As the new generation of warriors overtake the old, it is always fascinating to probe the thoughts of veteran fighters watching their lifelong peers march into the setting sun.
Immediately after each of his last two fights, B.J. Penn made remarks indicating that his time in this sport may be coming to a close. Following the ruthless termination to fellow legend Randy Couture's career at the hands of Lyoto Machida, the end has never been as stark of a realization as it is now for the Hawaiian. On this week's ‘Inside MMA', Penn spoke to Ron Kruck about the notion. (Thanks to Zach Arnold of FightOpinion for the transcription via Tim Burke)
RK: "When you look at Randy Couture, BJ... do you, is that something that, when you finally decide to hang it up, that you would like to go out the way that he did? Because a lot of times, in any sport, athletes really don't get to pick, OK, I'm ready to go out and go out on their own terms. Do you think he retired the right way and in a way that you would like to finally retire one day?"
BJ: "You know what? A lot of other fighters out there, they probably would have went and picked a fight that they would have known that they would have won and leave on a high note. But, that's Randy, that's the only way he would have gone out, like that and I probably would kind of think for myself the same. If Randy would have won, he would be fighting for the title. He wouldn't have left, you know... We lost so many times over the years, you know, we all know that's not the first time Randy got knocked but that's probably what it's going to, probably going to take a knockout or a bad beating to make someone like Randy or someone like me or a couple other fighters that I know in the UFC say, OK, you know, I can take it, I'll walk away now.'
RK: "Personally, how long would you like to keep fighting?"
BJ: "You know when I was in my 20s I said I'll fight until 40 and this and that... and I don't know, everything's just a blessing now. As long as I keep winning fighting and fans want to see me fight (and) I'm not hurt, I'll fight as long as I can. I'd love to fight until 40, I don't know if it's a reality but I'd love to."
This is an odd time in MMA. We are constantly reminded that age is a fact of life in the athletic world. Time stops for no man. The loss of a lifelong gift is something that each competitor must deal with individually, but, inevitably, it will come.
Situations like these are always disconcerting for fans. Michael Jordan wheezing his way down the court in a Wizards uniform, Emmitt Smith grinding out two yards a carry for the Cardinals; while forgotten as the decades pass, these moments possess an almost illusory nature as they are witnessed.
Combat sports present the same challenge to the old guard, albeit, a much more brutal version. Often times the physical tools leave swift and suddenly, and no one notices until it is too late. Once this moment happens there is no going back. Fighters can stubbornly press on, but the tragic truth is that with ensuing battle, the plot edges farther and farther into the theater of the absurd.
Chuck Liddell was on the top of the MMA world after his destruction of Tito Ortiz in 2006. The thought of his time coming to end up was blasphemous in many fans eyes. Five months and a minute thirty-six seconds later the castle had crumbled. Down on the canvas after a brutal right hook from ‘Rampage' Jackson, Liddell's illustrious career had come to a close.
Only, it hadn't.
For three years the public watched as a legend of the sport tried to pick up the pieces again and again only to be brutally reminded of the stark truth. Ferocious knockout after ferocious knockout came and went, and with each passing heartbreak, the wonderment and spectacle transformed into legitimate concern.
And so it usually goes with the world of MMA. Each man's time will come, no matter how invincible they may have once been.
It is something we are sure to see painfully repeated over these last few waning years. Couture, Liddell, Penn, Fedor, Cro Cop, Matt Hughes; the generation of fighters that I grew up with are making their slow exit from this violent world, taking with them the origins of myth. MMA is a young sport, and these are it Chamberlain's, Russell's, Namath's, and Unitas'.
Witnessing the absolute extinction of an era is a unsettling experience for one as young as myself. Yet, I cannot help but think that these times will fade from my memories, leaving only the image of the proud champions reliving their greatest glories. And really, that is the way it should be.