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Remember the good ol’ days of MMA, when guys like Fedor Emelianenko, Takanori Gomi, B.J. Penn and Andrei Arlovski were tearing up the scene in their respective promotions? There was nothing like those glory years of the early 2000s, when mixed martial arts was permeated with excitement from the original guard of the sport passing the torch to the next generation. Those four were among the trailblazers that pushed the heavyweight and lightweight divisions in Pride Fighting Championships and the Ultimate Fighting Championship to the next level of the fight game.
Fast forward a decade or so, and all four of them are continuing to compete, much to the chagrin of fans who were there in those early years. Penn and Emelianenko suffered demoralizing losses at Bellator 180 and UFC Fight Night 112, and the week before that, Arlovski and Gomi put some additional losses on their losing streaks at UFC Fight Night 111. To see these legends fade so drastically this late in their careers is tough to bear. When you’re pushing 40 in the fight game, Father Time starts to push back mercilessly.
Let’s be clear: All four of these men are legends of the sport, regardless what has happened or -- God forbid -- continues to happen in the cage. Gomi’s run in Pride is probably the greatest run in the history of high-level lightweight MMA. Penn is still the most freakishly talented big-game hunter ever. Arlovski and Emelianenko were diverse, versatile heavyweights who transformed the image of the brutish one-dimensional plodders, though much of their work has been undermined due to the lack of heavyweight prospects. Regardless, legacies are formed in fighters’ peak years, and no amount of late-stage losses can tarnish what has already been accomplished.
At the same time, when enough terrible losses pile up, the legendary feats of yesteryear start to seem that much more distant. It’s impossible to feign legitimate interest in their fights anymore. Penn has lost five in a row, and none of them have been terribly competitive. Since 2010, he’s 1-7-1. Gomi, who has a defensible claim as the greatest fighter Japan has ever produced, has been finished each time out during his current four-fight losing streak. He’s 4-8 since 2010. Arlovski is on a five-fight losing streak and has only seen the final bell once in those five losses. Though he had a brief resurgence when he came back to the UFC in 2014, he’s 6-8-1 in reputable leagues since 2010, and that’s generously including World Series of Fighting as a reputable league. Then there’s “The Last Emperor,” still the greatest heavyweight ever by most accounts. Since suffering his first real loss in 2010, he has been demolished by every name opponent he has faced. Though his 5-4 mark since 2010 doesn’t look too bad -- and really he should be 4-5 -- his best win in that time is a tossup between Jeff Monson and Pedro Rizzo. No disrespect to Jaideep Singh.
A few fights ago, it was easy to stir up the old emotions and remember these legends fondly. Even when we knew they were doomed against the new generation of fighters, it was nice to relive their highlight reels and secretly hope for a flash of brilliance. Now we retrace their moments of glory, not with present tense awe or teary-eyed nostalgia but with tired exasperation. It’s a sad way to see legends end their career by slowly dissolving into groaning indifference.
Age itself isn’t necessarily the issue. In recent weeks, we’ve seen OGs Mark Hunt and Clay Guida put on some great performances against young up-and-comers, while Johny Hendricks -- once considered the future of fighting -- has tumbled into irrelevance at an age that is typically considered to be still in a fighter’s prime years. The point is not the age of fighters so much as their ability to compete at the highest levels. The sport of mixed martial arts feeds its old to the young, and there is nothing ceremonious or even remotely heartening about it. Kobe Bryant may have had to shift gears at the end of his career from an athletic phenom who scored 35 points a game in any way he wanted to a mid-range jumpshooter collecting a cool 17, but at least he wasn’t getting repeatedly knocked senseless several times a year in front of supportive crowds. That’s to say nothing of the long-term effects of basketball compared to that of combat sports; shaky knees and weak lower backs are much more preferable to brain trauma.
To be an MMA fan is a tragic endeavor. Your ability to cheer for your favorite fighters will always outlast their ability to perform. We get older, but age doesn’t slow down our ability to be fans. Only the aging of fighters does that. I’m not so bold to suggest that I know better than anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do with their lives. Fighting puts money on the table for these men, and when you spend a lifetime cultivating a competitive spirit, it can be hard to let that go and move into a different professional role. It’s just disheartening and frustrating. It would be nice to see the same people who stole the torch from their previous generation allow the next generation to run with it. They can save themselves the physical and neurological damage while simultaneously helping us on the other side of the cage to remember their glory days with fewer asterisks. For these four legends, in particular, the time isn’t now. It was several years ago.
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.