They’re all looking forward to it. They’re all fearing it. Retirement, the death of the athlete, is the moment a fighter has long prepared for, saved for and worked towards, yet, when it happens, when this crippling finality arrives, it is usually accompanied by tears, an outpouring of emotion, a heartfelt speech and no small amount of trepidation and panic.
On Saturday night in Buffalo, New York, Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson and Patrick ‘The Predator’ Côté dared to utter the R-word and in doing so joined the club. There were quivering voices and lumps in throats, but both appeared genuinely happy, content. Indeed, to watch them address 17,000 fans by way of a post-fight interview was to watch two men relieved of duty and pressure. Retirement done right, Côté, 37, began his speech by tearing the gloves from his hands and placing them in the centre of the Octagon, a take on Brad Pickett leaving behind his trademark porkpie hat following his own retirement in March, whereas Johnson’s speech came with no such forewarning. Instead, his goodbye was every bit as quick, dramatic and unconventional as his fighting style. It hit us like a right hand.
“This was my last fight,” Johnson told the New York crowd. “I didn’t tell Dana White, only my family and my coaches. I have given my commitment to another job, not MMA-related. I’m tired of getting punched, tired of rolling around on the ground. It’s not fun.”
So abrupt was the announcement it was easy to somehow feel cheated by ‘Rumble’ and his desire to escape. We weren’t prepared. It didn’t seem fair. We wanted more. Though succumbing to Daniel Cormier for a second time at UFC 210, there remains a thirst to seem him battle the returning Jon Jones at some point or, erm, any other 205-pound fighter in four-ounce gloves. Johnson, you see, unlike most who retire, appears to still have much to give. He’s just 33 years of age. He’s in the midst of an athletic prime which offers perks others could only imagine. He has never been quicker, stronger or more powerful. He’s championship material if not yet a champion.
What a waste.
But none of this matters to Anthony Johnson. It is, rather, a way of explaining the selfishness of the fight fan, which is to say we may feel all those things, but he doesn’t. And, ultimately, that’s all that counts.
Johnson, it would appear, doesn’t feel all that great at 33. He doesn’t crave a Jon Jones showdown. He might not even crave a UFC title. There are also, based on his post-fight interview, apparently alternative options for him, perhaps a routine in place others, those who, deep down, would love nothing more than to tap out, are fearful won’t be available for them when they decide to make the leap and forget all about the only thing they know. It’s why they, those less fortunate, stall and stutter and stick around, suffering setback after setback. It’s why they can’t quite say “no”.
For some, the lucky ones, the path is clear enough. They hang around, albeit on the safer side of the fence, and find solace in jobs as television pundits or commentators. This way they stay in touch with the sport that made them, defined them, and still fulfils them, only now they benefit from a distance which ensures their faculties stay intact.
Former fighters doing the rounds in the commentary booth include Dan ‘The Outlaw’ Hardy, who has, in actual fact, never officially retired, and Brian Stann and Kenny Florian, both of whom have retired and found the transition from fighter to man in a suit a seamless one.
“Besides fighting and training it’s the coolest thing you can do in the fight game as far as I’m concerned,” said Florian, 40. “I miss fighting every day, and I’m definitely inspired by many of the fighters and performances I see in the Octagon, but, physically, I can’t compete anymore due to the back injury I suffered (in 2011). Also, I never competed just to get a pay-check. I always competed to be the best.
“It’s hard going from a daily schedule of training to then only working a couple of days a week. It was difficult in the beginning. I like staying busy and I missed the grind of going to the gym every day and getting ready for a fight.”
Florian, encouraged by the words of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, gave commentary a go in December 2007, helping Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan cast an expert eye over the Ultimate Fighter finale main event between Roger Huerta and Clay Guida. He called the experience “fun”. Brian Stann’s breakthrough, meanwhile, arrived at UFC 163, when the former light-heavyweight contender was asked to take over colour commentary duties from Rogan in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Rogan had missed only two of the previous 100 pay-per-view events, so Stann, recently retired, had every right to feel the pressure.
