Back in the spring of 2010 fight fans eagerly awaited a very particular announcement from Dana White and the UFC. We weren't waiting for the next title matchup or a major television deal to be announced.
The UFC's first ever lightweight champion, Jens Pulver had just lost his fifth fight in a row for Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC and now defunct WEC, and seven out of his last eight. Despite that record, Pulver's return to the organization after leaving with their belt years before when contract negotiations failed was, in many ways, a success.
Pulver helped ignite interest in the UFC's re-launched lightweight division, coached the popular fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter and made lots of money for his bosses by being a part of heated rivalries with BJ Penn and Urijah Faber.
Jens had been losing too much to not be cut by Zuffa, everyone knew, and had taken so much damage over the course of his legendary 11-year career that it was widely understood that he should probably stop for the sake of his health, in any case. Only problem was, Jens wasn't wealthy enough to stop earning income and as a professional fighter, fighting and the sponsorships that come with fighting were his only real sources of income.
He might have been "old" for a professional fighter at the light weights, but Jens was a young man in the real world, with a family to support for hopefully decades upon decades more. There is no union and so no pension for MMA fighters like Jens. He needed to earn.
Luckily, Jens had appeared to mend fences with Dana White and the UFC over the past few years in performing well for them, selling tickets and gaining television viewers. He had also proven himself as an insightful, colorful and entertaining television broadcaster.
We hoped that the UFC would find a role for Jens in the booth, providing analysis of televised bouts as they had done or helped do with fighters like Frank Mir and Stephan Bonnar. Heck, they didn't even have to give him a vague ambassador job like they had done for Randy Couture at one point when he was retired, and like they would go on to do for Chuck Liddell. Television commentary was a real need for the UFC and its partners, and Jens could do a great job there.
Either Jens would get cut and be forced to continue fighting in smaller organizations to make ends meet - also accumulating more damage to his body and brain - or he could be given the opportunity to retire gracefully because he had another, non combat offer from the organization to accept.
Insiders also knew that Jens himself may have been hoping for such an announcement. He was public in expressing his interest in continuing with the company, and hinted at wanting that type of role.
Who wouldn't? But Jens had earned it.
So we waited for the conference call,or the addendum to an event press conference where Jens would be rolled out to give comment alongside Dana White, all smiles, and announce that one of the organization's most popular fighters was retiring but being given another role in the company from which we could contribute and continue to entertain fans.
The announcement never came. Jens did get cut, although it was kept hush-hush so as not to drive down his market value when he negotiated with smaller promotions.
Jens should have retired then but it wasn't a luxury that he could afford. In the two years since, he's fought seven times for regional promotions, five times in 2011 alone. The last time he fought this often was 1999, his first year as a professional.
It isn't a coincidence. It takes multiple fights in a smaller promotion to begin to approach the money a fighter can make fighting a single time in the UFC. In order to pay the bills, a fighter who should - for the sake of his health - have stopped altogether is now putting his mind and body through the trauma of fighting and training more than ever before.
Jens won his last fight and always puts on a show, and the future hall of famer brings a lot of attention to the promotions he fights for. But he's still losing often. Reflexes slowed from concussions have a unique way of contributing to results, as well as health complications down the road.
Jens Pulver isn't the first champion fighter in this position and he won't be the last. Hopefully Wanderlei Silva won't be the next.
At one point the former Pride superstar won sixteen consecutive fights in terrifying fashion.
Fighting frequently and against all-comers, including super heavyweights and heavyweights, the natural 185 pounder began to lose. At first they were close decisions, then they became bad knockouts.
Knockouts represent significant damage to a fighter's brain. They are defense mechanisms as well.
"You are hurt and should stop doing the activity you are doing, so we're going to shut off, here," their bodies say. Knockdowns can represent similar amount of damage as a knockout but a well-conditioned fighter can sometimes gut through the evolutionary defense mechanism and stay awake to fight and take more damage. That's why fighters who fight through knockdowns and survive, even win, often can't remember what happened after they ate that stiff shot.
Since Wanderlei's streak ended, he's lost more than he's won, often by knockout, and when not by knockout, he's usually still been knocked down as he was last Saturday at UFC 147 by Rich Franklin. Wanderlei has gone from being perhaps the most dominant champion in MMA history, amassing those sixteen straight wins as a contender and champ, to losing nine out of the sixteen fights that have followed that reign.
Learned observers can pick up on all sorts of nuanced clues in a fighter while they compete that shows that said warrior's reflexes are slowing down and that it may be time to hang it up. But even novice fans know something is wrong when once undefeated champions begin to struggle to win at all.
Wanderlei has been struggling to win for several years now. Before his last fight he spoke to Yahoo! Sports and said he wanted to start up charities in Brazil to help underprivileged youth once he was done fighting.
He wasn't ready to say that he was ready to retire yet, and has yet to make an announcement about his future since losing to Franklin. But he'd be wise to follow the leads of two other fan favorites that also fought last weekend and announced that they'd likely be retiring - Spencer Fisher and Fedor Emelianenko.
Wand fans didn't have to wait long for an encouraging word regarding Silva's options from Dana White as Pulver fans did. White went on television and said that, fighting or not, Wanderlei had a future with the UFC.
"[Silva] used to be my arch nemesis over at PRIDE and I wanted that Chuck fight since PRIDE. But since he came to the UFC, he has been great, acting like he has been in the UFC for a long time. He has been honest and great and he is going to be with the UFC for a long time whether he is fighting or not," White said.
With MMA and the UFC surging in popularity in Brazil (20 million people watched UFC 147, for example) and Wanderlei being one of the most fan-friendly personalities in MMA, he's a perfect candidate for an ambassador type job for the UFC.
It sounds from White's comments like the UFC is going to offer to take care of him in that way and Wanderlei should take them up on it and end his amazing fighting career.Competing is hard to give up for athletes for reasons having to do both with a sense of identity and practicality.
Some athletes have more options than others. If the business of MMA continues to grow, hopefully more fighters that need to will have the opportunity to retire. Those that may already have that option need the people that love them to tell them hard truths and encourage them towards the best path for their health.
Usually "loved ones," is a term meant to only mean family and friends. In the case of Wanderlei Silva, the term might be a bit more expansive.
In one of his video blogs from some time ago, Wanderlei told of how as a boy he was overweight, poor and without many friends. He then went on to talk about how happy he was to now have so many fans because when they came up to him to shake his hand, pose for photos with, hug him, he felt like they were all his friends. Actually, he didn't say that he felt they were he just said that they were his friends.
Wanderlei beamed as he shared this.
The once lonely and pudgy boy feels that he has earned millions of friends because he fights, because of the way he fights. He seems to fight as much for the appreciation of his fans across the world as he does for money, honor or victory.
Because he clearly loves them, it is time for true fans of "The Axe Murderer" to tell their hero that it is ok for him to hang up his battle axe. He's already more than earned their love.
Elias Cepeda has covered boxing and MMA since 2005 and is a voting member of the Yahoo! Sports MMA Pound for Pound Rankings panel. Follow Elias on twitter @EliasCepeda
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- Dana White
- Wanderlei Silva
- Jens Pulver