There comes a point in every mixed martial artist's career when he or she has to decide whether it's time to retire. Many fighters hang on too long and tarnish their legacy. A few retire too soon and leave us wondering if they could have accomplished more in the sport. That is the decision that all fighters have to make at one point or another.
Cincinnati's Jorge Gurgel is at this kind of crossroads in his career. At age 35, the former Ultimate Fighter 2 cast member doesn't have much time left in the cage, but he still loves to fight. However, it's not just his age that is forcing him to think about his future. As one of the most successful coaches in the Midwest, Gurgel's students are now demanding more of his time.
Gurgel's stepfather, Arnie, warned him about this problem before he passed away in 2011. At the time, Gurgel didn't take his words seriously.
"My stepdad came to me," Gurgel said. "He said, 'Jorge, what are you going to do? Everybody's training full-time; all of these guys are full-time fighters. You're the only one. There's going to be a time that you can't give yourself a fair chance. You coach everyone like Rich [Franklin], Zoila [Gurgel], and Tom Hayden. One day, they are all going to be signed for big fights, and they'll need their main coach. And you're going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. How are you going to manage to do both? You won't be able to. You won't give yourself a fair chance."'
Gurgel listened to his father, but he figured that it would be another five or 10 years before he would have to make a decision. However, his father words proved prophetic. It wasn't long before the demands of coaching his team got in the way of his own plans.
"I was supposed to have fought in March, and I didn't," Gurgel said. "I turned down a fight in March because of commitments to my fighters in Strikeforce, Tom in the UFC, my sister had a title fight, and Rich was fighting Cung Le. In June, I had to call Monte Cox and I said, 'Monte, I'm so sorry, I wanted a fight for April, June and July, but I had commitments and I can't have a fight. I've been asking you for a fight when I have these guys to take care of, and I literally can't.'"
Gurgel's frustration continued this fall: he was unable to land a spot on the August Strikeforce card, and once he got a fight scheduled for September the entire event was cancelled. Meanwhile, Gurgel has maintained a strong commitment to his team.
"I have 20 guys whose lives depend on my coaching," Gurgel said. "It's extremely difficult for me. I know all of my fighters are praying when we go home for me to retire so I can give them my attention, because when I do, they win. They know the difference. The difference is absolutely noticeable. Rich comes here and says that to everybody, and everybody believes him. He says, 'Jorge, when you're here, they are like this in a month.' And they are; they do get better. So I'm in that position right now."
Yet Gurgel wants to keep competing, despite knowing that he's a better coach than a fighter at this stage of this life. He believes that he still has much to do in this sport. Gurgel looks back on his career and sees lost opportunities. And while he doesn't regret any of his previous fights, he still wants another chance to prove that he can be a champion.
"I always used to tell people that I'm going to fight until I cannot stand on my two feet any longer," Gurgel said. "That's how long I plan to fight, and I'm depending on my health now. I'm very healthy, I'm very motivated to fight again. My calling is to be a coach. I understand that I'm 35 years old. I understand that I have the tools, the potential, and the skills to be a world champion. And I never used it; I lost. Of my last seven losses, six of them -- with no offense to any of my previous opponents - were to lesser fighters. I lost to fighters who weren't better than me. I just followed the wrong game plan."
Gurgel will be stepping into the cage again soon. He's scheduled to face Adriano Martins in what is expected to be the final Strikeforce card on January 12. But even with his own fight to prepare for, Gurgel remains committed to cornering his wife, Zoila, for her bout with Jessica Eye at Bellator 83, and his sister Stephanie Frausto's upcoming Invicta fight. His hectic schedule would burn many people out, and it does take a toll on Gurgel.
"It's tough already," Gurgel said. "I don't know if you noticed, but I was out there coaching for an hour-and-a-half, just yelling and yelling. This morning, I was supposed to be training, but I have to coach. We have fights coming up, so what do I do? I take a break, I eat, and I do another hour of training by myself. I have no off days."
Unfortunately, until Gurgel chooses which path to take, he won't have much rest. Perhaps he'll decide to hang up his gloves in January, or maybe he'll stick around a little longer. But one thing is clear: No one but Gurgel is going to make this decision. He's still hungry to compete, and until that hunger goes away, Gurgel will continue to battle age and destiny.
Derek Ciapala is a Yahoo! Featured Contributor for MMA. He has been published on GatewayMMA.com, UltimateApocalypse.com and multiple other websites. You can check him out on Facebook or on Twitter @dciapala.
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