Despite a career of over two dozen professional fights and being the first person from Edmonton to make it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the “toughest thing” boxer Victor Valimaki has ever faced wasn’t inside the caged octagon.

Nor is it completely over.

The 37-year-old boxer and mixed-martial arts fighter was recently diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica—or Devic’s disease—a rare autoimmune disorder that can affect the optic nerves, spinal cord and brain.

Just over a year ago, Valimaki was fighting in the cage. He has spent the last four months in the hospital, unable to walk and occasionally struggling to talk.

“I went from fight shape—like, training for a fight—and then boom. I was hit with this,” Valimaki said.

“I lost everything. I lost my sight for a while. That came back thankfully.”

At first, the athlete didn’t know what was happening. All of a sudden, he was tired and lethargic. Then, his coordination began to deteriorate. Soon after that, he lost the use of his legs, and could barely move the rest of his body. Doctors originally thought he had multiple sclerosis.

“To see him get hit with it was difficult,” said Valimaki’s longtime friend, Terry Kopp.

“Especially seeing someone so fit and so active and so healthy and someone I looked up to physically.”

There is no known cause or cure for Devic’s disease, but treatment can help. And with the support of family, friends and the fighting community, Valimaki has maintained a fighting spirit.

Recently, his condition has improved, although the fighter isn’t walking yet and his speech is still slurred. But he said doctors believe the disease is in remission.

Kopp said she hopes to see Valimaki in Jasper in a year: “Maybe not on a snowboard, but at least there. Just up and about and healthy.”

He responded: “I think I’m on my way now.”

With files from Nicole Weisberg