Even in trying times, Mark Coleman is grateful for where he is in life and all that he has been able to accomplish.
Over the course of a 26-bout professional mixed martial arts career that began in 1996, Coleman became the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first heavyweight titlist, defied the odds to win the Pride Fighting Championships 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix and was ultimately elected to the UFC Hall of Fame in 2008. In between, “The Godfather of Ground and Pound” faced off against the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Don Frye, Dan Severn, Igor Vovchanchyn, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Filipovic and Mauricio Rua, to name a few.
Today, even as he struggles with a laundry list of health issues borne from a lifetime of combat sports competition, Coleman can’t deny that the competitive fires still burn. It’s why, while he is in Japan for Rizin Fighting Federation’s New Year’s Eve extravaganza in an ambassador role, he yearns to do more. It’s simply part of who he is as an athlete.
“It’s very hard for anybody to retire. I was 45 my last fight [at UFC 109], but I had no plans on retiring at all,” Coleman told Sherdog.com. “I had been in pain for years with this hip. There’s good therapy out there, and it got me through to the next fight. Finally after the Couture fight I got the MRI. My doctor calls me early in the morning with bad news. He basically told me you’re done. Your hip is gone. You need a replacement as soon as possible.
“Look at Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie coming back. I’d love to fight one of those two guys in Rizin,” he continued. “But it’s not meant to be. Your health is the key. I didn’t really take care of my body as good as I should’ve have. That’s what these young fighters need to realize. When you’re injured you’ve got to take some time off. I just didn’t have time for that, and maybe I sped up the process. I don’t speak for everybody, but I’m sure I speak for a heck of a lot of fighters. Nobody likes to retire at 45. It certainly seems like an old age, but as you see there’s people still doing it. I think I could still whoop some ass.”
Coleman’s health reached a dire stage earlier this year when an infection was discovered in his hip following multiple surgeries. A GoFundMe page was started to help the Ohio native raise funds for the necessary procedure. The man known as “The Hammer” remains grateful for the outpouring of assistance that followed. However, a lifetime of battles, both in the mixed martial arts cage and on the mat continue to take a toll on the 51-year-old UFC veteran’s body.
“I’m still standing upright,” said Coleman, who in addition to his promotional work for Rizin has a stake in Combo Hitter System, a heavy bag/focus mitt training hybrid. “You never realize how much you’re health [matters]... You don’t worry about it when you’re wrestling and fighting. But once it really does happen to you, you realize that’s the important thing.
“The hip is doing good. The GoFundMe page, the people really helped me out. Three hip replacements in the same one because of the infection... I don’t want to complain here but the truth is I’ve got arthritis throughout the whole lower back and other hip. I take it day by day. It’s not my hip; my hip’s doing pretty good. But my lower back is pretty much shot. The pain consumes me. I try not to think about it. I try to do the best I can with it. But I wish I was getting ready to fight on New Year’s Eve right now. But I’m done. You don’t tell the sport when you’re done, the sport tells you when you’re done.”
Although he is unable to compete, Coleman is optimistic that Rizin can thrive both on New Year’s Eve and beyond. After all, the man behind the fledgling organization, Nobuyuki Sakakibara, helped spearhead Pride’s rise to prominence more than a decade ago.
“Mr. Sakakibara is back and he’s a very smart man. Obviously he’s the only guy that could do it,” Coleman said. He did it for six years,” Coleman said. “Now he’s back on New Year’s Eve and I fully expect it to be a great, great show.”
Rizin will air on Spike TV on Dec. 31 at 10 p.m. ET/PT via tape delay and features a heavyweight headliner pitting Fedor Emelianenko against Jaideep Singh. Coleman, who fell to Emelianenko twice under the Pride banner, can relate to the Russian star’s desire to return to MMA; “The Last Emperor” initially retired following a first-round knockout victory over Pedro Rizzo in June 2012.
“It’s hard to quit when you’re still a bad, bad dude. He did quit for a while, which may have helped him because he’s still in his prime, in my opinion,” Coleman said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how high he can get on the ladder. He was great, period. He dominated me. I humbly accept that. I’m excited to see him start his comeback. I hope it’s not a one-fight deal.”
While Coleman says he maintains a solid relationship with the UFC, he believes that other promotions can succeed alongside the sport’s premier organization.
“I think there’s plenty of room for Rizin, the UFC and Bellator. There’s so many fighters out there. I think there’s room for it,” he said. The Japanese fans, they truly are fanatics. He’ll [Sakakibara] pull them back in there. There will be 50,000 to 60,000 people watching these fights.”