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The aging process for athletes is one of the least fun things about sports. It’s sad to see iconic stars no longer able to compete at the level they once did. Willie Mays’ final days with the Mets and Johnny Unitas’ concluding year with the Chargers didn’t tarnish their legacies, but their fans didn’t want to see them go out on such ignominious notes. No one wants to see athletes who look much the same as they always did but who can no longer perform in the way that captured the public imagination in the first place.
Other celebrities are able to age more gracefully. Politicians, actors and musicians can captivate their supporters for decades, even if they decline to some degree mentally and physically. However, for athletes, reality hits much harder. With most of their lives still ahead of them, they lose the ability to do what most defined them at the highest level. It’s not only unpleasant to no longer see them do what made them transcendent; it’s also a hostile reminder of creeping death coming slowly for us all. It would be so much nicer if the best athletes all knew to get out at just the right moment.
Of course, it’s impossible for any of us to know the exact right time to quit anything. What’s so frustrating for elite athletes is that they are undone by traits that made them great in the first place. They wouldn’t make it to the top of their sport without the confidence in their ability to compete and thrive. This is particularly true for the best of the best. Unfortunately, at some point, that competitive spirit turns on them and offers humiliation where it once brought glory.
If the end of an athlete’s career is potential humiliation in most sports, there are far more terrible possibilities when it comes to combat sports. A baseball player batting .200 does nothing to affect the next 20 years of his life, while a diminished fighter suffering a brutal beating can alter the quality of the rest of his days. We’ve seen this for decades in boxing, where fighters have held on too long and paid for it in tragic ways. Now, as MMA matures and there is more money available to legends who want to continue fighting, we’re likely to see some older MMA fighters follow the heartbreaking path of their boxing predecessors.
B.J. Penn’s fight with Yair Rodriguez on Sunday was the most depressing scene in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in quite some time. Despite Daniel Cormier’s best efforts to try and put a happy face on it and make it about Rodriguez’s performance, it was sad to see the once great Penn function as a slow moving punching -- and kicking -- bag for his opponent. It wasn’t just that Penn was so slow and couldn’t showcase the skills that made him a legend. The bigger issue was all the punishment he was taking in the process, as Rodriguez just teed off on him at will. The fact that the fight was so uncompetitive made the beating Penn took feel senseless.
This isn’t to blame anybody for what happened. It’s understandable that Penn would want an opportunity to go out with a better final MMA memory than his bizarre defeat against Frankie Edgar in 2014. It’s ultimately his life and his decision what to do with it. He’s well aware of the dangers inherent in the sport. He surely doesn’t want anyone chastising him for doing what makes him happy any more than he wants people feeling sorry for him.
It wasn’t unreasonable for the UFC to offer him the fight, either. The UFC has made more of an effort to encourage legends like Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to retire than boxing promoters have with their top stars. Moreover, this was only Penn’s second fight since 2012. It isn’t as if he’s being trotted out regularly to make promoters money long after the point everyone recognized it was over. There isn’t a villain in the situation for us to demonize. This is just the nature of aging in a combat sport.
While there may not be cause for outrage, that doesn’t make Penn’s fight any less unsettling. We want to remember Penn for his masterful performances against Hughes and Sean Sherk, not this. More importantly, we want Penn to have a happy and comfortable life for decades to come. Penn’s bout with Rodriguez in the UFC Fight Night 103 main event advanced neither of those goals. It didn’t do a ton for Rodriguez, either, as beating up on Penn at this stage of the Hawaiian’s career isn’t going to add much to anyone’s popularity.
Penn’s predicament is hardly unique. It’s going to be a part of MMA for as long as MMA exists. Elite fighters will want to continue fighting and will take unnecessary beatings. That’s just an unfortunate aspect of a dangerous sport and the nature of the human body. We can only hope that fighters, trainers, promoters, referees and officials will do their best to mitigate against those dangers. The fewer fights there are like Penn-Rodriguez in the future, the better.