We’ve all seen it before-our favorite legend from Title Fights past, stepping into the ring for one more fight. "Maybe he’s still got it" we mutter to ourselves as Bruce Buffer turns a 3 second name into a 30 second Godzilla-like roar of introduction. And before we can even un-clench our cheeks, our hero of yore is sprawled out on the mat, unable to continue.
The question gets asked over and over again. "Why doesn’t he just retire?" For me, the Champs of suddenly questionable competency were (are) Chuck Liddell and BJ Penn. Two guys who were at the very top of their respective weight-restricted food chains. Chuck, who could eat a sledge to the head and smile before putting the sledge swinger in a trauma-induced coma, and BJ, who formed a cult following which rivals that of L. Ron Hubbard-albeit it for more legitimate reasons-in both size and intensity. The Prodigy-by definition, a young person with exceptional abilities-is no longer a spring chicken. We can’t stay young forever.
I wanted to see Chuck retire before he did, and I want to see BJ retire now. Uncle Dana said it again and again, "Chuck’s made a ton of money, he has nothing left to prove." And he was correct. However, he put it off for much longer than Dana, and myself, would have liked. BJ is still delusional enough to think he can hang with today’s best, so he still competes. Why do you think that is?
My professional diagnosis is Rocky Balboa Syndrome. You know, the boxer who fought through 4 movies too many? Rocky kept fighting cause he knew he was the best at one time, and he was the best at something he not only loved, but was the only thing he ever knew, the only thing he was ever good at. It was the thing he defined himself by. As a slowly crawling-up-the-hill former competitor, I can understand that to a degree. I don’t think Chuck kept fighting because he loved the money and the partying, I don’t think BJ still fights because he needs the money or the belt. I don’t think it’s about proving anything to the outside world. I think the act of continuing to fight is, in and of itself, a fight. I think they keep fighting because retiring means losing, giving up, tapping out. It’s over. For life. Surrendering to Father Time. And they've trained for years to avoid losing.
Father time is one mean sumbitch. He has advantages that make Jon Jones’ reach look like Pat Barry’s ground game. He doesn’t need TRT to be DTF. But you know what? Every fighter loves a challenge. And making it through training camp is winning round 1 against Mr. Time. Surviving the fight is winning round 2. Winning the fight? Well, that’s 2 wins against 2 opponents simultaneously.
It’s the fighters mentality of blocking out the negativity, the pain of camp, the weight cut, the pre-fight nerves that leads to blocking out the nagging thoughts that they are just getting too damn old to compete, that the sport has passed them by. The same dark place that competitors go to when it gets too hard, that dark place that blocks out the haters-it also blocks out reality.
Some of us are meant for mediocrity. Plenty of guys ride a desk for a living. In fact, the majority of us end up in mediocrity, even if we once achieved greatness previously. Isn’t that the goal? Retiring, living a quiet life with wife and dog, mowing the lawn, drinking a beer on the deck?
Unfortunately, plenty of guys choose to ignore the sound of Father Time calling them to start said life of mediocrity, and instead get sent there, kicking and screaming, after looking up at the bright lights from their backs, again and again.