Shane Del Rosario was on the fast track.
The UC Irvine grad with a degree in psychology had been a surfer and basketball player at Dana Hills High, but went into the gym while in college and became a Muay Thai heavyweight kickboxing champion.
He slowly — and somewhat reluctantly — began to embrace the ground game, improving his jiu-jitsu and wrestling skills, which led him to a Strikeforce contract and a potential path to mixed martial arts stardom.
He was 11-0 in his MMA career, had just beaten the respected Lavar Johnson and was the first alternate in Strikeforce's Heavyweight Grand Prix Tournament.
Then, crash! It all came apart.
On April 14, a couple months before a scheduled fight against another up-and-coming fighter in Daniel Cormier, Del Rosario was in his car at a stoplight when he was hit by an alleged drunk driver, totaling his car and severely injuring his back.
"I was at the stoplight going into my neighborhood," said Del Rosario, who is 6 feet 4 and 248 pounds. "A car coming from the opposite way lost control, came over the center median and T-boned us, going 40 to 50 mph.
"I had a lot of adrenaline when it happened, so I didn't feel like anything was wrong. But the next morning I couldn't move and I went to the emergency room."
Del Rosario was diagnosed with multiple herniated discs but did not need surgery. And now, nearly eight months since the accident, he is still not training at full tilt.
But he is getting better. So much so that Del Rosario is hoping to get back into the octagon for a fight in February or March.
"I'm back training a little bit, doing hand pads and stand-up, but I'm still not 100%," said Del Rosario, who trains at Team Oyama MMA in Irvine under coaches Colin Oyama and Giva Santana. "I'm not doing anything on the ground right now, just technique and watching class, doing a lot of physical therapy and a lot of strength conditioning, trying to build my back strength up."
As much as Del Rosario has had to deal with the physical rehab, the mental part of the injury has been just as difficult. He was close to breaking through and becoming a major force in the MMA world, but would have had to get past Cormier, a two-time U.S. Olympic team wrestler.
"It's tough," he said. "I never really had any serious injuries. It's something you've got to learn, it takes time and patience. It's tough watching fights, like the last fight with Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez (who fought for the UFC heavyweight title). Those are two guys who are obviously the top competitors, and I got a chance to work with Dos Santos last year and I did well. So I know I'm not that far off from where I need to be to be competitive with everyone."
But now it is Cormier who is on the brink of hitting it big. Cormier went on to beat Del Rosario's replacement, Jeff Monson, then pulled off a win over Antonio Silva to reach the finals of the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament. Cormier will face Josh Barnett in the Strikeforce tournament championship early in 2012.
"A lot of people ask me about that, but it doesn't upset me, thinking that I should be there," Del Rosario said. "In all honesty, I'm really proud of (Cormier) and happy that it was him. He and I were alternates in the tournament and he steps in and makes it to the finals. I wouldn't want anyone else to be there."
Del Rosario, though, is intent on making sure he eventually puts himself in the conversation about the world's best MMA heavyweights.
"I've been working my (rear) off with my coaches Colin Oyama and Giva Santana the past five or six years," he said. "It was just starting to pay off, I was going to be on a big card and was about to blow up and I got derailed by the accident.
"I always thought you get into fighting either to feed your family or win the belt. I want to be the champ, that's why I'm doing this. I'm not just doing it for the fun of it. I definitely love the sport and I love to do it, but I'm doing it to win a championship."