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With no Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bellator MMA events during the week of March 5 and with the dismal-sounding Fabricio Werdum-Alexander Volkov clash set to headline UFC Fight Night 127 on St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve spent much of the past two weeks focusing on small-picture mixed martial arts. In my case, that meant watching more regional fight cards than I ever knew existed from places like Hungary, Egypt and Portugal and devouring more of the MMA news stories that bubble underneath the surface -- the surface, of course, being Conor McGregor, PED busts and more Conor McGregor.
Specifically, three recent stories have had me thinking about MMA’s retirement process. The endless parade of fighters proclaiming their retirement, their un-retirement or simply stopping fighting without announcing anything -- this says nothing of fighters we wish would retire -- feels like one of those powered revolving doors. Some folks make it through smoothly and without a hitch. Others don’t quite get it and end up experiencing the world’s worst merry-go-round ride until they either figure it out or smash a finger. First, the three stories.
Mike Pyle, having announced his plans to retire following his UFC 222 pairing with Zak Ottow, followed through on his word. Full disclosure: I’m a “Quicksand” fan, to the point that I considered making this entire article about his career, which is an impressive body of work as well as a meandering, fascinating story that would be impossible to duplicate for a fighter starting out in the sport today. See also: Yves Edwards. Aside from the outcome of the fight itself and Pyle’s inexplicable decision to fire his trademark haircut, it was about as clean an exit as you’ll see an athlete make from this sport. Going forward, while I don’t know Pyle personally, he has always come off as intelligent and entrepreneurial. I suspect he has irons in the fire and will be just fine. As that rarest of MMA anomalies, a fighter who improved after his mid-30s without apparent anabolic enhancement, I suspect he would make an outstanding head coach.
Next, the announcement on March 12 that Wagner da Conceicao Martins is booked to fight in June left me momentarily speechless and was followed by a quick check that it wasn’t April Fools’ Day. “Zuluzinho,” of course, is primarily famous for three things, in no particular order: being the son of vale tudo legend and two-time Rickson Gracie foil Rei Zulu, sporting a physique that would allow him to wear Grimace’s costume like a bespoke suit and his New Year’s Eve bout with Fedor Emelianenko in 2005. That 26-second blasting ensured that “Zuluzinho” immediately entered the mixed martial arts lexicon as a verb as well as a noun. To this day, you can tell a hardcore fan that Fighter A “got Zuluzinho’ed” and he will be able to picture exactly what happened. On a sporting level, I don’t care about this man’s fight. “Zuluzinho” is emblematic of all of the elements of Japanese mixed martial arts that I can take or leave, even if they’re sometimes humorous or charming. On a human level, I’m mildly concerned. The man is 39. It has been over seven years since his last fight, a first-round knockout loss to fellow sideshow attraction Geronimo dos Santos, though in fairness, I thought “Zuluzinho” was winning the round until the fight-ending flurry. It has probably been a decade since his athletic prime, a term I’m having difficulty typing without quotation marks. The question of whether he has been training during his absence is answered eloquently by the fact that he claims not to know how much he weighs. When you take all of this information in aggregate, he sounds like a prime candidate to be the next Dhafir Harris or, God forbid, the next Kevin Ferguson. In the context of this conversation, however, I’m primarily thinking of “Zuluzinho” as another recent example of the strange ways in which fighters orbit this sport. His fight announcement doesn’t truly qualify as “coming out of retirement” since to my knowledge he never officially retired, but it certainly qualifies as a surprise.
Finally, there was the announcement that Rashad Evans would be returning to light heavyweight for his next fight, a UFC 225 confrontation with Anthony Smith. I found myself surprised by the news, not because Evans was returning to 205 pounds but because he was returning at all. I now realize that after his last fight, a competitive but uninspired decision loss to Sam Alvey, I must have been subconsciously expecting he would retire. Like Pyle, Evans is a fighter I’ve always enjoyed. Sure, he’s overrated as an action fighter. Of all the athletes in the sport, he might have the greatest disparity between the sizzle of his highlight reel and the reality of watching any given round of one of his fights. Oh, but those highlights. Most importantly to this conversation, Evans has always come off as a very intelligent and insightful person outside of the cage, eloquent and introspective. He’s a great interview and a solid analyst. He certainly has job prospects within the sport of MMA beyond fighting, if he wants them. Even in the prime of his career, when it wasn’t yet a blip on the horizon, I thought of Evans as someone who probably wouldn’t need to be shown the door when it was time to leave the sport. In the wake of the Alvey loss, I figured Evans would be likely to look at his four-fight skid, see that dropping a weight class -- normally a panacea for fighters in a slide -- had left him not much more or less competitive than before and make the call. Yet throughout a losing streak stretching back over two years, the only time I remember him explicitly mentioning retirement was right after his brutal knockout loss to Glover Teixeira, and even that was in the vague general “go back and regroup and think about things” sense that rarely portends an actual retirement.
Understand that I’m not trying to retire Evans or even Martins, for that matter. I can’t imagine a world where some well-meaning but paternalistic stranger could tell me to retire from my job “for my own good,” and until I can, I will err on the side of personal responsibility. I’ve just been thinking about how difficult it seems for mixed martial artists to exit the profession gracefully. To be clear, when I say “gracefully,” I don’t necessarily mean “in perfect storybook fashion,” though that’s always nice when it happens. Let us all take a moment to tip our hats in the direction of Chris Lytle. What I mean is that it seems difficult for fighters to leave the sport with career prospects that offer the hope of long-term security and comfort for them and their families, to say nothing of minds and bodies sufficiently intact to allow them to enjoy those things.
Paradoxically, this is often hardest for those who have been at or near the highest reaches of the sport. When a fighter is a legendary figure or even a known name that fame carries a monetary value. While some rare exceptions are able to parlay their fame into revenue streams that don’t involve getting punched in the face, the easiest way by far for a well-known fighter to make money is to just keep on fighting. Fighters “keep on fighting” on the most brightly lit stages as well as in the darkest corners; while Bellator will certainly make the front page of this website if it announces Wanderlei Silva-Quinton Jackson 4 this month, take a look at Jens Pulver’s record some time. Did you realize how long he kept fighting after leaving World Extreme Cagefighting and the sport’s spotlight on the heels of five straight losses?
Please note that nowhere in the preceding paragraphs has the word “legacy” appeared, with or without its frequent sidekick “tarnished.” I sent them out into the backyard so we could have this talk. I’m as sentimental as the next fan. In fact, I’m probably more sentimental than most of you savages, if we’re being honest here. I’m on the forums, too. I remember Kazushi Sakuraba getting mauled so badly by Jason Miller that the fight-ending choke felt like an act of mercy rather than of humiliation. I remember Emelianenko, the greatest heavyweight ever, tottering around a circular Fight Nights Global cage on rubber legs, eating punches from a man who had been cut by the UFC on a two-fight losing streak … at light heavyweight.
Both of those images made me profoundly and viscerally sad at the time. In the end, though, neither Sakuraba nor Emelianenko nor any other fighter owes anyone a legacy. They owe themselves and their families the best lives they can provide, full stop. Whatever career story they are writing in the ring or cage is ultimately the result of their choices and chances. They alone are answerable for it and get to wear it. If it doesn’t happen to end in the Hollywood manner that I might prefer, that’s my problem, not theirs, and that’s all right. I’ll just keep watching that revolving door like the sport-within-a-sport that it is and wait for the day that I wake up in an alternate timeline where “The Axe Murderer” retired in the cage after knocking out Keith Jardine.