Over the weekend, two young UFC fighters broached the subject of retirement, directly. French bantamweight prospect Tom Duquesnoy, 25, announced through Instagram that he was retiring from mixed martial arts to focus on other areas of his life the day after Rose Namajunas said she had to think hard about whether or not she wanted to continue in the sport.
Namajunas, 26, had just lost her strawweight championship to Jessica Andrade, but even leading up to their Rio main event, “Thug Rose” had revealed that she was considering making this fight her last. Because of her young age, fans and pundits will question Namajunas for considering retirement.
In professional fighting, however, it is better to retire too soon than too late. Namajunas says she thinks it might be time for her to do other things with her life and she’s certainly capable of that.
Most longtime professional fighters seem to struggle to find identities outside of the ring, and their bodies and minds suffer for it. It’s a story as old as the fight game itself, but it never stops being sad.
Earlier on the UFC 237 card that Namajunas headlined, two aging former champions and all-time greats were yet again battered and felled, as their careers become increasingly grisly to watch.
Anderson Silva and BJ Penn both took serious damage in their latest losses Saturday night. Though their commitment to their craft, as well as their bravery is admirable, for the sake of their respective health they should have each retired long ago.
This isn’t about legacies being diminished by losses. That type of talk is silly, and misses the point.
Nothing any great fighter has ever accomplished in their prime can ever be erased by faltering as they age. This is just about bodies and minds not being able to hold up to the punishment of training and fighting any longer, despite greatness and skill.
It happens to everyone, and there is no shame in it. We should, however, be alarmed as promotions and regulators continue to cash in off of once-dominant big names who are now trotted out only to lose, absorbing more damage in the process.
Anderson Silva was once the most dominant UFC champion in history, winning 17 consecutive fights from 2006 to 2012. On Saturday, “The Spider” was stopped by an inside leg kick and admitted afterward that his injured body just couldn’t hold up. In all, Silva has won just once since 2013.
BJ Penn, like Silva, is one of the most skilled fighters the sport has ever seen.
Penn won world titles at two different weight classes, and was able to fight competitively as high as heavyweight. His unanimous decision loss to Clay Guida on Saturday, during which he was dropped by a punch, marks the seventh straight contest that Penn has fought in without a win.
Going further back, Penn has won just three times in 14 contests over the past 10 years. When results for great fighters like Silva and Penn fall so dramatically, when it becomes a victory for them to simply hear the final horn, when warriors fall in the ring after absorbing shots they used to smirk at, it is because of the accumulation of damage they’ve received to their brain and the rest of their bodies.
It also means that they need to stop fighting for a living. The skills of true greats like Silva and Penn will allow them to be competitive in any given bout, sure. When we zoom out, however, we see an alarming pattern of once-dominant athletes suffering a new inability to win, all while hurting themselves more with each new training camp and fight. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of money to be made from fan favorites like Silva and Penn fighting, long past when they should have stopped.
None of the people cashing in on their popularity will likely be there for the men in later years, however, when their battered bodies and minds need extra care, when the lights have dimmed around them and inside them, and when their names aren’t shouted out over arena speakers. Becoming a civilian can’t be easy for living legends.
Simply living relatively boring day-to-day lives without intense training, thrilling fights and big goals ahead of them will likely always be a challenge for retired athletes. If we’re honest and care about those we claim to be fans of, simply making ends meet without income from the only careers they’ve known after a sport without unions, pensions or health insurance, will be its own difficulty for even currently “rich” fighters like Silva and Penn.
Crafting new identities that revolve less around being active fighters in the limelight needs to be the new challenge for warriors like Silva and Penn. Here’s hoping these legends can find a livelihood and peace of mind outside of the cage.
They’ve given enough. It’s time to rest and find new goals.
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