It was a grim tableau. Slumped against the cage after absorbing a frightful assault to the body, Brock Lesnar wore the dejected look of a fighter done with the sport. Imagine realizing your career in a given vocation was obviously something you suddenly no longer wanted to pursue, with the impetus for that decision being a public beating like the one Alistair Overeem delivered at UFC 141 this past Fri., Dec. 30, 2011, in Las Vegas. It was one of the most poignant moments you'll see, yet painfully public at the same time.
His post-fight retirement announcement wasn't a surprise. In moments of adversity, you find out what a fighter is about, and Lesnar handled his interview with Joe Rogan very well.
Brevity goes a long way when making an announcement that will change the short-term landscape of the sport; he's done with MMA, and he did one hell of a lot to bump the game up to the next level in a mere eight fights, five of which were against guys who were former or current champions. He could have ranted about how he just got caught, how he wanted a rematch, and all the expected posturings that come straight from the "Beaten Fighter Playbook."
Those are the easy sells and juicy rationalizations. But Lesnar took his medicine like a man and reminded us that life goes on outside the game, with a quality precisely defined by how much you put into it. Family is key to him and MMA simply isn't worth the investment, especially considering his diverticulitis, which has been a recurring issue in the past two years.
His short, frank speech was a graceful exit given the tumultuous emotions he must have been feeling, and went a long way toward showing his real side, that of a family man who simultaneously accepted the need, at times, to play the heel, something he'd become proficient at during his pro wrestling days. He was certainly adept at it, sometimes pushing the envelope to strange places where the envelope seemingly ended, and unclassifiable viewer weirdness ensued.
His inimitable post-fight meltdown after battering Frank Mir into submission at UFC 100 was a Holy Trifecta of sorts, as he simultaneously offended the guy he'd just smashed, the promotion he smashed him in and a major sponsor (Bud Light) for the event he smashed him at.
In the history of the sport, there may have been no equivalent moment where a guy had the audience so ready to eat from the palm of his hand, willingly accepting him as the newly crowned champ. But Lesnar delivered a gleeful verbal smack to the face instead.
I always got the feeling that Lesnar was never fully comfortable with MMA, and was more of an athlete-as-fighter. His obvious deficits in the stand-up phase in fights against Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez and Overeem could overshadow the rest of his legacy, however brief. Given time to develop along the prescribed trajectory of a heavyweight prospect, he could have acquired the kind of experience and repetitive conditioning necessary to stand and deal with the harsh realities of the sport, especially stark ones when you're a heavyweight, where one-shot swings of momentum are the rule instead of the exception. It's a line of work that requires unshaking commitment, with brutal truths visited upon even the best of those who survive the numerous slips on their journey up the mountain.
In 1999, back during my boxing days, I interviewed Michael Grant, a rising contender who tossed off a verbal nugget I've kept with me over the years. Grant, a wonderfully gifted athlete, had the blend of looks and personality that made him an HBO darling. He could play piano and excelled in three sports yet wasn't fully transfixed with the idea of becoming a heavyweight champion.
"I see people like Evander Holyfield who have been in the sport for 25 years, and that's all they are," Grant said. "I want to be in boxing, but not ‘of' boxing."
Contrast that to Marvin Hagler, who said "When they cut open my head, they're going to find a big boxing glove. That's all I am."
Grant would go on to be summarily starched by Lennox Lewis in his brief and only title shot, while Hagler reigned as one of the greatest champions of his, or anyone else's, era.
I've never forgotten that, because Grant's reluctance to go all-in on pursuing a fight career was ultimately a huge factor in his eventual demise. And any time I hear a fighter talking retirement, it's a sign that he's probably closer to it than he thinks, for reasons he may not yet understand but will become painfully apparent in short order.
Lesnar's career trajectory denied him the chance to develop the experience against lower-level competition that might have served him well, but the flip side of that is he came along exactly when the UFC had a void he could fill like no one else.
Given the hand as it lays now, an exit from the sport is his best move. If nothing else, he leaves on his own terms.
That's a victory in itself.