Putting the Gloves Back On: MMA’s Unretirement Problem

By Patrick Auger Oct 1, 2019
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On Sept. 20, news broke that former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans had parted ways with the UFC in anticipation of coming out of retirement. The 39-year-old hung up the gloves back in June of 2018 after being knocked out cold by Anthony Smith in 53 seconds at UFC 225, his fifth loss in a row. The match with Smith was a return to 205 for the former titleholder, as his previous two bouts had been in the middleweight division where he had hoped to revitalize his career, but ultimately failed to do so. Since his retirement, Evans had continued to remain involved in the sport coaching younger fighters and working for the UFC as a commentator, but according to his manager Ali Abdelaziz, he’ll be “talking to other promotions about him shortly.”

Evans certainly isn’t breaking the mold by coming out of MMA retirement -- if anything he’s following the pack. In February heavyweight Stefan Struve announced his retirement after snapping a three-fight skid with a win over Marcos Rogerio de Lima, only for it be revealed in September he was returning to the octagon on Dec. 7 to face fellow veteran Ben Rothwell. This past July, former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion Urijah Faber returned to the Octagon after a near three-year layoff to fight bantamweight prospect Ricky Simon, winning the bout by technical knockout in just 46 seconds. Despite retiring in June after a losing bout to the aforementioned Smith, former light heavyweight title contender Alexander Gustafsson is already teasing a return to the cage.

Despite Faber winning in spectacular fashion upon his return and Struve and Gustafsson having the opportunity to do the same, not every return to in-cage action has been a happy one. Last year, Oscar De La Hoya launched Golden Boy MMA with a headling trilogy bout between former UFC light heavyweight champions Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell to disastrous results. Although Ortiz has been a serial un-retiree, his retirements have been short-lived and he has stayed active throughout his career, while Liddell had not fought in nearly a decade before their third bout. Despite concerning video of the nearly 50-year-old Liddell in training, the match went ahead as scheduled and resulted in Ortiz winning via first-round knockout, as well Liddell’s license to compete being suspended by the California State Athletic Commission indefinitely.

“Chuck Liddell is almost 50 years old and has no business fighting anymore,” UFC President Dana White said of the bout on the UFC Unfiltered Podcast. “The fact the state of California let that fight happen is disgusting. It's disgusting.”

White’s was just one of the many voices that stated their concern for fighters like Liddell returning to the Octagon. How could an athletic commission justify granting a license to Liddell based on what they saw? What ethical responsibility did Golden Boy MMA have in terms of setting up the fight? How does a promotion handle an athlete who is long past their prime but refuses to stop fighting?

Most importantly—Why do fighters keep coming out of retirement?

These questions aren’t as easy to answer as you might think. From an athletic commission’s perspective, as long as a fighter passes the requisite medical tests and a match is made that they believe is reasonable, they don’t necessarily have a reason to deny someone a license. While age is certainly taken into consideration, fighters much older than Liddell have competed and won inside the cage, so there is no hard-set rule around it.

In terms of a promotion’s ethical responsibility, that can become blurry as well. While some fighters do well when coming out of retirement, such as Faber and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, others like Liddell and former two-weight champion B.J. Penn struggle badly, despite what the company might feel is a good matchup. A promotion can also be put in a bind when an athlete with name-value refuses to hang them up because if they release them, they will more than likely sign with a rival who has no qualms about letting that fighter compete to boost their ticket sales.

The most important factor in all of this, however, comes down to why so many fighters seem to have a hard time staying outside of the cage. Aside from the lack of retirement benefits, most full-time professional fighters don’t have skills that translate well to other careers, aside from coaching and the physical fitness industry, so if they don’t want to coach or be a personal trainer of some sort, they’re starting from scratch in many cases. Top fighters have also attached in-cage competition to their identity, and without it they simply don’t know what to do with themselves. This phenomenon is common among athletes, but in fighting it can be particularly devasting as continuing past one’s prime can lead to severe repercussions down the road.

Whether it's for money or just pure love of the sport, MMA fighters coming out of retirement is certain to continue. While the UFC seems to be moving in the right direction with fighters who are have fallen off, other promotions are intent on picking up any name they can that will help them compete. As fighters become more outspoken about pay and benefits, here’s hoping that more structure is put in place to help aging fighters, before more incidents like this become the norm. Advertisement

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