, disoriented and heavily medicated, but has been told the neuromyelitis optica has gone into remission
Once the infection subsides, Judi is confident she will be able to bring her son home.
"Things have started to look up," she said. "The staff here at the hospital, they take such good care of him and they're so patient. They deserve medals. And he's very grateful too, but he just wants to go home.
"He's not there yet but we're hoping we can get him there soon."
Kopp said she never really followed Valimak's MMA career but knows for certain that her friend is a fighter.
"I just know him as being the most amazing man in the world that has the biggest heart," Kopp said.
"He would do anything for me, so I'm just doing whatever I can for him."
With files from Elizabeth Hames