It’s hard to think of many things more tenuous than a fighter calling time on their career, especially minutes after a fight has ended, when their mind and body is still powered by adrenalin and the relief of it all being over. The words, in that moment, carry little weight. They are spiked by emotion, anything but considered, and though a lot of the time we want to believe – that this will be the end, that they are getting out at the right time – we have been burnt too often in the past, let down by those who screamed retirement only to renege on their promise, to do much more than roll our eyes and sigh.
Nobody, you see, retires quite like a fighter. Nobody does it quite so recklessly, so spontaneously and with zero thought for what will come next. Mavericks, it’s this recklessness and sense of being in the moment that endears them to us, of course. Yet it’s also the reason so many of them retire and then un-retire when the adrenalin wears off, the lights dim, the phone stops ringing and the mundane routine of civilian life kicks in.
We had another one on Saturday (June 10) in New Zealand. It was Derrick Lewis this time: ‘The Black Beast’; a sulking 32-year-old who lost to Mark Hunt, his first defeat in two years; someone who sounded as if he’d just had enough.
“It’s probably my last fight,” said Lewis. “I’m getting married next week, and I don’t like to put my family through this. That will be my last fight.”
“You said ‘probably’ – or it will be?” asked UFC commentator Brian Stann, looking for clarification.
“Most likely it will be my last fight,” the 32-year-old said.
Typically, looming nuptials is a reason why a fighter might want to continue fighting. It’s rarely, if ever, used as an excuse to stop. But Lewis, in using marriage as his roundabout reason for possibly-probably-maybe calling it a day, emerged as the latest in a growing list of UFC fighters who have announced their retirement in the immediate aftermath of a fight and managed to steal a few headlines in the process.
So why this sudden trend? Certainly, nobody was calling for Lewis to retire before Saturday night, nor, in truth, was anyone suggesting he was finished post-fight, despite the fact he was outlasted and stopped in four rounds by a 43-year-old Mark Hunt. This wasn’t the announcement we’d all been waiting for. It wasn’t a fighter doing the right thing. No, this one, like Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson’s in April, was somehow different. This was an example of a relatively young fighter appearing to be fed up with the sport and therefore tapping out on those grounds. It was retirement used to summarise a feeling, a mood. It was perhaps retirement used as a bargaining tool.
Call it cynicism, but it’s hard to get past the idea that retirement, especially retirement announced inside the Octagon post-fight, is a hell of a way to deflect attention away from a loss and simultaneously make a fighter relevant when on the cusp of fading into irrelevance.
It’s true that we don’t tend to appreciate fighters until they are no longer fighting and fulfilling our primal need to watch two human beings scrap. It’s true, also, that we can take them for granted; assume they will always be at our disposal, on our television screens. Once they go, however, or even simply threaten to go, we are liable to panic, become anxious and wonder what the hell happens now.
That was evident with ‘Rumble’. It has also started to happen with ‘The Black Beast’. But… but… but… but… what happens to the heavyweight division now? Who are the characters? Who are the contenders? We need you, Derrick!
Yet nobody was pining for Derrick Lewis when he placed both hands on his hips and retreated of his own accord in round four against Hunt, essentially offering the home hero the sitting, wheezing duck he required to end matters. Nobody was touting him as an important piece of the heavyweight jigsaw then. But tell those same people that was the last time they’d ever see of you – at least in a fighting capacity – and it’s incredible how opinions and, indeed, the picture as a whole changes and distorts. Now we want Lewis back, just as we want Johnson back.
With this yearning for a return comes power. The fighters know it. Every single one of them. They also know that, because of its history, retirement in fight sports is never truly taken seriously, much less viewed as definitive. Instead, it’s merely considered a cliffhanger, the end of an episode. It’s then up to the fighter to decided whether they want to discontinue the soap opera, despite popular demand, or eventually cave in and give the people what they want: The Return.
Maybe fighters are cottoning on to this fact and starting to realise nothing secures leverage and bargaining power quite like calling it quits while in their prime and thus still an asset to their promotional company. Retire then, rather than as a beat up, washed up piece of meat, and you won’t be pitied, nor necessarily applauded. But your star will grow and you’ll be missed. You’ll definitely be missed. And, in time, with the door left tantalisingly ajar, you’ll come to understand why prizefighters – those rare breed of men and women who make their living from telling stories via fights – are seemingly unable to retire and stay retired.