The Big Picture: MMA’s End Game

By Eric Stinton Apr 29, 2019


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If you haven’t seen “Avengers: Endgame” yet, don’t worry. There are no spoilers here, other than to say it will put you in a mood that lingers with you. Naturally, given the title, you’ll think about endings and how they happen, when they should happen, why they have to happen and if they really happen at all. It’s an internal dialogue that for most of us is no more than existential musing, but for professional fighters, it’s necessary and practical. No one can fight forever.

Fighters take their own journeys to arrive at their career’s end. Three of the four main event fighters from Bellator 220 and UFC Fight Night 150 on Saturday are likely in their end game, all for different reasons.

At Bellator 220 in San Jose, California, 41-year-old Jon Fitch fought in his 42nd professional fight. His career goes back nearly two decades, an eternity in this sport, and that’s to say nothing of his amateur wrestling career before he ever set foot in the cage. The man has a lifetime of physical hardship worn into his body. Although his fight against Rory MacDonald ended in a majority draw -- it must have been especially frustrating for Fitch, as the only judge who didn’t call it even scored the fight in his favor -- it effectively knocked the American Kickboxing Academy rep out of the Bellator MMA welterweight grand prix. This naturally led to questions about if and when he planned to call it a career. Fitch had this to say at the post-fight press conference:

“I told myself before I fought Jake Shields -- because I was having a lot of medical issues, my neck and I had a bad brain scan -- that if I lost that fight, I was done and that was going to be it for me. I won, and I kept going. I made the same promise with myself every fight. I’m in a position where I didn’t lose technically, so I don’t know if I should keep that promise to myself or not. There’s a good chance that this is my last fight.”

If this does turn out to be his last fight, no one would blame him. He has been a force in the welterweight division since 2005 in every promotion in which he competed. He earned title shots in both the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator the old-fashioned way: by simply beating a lot of people in a row. Fitch knows his limits and medical condition better than anyone, but regardless of how many fights he has left in him, there’s no shame in the legacy he’d leave right now.

His opponent, however, is in a more nuanced predicament. MacDonald is a few months shy of 30 and likely entering his physical prime. That’s saying something for a former UFC title contender and co-author of one of the best fights in the sport’s history. His five career losses have come exclusively against the best of the best: former World Extreme Cagefighting champion and UFC interim champion Carlos Condit, former UFC champion Robbie Lawler, UFC title contender Stephen Thompson and one of the all-time best middleweights in Gegard Mousasi. His list of wins is just as impressive, especially considering that he usually wins through tactical and technical dominance. Despite an uninspired performance against Fitch, he still retained his title and moved to the next round of the tournament, but in the cage after the fight he did not exactly sound enthused by the prospect:

“I landed some good stuff in there, but … I don’t know. It’s hard to sometimes pull the trigger now, I guess. I don’t have that killer inside. It’s really hard to explain. I feel like God has really called me the last little while and, I don’t know, it’s changed my spirit, changed my heart. It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain. I don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore.”

It makes a lot of sense that someone’s religious beliefs could steer them away from a career of violence, though Christianity and MMA may not be as incongruous as they seem. MacDonald is right, though: Sharpening your body to inflict punishment on another person is one thing, but the psychology behind doing so is entirely different. We consume fighting as an entertainment product so much that it’s easy to forget what is actually happening in the cage: two people (or sometimes six) with feelings and ideas and loved ones and all the other dimensions of life that we all experience are trying their best to hurt each other. If MacDonald no longer has that fire of dissonance inside of him, then he should step away, and he shouldn’t feel any embarrassment for it. As much as I’d love to see the return of the “Old Rory,” he has to be able to look at himself and feel good about what he sees. At least for now, it appears that he will keep fighting in the tournament.

Across the promotional pond, Ronaldo Souza suffered a demoralizing defeat against late-replacement Jack Hermansson in the UFC Fight Night 150 main event. “Jacare” has been at the top of the middleweight mountain for a decade, but he has never been able to stake his flag in the summit, his brief stint as the Strikeforce champion notwithstanding. After losing the belt to Luke Rockhold, he went on an eight-fight tear through Strikeforce and the UFC. Then he lost a narrow decision to Yoel Romero, who fought for the title shortly after. Souza then won a pair of fights before losing to Robert Whittaker, who won the interim belt in his next fight. A win later, he dropped another split decision to Kelvin Gastelum, whose next fight was for the interim title. Then he beat former champion Chris Weidman and was slated in a title eliminator, only to lose to a relatively Unknown Fighter.

Since joining the UFC, “Jacare” has perpetually been on the cusp of a title shot but he has yet to make that jump despite “Performance of the Night” bonuses in over half of his promotional appearances. “Jacare” will turn 40 this year, and it seems as if his window of opportunity is closing for good. He didn’t mention the “R” word after the fight, but it had to be on his mind. When he was asked what was next for him at the post-fight press conference, he said:

“I don’t have a plan right now. I’ll go back to my home, take a vacation with my family. Tomorrow, I’m going out with my kids. I don’t know. I need [to go] back to my family, and that’s it.”

Those don’t sound like the sentiments of someone eager to get back in the cage to put together yet another title run, but who knows. If he decides to keep chasing the title, it’s an uphill climb. The middleweight title picture is only getting younger, and “Jacare” already got demolished by the current champion. It’s hard to argue that he will be able to compete with the top of the division for much longer. If he does decide to hang up the gloves sooner than later, he’d still be considered one of the best middleweights ever, even if the most treasured hardware will be absent from his résumé.

The end game is rarely a single move or decision but rather a process. Sometimes, it’s a long, drawn-out process with its own narrative arc altogether. Whether it’s age, accumulated injuries, a lack of fighting spirit or a lack of ability to compete for the highest prize, there are plenty of reasons to let the curtain fall on a career. All that matters is if those reasons outweigh the drive that got them to fight in the first place.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.

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