Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Having a legacy is the closest we can get to immortality. It’s how we combat the transience of our lives and the fact that most of our time is spent doing things that will be forgotten shortly after they’re finished. A legacy, though, outlives all of that. It etches our name in memories and record books and keeps us alive long after we’re gone.
It’s no wonder that the idea of a legacy is so important to professional fighters, whose job exists at the edges of mortality; it gives purpose to the life-shortening danger of their work beyond collecting a paycheck. We still talk about athletes from 100 years ago, and in a sport as young as MMA, legacies have less historical competition and thus are more up for grabs than in other sports. However, as recent events have shown, a fighter’s legacy is more complicated than it seems.
When assessing the legacy of a fighter, the closest we can get to objectivity is to distill it entirely into in-cage performance. Who did they beat? How did they beat them? How many times did they lose? How did they lose? This narrows down the discussion to observable analysis, whereas things like influence and popularity, while important, are more subjective. Still, there is more to legacy than a fighter’s record.
Consider Ben Askren. Although MMA retirements never seem to be permanent, Askren’s one-minute TKO beatdown of Shinya Aoki on Friday was reportedly the final fight of his career. If that’s the case, then he will have retired undefeated, with 11 finishes in his 18 career wins, and championship straps from Bellator MMA and One Championship. He has several big-name wins on his ledger, but his legacy is ultimately defined by names that aren’t on his record: the elite welterweights of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. If this is the end of the road for Askren’s MMA career, he will leave the sport with good health, a G.O.A.T.-worthy record, financial stability and a conflicted legacy.
Fighting in the UFC, however, can lead to a similar dilemma. Michael Bisping on Saturday became the first former middleweight champion ever to lose to two former welterweights when he got knocked out in the first round against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai. Sherdog columnist Anthony Walker broke down Bisping’s mixed legacy in detail, but much like Askren, the big issue with the former champion’s legacy is less about who he fought and more about who he didn’t fight.
Other factors outside of the cage also affect a fighter’s legacy, the most obvious of which is performance-enhancing drug use. Enter Anderson Silva. After another United States Anti-Doping Agency bust, Silva’s legacy as one of the Greatest of All-Time, to some, was called into question. Even Bisping himself, who once called Silva “the greatest martial artist of all-time” said that the Brazilian had “completely destroyed his legacy.” This isn’t an exceptional opinion, either. To many, PED use is immediately disqualifying, and there’s a rationale to that perspective. If a fighter achieves greatness without extracurricular enhancement, then that’s a superior legacy to someone who owes at least some of his success to illegal substances. That goes into some tricky territory, too. Not only does that “completely destroy” a lot of legacies, the issue itself is complicated. Tainted supplements are unfortunately legitimate alibis, and outdated policies that punish marijuana similar to anabolic steroids further muddy the waters. Not to mention, no drug can teach technique. Silva’s front kick knockout and any of Jon Jones’ multiply spectacular feats are not a result of PEDs but the freakish talent of the athletes themselves. Sure, PEDs can improve athleticism, which could in turn aid in technical development, but it’s foolish to think any amount of juice will teach you to knock out someone with a head kick. On top of all that, the calculus gets even murkier: How many positive tests does it take to ruin a career?
PEDs at least have a clear connection to in-cage performance and thus weigh in on the legacy discussion more naturally, but that’s not the only out-of-cage issue that can affect how a fighter is remembered. Most notably, fighters like Fabricio Werdum, who support war criminal and human rights abuser Ramzan Kadyrov in exchange for blood money, find themselves in a strange spot. Some people have no problem with willful ignorance, and I can certainly empathize with the desire to separate athletes from real life. However, there are real-world consequences that come from legitimizing people like Kadyrov, who has recently threatened nuclear war and voiced support for the mass murder of gay people. That’s exactly what fighters do when they take money from him: They make him seem less like, say, Kim Jong Un, who is more easily understood as the villain he is, and more like an eccentric combat sports fan. Rarely is legacy strictly a way to memorialize athletic performance. The most illustrious legacies -- people like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King or Duke Kahanamoku -- belong to athletes who transcended their sports. In that way, what a fighter does outside of the cage also matters, even if it has no direct influence on their actual fights.
How a fighter’s legacy is viewed will ultimately depend on the individual. Some think using PEDs is worse than supporting a war criminal. Some think being entertaining is more important than fighting the best. For most of us, there’s little consistency from fighter to fighter. One fly can ruin an entire bottle of perfume for fighters we don’t like, while fighters we like can do no wrong. Legacies are weird. Don’t be surprised if the history books don’t see fighters quite how you do.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.