When Ultimate Fighting Championship hall-of-famer Forrest Griffin was in the octagon, he knew who to turn to when a pummeling led to lacerations — Air Force Reserve Citizen Airman Dr. (Col.) Gregory Hsu.
That’s because Hsu, who serves as the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the U.S. Pacific Air Forces surgeon general, is a highly experienced ophthalmologist and plastic surgeon with over 24 years of experience.
Hsu is a solo-practitioner in Las Vegas and has operated his own eye clinic for the past two decades. As a doctor who specializes in diseases of the eye, he has to be at the top of his game when it comes to patching his patient’s faces after their treatment.
That skill, said Griffin, is what makes Hsu so valuable to the UFC and its fighters. When someone gets cut in a fight, that wound has to be closed up in such a way that it doesn’t open back up or form scar tissue, which leaves the skin susceptible to opening up in the future.
The UFC is a popular mixed martial arts fighting organization started in 1993. According to the UFC website, fighters must be skilled in many forms of hand-to-hand combat, including jiu-jitsu, karate and boxing. It produces more than 40 live events annually and is the largest Pay-Per-View event provider, broadcasting in 129 countries, 28 languages and reaching 800 million households.
Hsu’s and Griffin’s UFC histories are tightly intertwined. Griffin was a contestant on season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show in 2005; a top contender for season champ and a spot in the UFC. In the penultimate fight, he received a cut severe enough that the safety commission wanted to disqualify him from the final fight. That’s when Hsu got the call.
“I knew the [chief financial officer] of The Ultimate Fighter and he asked if I could do a suture job that would hold up through the fight,” said Hsu.
Hsu closed the wound to the satisfaction of the safety board and Griffin went on to win the final fight and earn a spot in the UFC at a time when the fighting format was exploding in popularity. Today, Griffin is retired from fighting but he continues with the organization, serving as the vice president of athletic development at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas.
Like Griffin, Hsu continues to work for the organization, supporting both the reality TV series, which is carried on Fox Sports 1, and eight to 10 major UFC events each year.
When Hsu is not stitching fighters or running his eye clinic, he serves his country as the IMA to the U.S. Pacific Air Forces surgeon general. The doctor said he was a late-comer to the military but joined because he wanted to give back to his country. He originally joined the Nevada Air National Guard but later switched to the Air Force Reserve, becoming a traditional reservist at the Nellis Air Force Base clinic. However, after being selected for promotion to colonel, he had to look for a position that would match his new grade. In 2015 he applied for his current position as an IMA. He was hired and promoted to his current rank.
Hsu said moving to the IMA program, where he can directly support the active-duty Air Force, has been a great ride, but working the budget, manpower and policy side of operations was a new experience for him.
“Integrating guidance to best meet the needs of PACAF down to the Airman, and seeing how we promote and deliver care, was an eye opening experience,” he added.
IMAs are Air Force Reserve Airmen assigned to augment active-component military organizations and government agencies. They have participation requirements similar to members in the traditional reserve. However, most IMAs perform all of their required annual duty all at once; 24 to 36 days per year, depending on the assignment.
In 2017, Hsu used his duty time to represent the PACAF surgeon general at exercise Talisman Sabre 2017, a joint training activity with the Australian military.
“It was like lifting the hood of a car to see a new aspect of how it works,” he said of the experience that had him operating alongside Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, as well as Australian forces.
Hsu said it can be a balancing act to serve with the Air Force while also managing his business, UFC gig and family, but ultimately he loves being in uniform and helping to get the mission done.
The balancing act is something Hsu excels at. Griffin said he didn’t even know Hsu was in the Air Force until once when Doc, as the fighters call him, wasn’t at a fight.
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“I asked where he was and he was at some sort of crazy exercise,” said the former fighter.
The doctor said he provides two primary services that keep the UFC fighters happy. First, good-quality plastic surgery keeps them healthy and returns them to the fight faster. Second, is the ability to skip a lengthy emergency room visit, allowing injured fighters to participate in press conferences, meet with fans and be a part of the post-fight buzz.
Hsu said it can be intimidating dealing with the fighters, especially following a loss when “you can cut the depression with a knife” or the fighter can’t calm down. But, with fighters sometimes lining up four to five deep, his presence is definitely needed.
The cuts are not typical for what he would see in his clinic. Hsu described them as challenging.
“Sometimes it takes me an hour to work on these guys,” he said. “The cuts are from gloves, knees, hands, they’re not the same as planned cuts in surgery.”
The worst injury Hsu said he handled was after a fight between Tito Ortiz and Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell. Ortiz came out of the fight with a ripped eyelid and eyebrow and had to spend 45 minutes in Hsu’s suture room having it repaired.
“He didn’t care about his face, he was just pissed that he lost,” said Hsu, adding that his efforts ensured there was no permanent disfigurement from the injury.
As the sport has grown more professional, so have the demands on Hsu. Originally, the fighters were grateful for the quality, ring-side medical care. Now, with publicity, sponsorship and announcing jobs, Hsu said it’s also important for the fighters to come off the operating table looking good.
Griffin noted that Hsu has been a huge part of UFC, working the biggest shows of the year and taking care of stitches and any eye-related injuries.
“Post-fight medical care is one thing we really care about,” said Griffin. “It lets our fighters get back to training and fighting as soon as possible.”
Hsu, who knows most of the fighters personally, said they ask him to take good care of their faces.
“My work has to be perfect; everything, every time,” he said, adding “I love it, it’s a great ride.”