“I’ve been part of many genuinely nerve-wracking situations in my life and appearing on television to talk about something I love doesn’t rank very high up there,” said the 36-year-old former U.S. Marine. “If they were asking me to go on live television and break down how an iPad works, you’d probably see me nervous and in a world of trouble, but that’s not what this job entails. I’m talking about fighting and it’s not particularly complicated. Really, it’s a dream job for any fighter and fan out there, and I consider myself both a fighter and fan of this sport.”
A dream job is what these men used to call fighting. It was the dream job before they realised it wasn’t the dream job; that getting punched and kicked in the face and body could never constitute such a thing. It was the dream job before they realised there was more to life and that prizefighting could be used as a gateway to all of that. The fun stuff; the stuff the rest of us take for granted.
That’s not to say the likes of Florian and Stann prefer commentary to fighting, mind. Far from it. Ask them and they’ll say it’s just different. Very different. Few experiences compare to the rush of being in a fight and surviving a fight – nothing can match that high – but, equally, no experience is lonelier or scarier and no experience asks a man or woman to dehumanise themselves quite like a combat sport. The idea, therefore, of putting on a shirt and tie, packing lunch, embracing the camaraderie of colleagues and settling into a cast-iron routine is all part of the process of re-humanising and, as such, viewed in positive terms.
“During the last couple of years of my career I didn’t even want to fight,” Duane ‘Bang’ Ludwig told me. “I just fought for the money. I wasn’t going after it the way I used to. In 2004, when I won my second world title, I was pretty much over fighting then. I set my goal to win the kickboxing world title and, once I did that, I was pretty much done.”
Ludwig, a pro fighter (MMA and kickboxing) for 12 years, doesn’t wear a suit to work. But he is, nevertheless, a teacher of sorts. Less Mr. Ludwig, more Sensei, the former lightweight and welterweight contender trains fighters at BANG Muay Thai and has managed to make a go of it during this second (or third) chapter of his fighting life, one kickstarted by three straight first-round UFC defeats.
“If I’d had the opportunity to stop fighting and train fighters years ago, I’d have done it in a second,” he said. “I don’t think the time was right, and I think it’s good that I had those years of experience, but I shouldn’t have fought for as long as I did. Coaching was my true calling. I know that now.
“Now it’s all about what I can do for other people and I like it that way. I’m in a position to help others become better martial artists and that’s what makes me feel good. In return, I get paid, they take care of me and my family, I grow as a martial artist and I grow as a human being. I grow spiritually, emotionally and financially. I’m much happier as a martial arts instructor than I ever was as a fighter.”
Ludwig, now 38, makes the idea of transitioning from fighter to coach sound not just appealing but sensible. Recommended, even. “But it is not for everybody,” he warned. “It certainly takes a rare human being to do it at my level; whether that’s boastful or not, it doesn’t matter. I know exactly what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean other retired fighters shouldn’t do it, but you can’t tell me that every former fighter should be a coach or an instructor. I’ll tell you what, there’s a high percentage of coaches out there now that shouldn’t be coaching. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Often you’ll see fighters recoil in horror at the thought of giving up the game and becoming coaches. It is, to them, akin to enduring the rigmarole of school life and then years later returning to the very same premises as a teacher. Same classroom, same timetable, same headmaster. Not only that, a certain patience and understanding is a prerequisite of training a fighter and, typically, a person who has been there and done it – who has almost perfected this art they now teach – tends to be somewhat lacking in this particular department. They are prone to becoming infuriated when even the simplest tasks are made to look difficult. Worse still, many ex-pros struggle for this obvious yet poignant reason: they are watching, on a daily basis, someone do something they once did, only not quite as well.
Tor Troéng, the Swedish middleweight, retired in 2014 following three straight UFC defeats. Like Ludwig, he listened to his body and his mind and got out. He also turned his hand to training other fighters. Unlike Ludwig, however, Troéng was defeated on points in each of those three fights, which speaks to something other than a durability depletion, and was just 31 years of age when deciding to cut his losses and call it a day.
