Shortly after losing his UFC 103 matchup and being cleared to fly home, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic found himself facing his fighting mortality. “Maybe the ones who said I am done are right,” he somberly told a Croatian newspaper.
The reflection on his future was brought about by a sound defeat at the hands of younger, stronger Junior dos Santos. Before verbally submitting in the fight, Cro Cop had been badly outstruck. According to CompuStrike, dos Santos landed 105 punches to Cro Cop’s 38, and 80 of the Brazilian’s power punches found a home. For a man that used to be considered MMA’s elite striker, it represented a massive fall, and afterward, UFC President Dana White admit ted that it looked like the 35-year-old Cro Cop was having trouble pulling the trigger, which is often a sign that it’s time to hang up the gloves.
However, before the ink was dry on that Croatian newspaper’s edition, it seemed Cro Cop was having second thoughts, saying that perhaps he would honor the last fights on his UFC deal.
Cro Cop’s personal debate is hardly a new one in this sport. Like all athletes, mixed martial artists ultimately fail their final fight, and that is the one against time. Whether a fighter was painted by the brightest lights of the UFC or never made it past the prelims of local shows, the decision to retire is often the toughest move of an athlete’s life.
In the MMA world, no one receives the reverence accorded to the legendary Brazilian Royce Gracie, who has spent much of his life traveling to spread the gospel of jiu-jitsu. Everywhere he goes, he signs autographs, poses for photos, and accepts thanks for his pioneering contributions to the sport. He is treated more like a living memorial than an active fighter.
Outwardly, Gracie is modestly appreciative of the attention, his wry smile omnipresent. But when it comes to talk of his current status, his mood changes. Asked if he is thinking of returning to action, his answer is abrupt: “No.” But asked if he is retired, he is equally quick with another “no.”
After a series of follow-up questions about his status offer no definitive answer, Gracie, with a shrug of his shoulders, finally offers his final declaration: “I don’t know. Anything’s possible.”
The 43-year-old Brazilian is hardly alone in his ambivalence regarding his future. Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame at UFC 100 weekend despite not having officially retired. Dana White, who happens to be a close friend of Liddell, is on the record as hoping he’ll retire, but “The Iceman” has said he will take a few more months off to reassess his condition before making a final decision.
“What can I do?” White says. “I’m not his father. I can’t make him quit. He’s got nothing to prove. He’s got plenty of money. If he wants to fight, we’ll have to sit down and talk about it.”
What makes the situation so difficult? It’s a multitude of things, from giving up the spotlight to refusing to accept a decline in your skills to a belief that you can recapture the glory.
Renato “Babalu” Sobral, who at 34 years old has been fighting for more than a decade, is not yet thinking about retirement, but can succinctly sum up one issue that athletes face as they age.
“The thing is, I’m better now. I’m always getting better,” he says. “But I get more injuries because I’m getting old. That’s the concern. As you get old, you get more injuries.”
Whether it’s declining performance or other factors, contemplating the end of your athletic career is difficult for most fighters, who have made sports and competition a major part of their lives since childhood.
“I tell everyone, ‘There are two times I’m going to have to face my mortality: When I’m dying and when I’m told I’m too old to ever do it again as an athlete,’” says WEC featherweight and former UFC Champion Jens
Pulver, who recently announced he’d fight in 2010. “People have to understand that this is the one thing you’ve always known, and to have someone tell you that you don’t ever get to do again, that’s some tough shit. When you’re 22, 23, you think you have all the time in the world.”
Perhaps no one knows the feelings that go along with the decision better than Randy Couture. The 46-year-old legend famously retired in 2006 after the last bout in his trilogy with Chuck Liddell before returning a year later to vanquish Tim Sylvia for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. In nearly every interview he does, he is asked how much longer he’ll fight. But even after losing to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 102, Couture quickly cut off any speculation that he’d hang up his gloves by announcing a new six-fight deal.
“I’m going to take it one fight at a time as I did 12 years ago when I started this thing,” Couture said shortly before taking on Brandon Vera at UFC 105. “We can only take it one at a time, and I’ve always thought of it like that.”
Many have looked to Couture when trying to extend their own careers. In fact, some have done so literally. Thirty-seven-year old UFC veteran Nate Quarry remembers being at Team Quest years ago when a pro fighter visited to observe the marvel that is Couture. Quarry noted that while the fighter paid close attention to Couture’s workout habits, he didn’t take note of possibly the most important part of Couture’s health regimen.
“Randy would go home, eat a healthy meal, rest for a while, and come back for practice,” he says. “Meanwhile, the guy from out of town would go back to his hotel with a burger and two beers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to extend your career just by taking care of yourself.”
Even when retirement seems to stick, it’s not quite over. Pat Miletich retired after his March 2002 loss to Matt Lindland, but then returned after four years away. After that fight—a loss to Renzo Gracie—he seemingly retired again, but was back one more time two years later. The 41-year-old still hopes to fight again. Even Mikey Burnett, who suffered what was thought to be a careerending neck injury a few years ago, recently tried to get cleared by a doctor to resume fighting, but to no avail.
For the Love or the Money?
Sometimes, of course, the motivation is as simple as money. Two well-known fighters who spoke to FIGHT! confidentially admitted that they would have retired by now if their personal financial situations were different.
Because of rising salaries in the sport, it almost makes sense to hang on as long as you can. Many early MMA pioneers didn’t make much in the early days, but can make a decent purse fighting regionally because of accolades they earned years ago. In the end, though, the irony is that the longer most fighters stay around, it starts to be less about achievement and more about appreciation, as the fans stop worrying so much about their cage prowess and start thinking more about the fighter’s historic contributions and future welfare.
In October, 40-year-old Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba—a man who has taken tremendous punishment in his career and has been advised by some to retire—took fans through the gamut of emotions. Facing Zelg Galesic at DREAM 12, Sakuraba looked for a first-round Achilles lock, leaving Galesic on top of him. Galesic teed off, landing over 50 unanswered strikes to the head. Just when it looked like all was lost, Sakuraba rolled Galesic over in a flash and finished the fight with a kneebar submission. The burst of action encapsulated and personifi
ed the retirement issue: a long struggle traded for a fleeting moment of glory.
As more MMA stars begin to age, the question of when to hang it up will continue to creep up with no easy answer. Some fighters, like Couture, can recapture glory. Others are probably better left to call it quits. At best, all we can hope is that these athletes face their situation with a clear mind and pure intentions.
“Going forward, I’d say, ‘Don’t expect shit, so I can surprise you,’” Pulver says. “No expectations. Don’t make me the favorite, don’t make me the underdog. Just let me fight and entertain you. Don’t bring up being a legend; don’t bring up legacy or retirement. Just leave me alone and let me entertain you, and let’s see if I can still do it.”