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Journalism Showcase: ESPN’s Stephania Bell Explains Storytelling inside new E60, “Chris Weidman: The Return”

Injury analyst and senior writer tackles UFC star's comeback from horrific leg injury; her "Project 11" work on former NFL QB Alex Smith's return informed approach

The newest episode of ESPN E60 takes a riveting and emotional journey with former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, documenting his surgeries, rehabilitation, and return to the Octagon after he suffered a horrific broken leg 17 seconds into a fight in 2021.

Chris Weidman: The Return” debuts on Sunday, Dec. 17, at 8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN, streaming afterward on ESPN+.

ESPN injury analyst and senior writer Stephania Bell, a licensed physical therapist, spent nearly two years reporting for the story after being introduced to Weidman by a fellow practitioner. It wasn’t her first time on such a story.

In 2020, Bell and E60 teamed for “Project 11,” a highly-acclaimed documentary that explored the recovery and return to play of then-NFL quarterback and current ESPN NFL analyst Alex Smith following a broken leg and infection that was nearly fatal. Bell gained exclusive and unprecedented access inside Smith’s inner circle to tell that story, and similar access had to be obtained with Weidman.

I hope viewers will feel the triumph of the human spirit. – Stephania Bell

“Heather Linden, a physical therapist friend, is the director of the UFC Performance Institute,” Bell said. “She was in Jacksonville [Fla.] when Chris got hurt and when it was apparent that he was going to need follow-up care when he returned home, she reached out to me to see if there was anyone I knew where he lived in Charlotte who would be a good orthopedic surgeon to follow up with. And given the nature of his injury, I knew just the person in Dr. Joseph Hsu, who appears in the piece.

“And that led me to say to Heather if he plans on coming back, this is going to be a pretty good story, and I’d be interested in following him – could you connect me with Chris?”

Bell said she wanted to give Weidman some space immediately after the injury. When they connected, he was interested and brought in his management team.

“We discussed what the E60 type of treatment would be and what it would entail,” she said. “It’s always a key part for people to know is you have to build a trust in a short period of time, and it speaks to the brand because they certainly knew about E60. And I think part of their willingness to do the story was knowing how these stories are done and the treatment they are given.

“I felt like we could draw a new audience – that Chris’ story would transcend the UFC audience and that we could draw in people who might not be fans of UFC but would be fans of a good story about someone trying to come back from a devastating injury who happens to be a UFC athlete.

“I hope viewers will feel the triumph of the human spirit.”

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