“I wasn’t cut from the UFC but I felt it (three losses) was a sign,” he said. “If I’d have won my last fight I’d have probably only had one more fight anyway. MMA is not a sport you should do for a very long time. If you’re healthy, sure, but you shouldn’t fight if you’re not aiming for the top. I think it’s sad to see fighters fighting when they’re not going for the top.”
Troéng never reached the top. Nor did he expect to one day reach the top. Instead, his decision to fight – “embrace the adventure” – was one inspired by a love of the sport itself, as well as a need to make money. His decision to retire, meanwhile, was triggered by the realisation that this human need to make money should never come at the expense of health, happiness or freedom; meaning, Tor Troéng, the fighting anomaly, sussed the game before it was too late.
“It’s never a good business,” he said. “It’s always a lot of work and no money. It’s only if you become a superstar that you can really make money from it. That’s probably only five percent of the guys. You have to make your way to the top before you can even compare yourself to the five percent.
“I tried not to think of the economy when I decided to quit. That wasn’t what kept me fighting. I loved fighting, and I loved that part of it, but it feels good to not have to do it anymore. It’s good to not have to do it for the money. I know I can make a living from my work. Sweden is a very good place to live. We have a lot of opportunities if you’re educated. It feels good to not have to do something you don’t want to do.”
About as far removed from fighting as a fighter can get, Troéng, now 34, is a research assistant at a Swedish university. Brain, not brawn, books, not hooks, for fun Troéng goes fishing and hiking, two pastimes that have little in common with punching people in the face. He prefers it this way, too.
“I don’t feel like I need to prove myself anymore,” he said. “If you feel that way as an athlete, it’s a bad thing – it’s very hard to achieve more. But, if you feel that way as a person, it’s very nice. You get relief from it. You don’t need to push yourself as much.
“It’s very satisfying to make the decision yourself and feel like you’re in control. You can control the fight, you can control the outcome of your fight, but you can’t control whether you’re able to fight on or not. If you had to quit because of injury, that would be a lot harder to accept. Or if you were cut by the UFC, that would be hard.
“If a fighter feels like they’ve got something more to give – they’re trying to go for the top – they should continue. But some people, you feel, aren’t there for the top. They’re there for the money. That’s sad, I think.”
Sad though it is, most fighters understand why many of their peers fight on too long. It’s the temptation they themselves strive to avoid, but one they know is strong enough to seduce those of a weaker disposition. Fighting is the thing they do better than anything else, after all. The thing that pays. To give up that is to eradicate a part of you that shines brighter and shouts louder than any other.
“I see retirement from MMA the same way I see an army general coming back from war and going about their daily chores around the house,” said Chris Haseman, an Australian MMA pioneer who fought between 1996 and 2012, eventually retiring at the age of 42 following a 28-second knockout defeat in Japan. “You grow addicted to the adrenaline and competition of mixed martial arts, and when somebody tells you that you are no longer able to grab that hit from somewhere, it can be incredibly hard. Washing the dishes or shopping for food doesn’t quite cut it.
“That’s why I will never criticise fighters who decide to come out of retirement for ‘one last fight’ or any of those guys currently competing past their prime. I can understand why they do it. On some level, it even makes sense. These men know nothing but fighting and for them it would be incredibly difficult to suddenly just stop and throw it all away. Many of them need fighting in their lives to function on a daily basis. They would be lost without it.”
These men are sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and friends, roles which emerge and develop throughout life, but never do they feel more alive, more enriched, more valued and more relevant than when identified as a fighter. Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen, both 40 and battle-softened, the pages of their story dog-eared, headline Madison Square Garden in June for this reason. Icons like Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko, 41 and 40 respectively, fight on and dilute their legacy for this reason. And it’s for this reason any mention of the R-word in fight sports will be greeted by a sigh, a roll of the eyes and a large dose of scepticism on the part of those who have heard it all before and now view it only as a precursor to the inevitable C-word: Comeback.
One thing saying it, Anthony and Patrick, another thing sticking to it.