The Meaninglessness Of "Retirement" In Combat Sports
This is hardly a new sentiment, but as 2018 comes to a close a number of MMA's old guard — from various eras of the sport — seem determined to prove they still "have it." In addition to the grim spectacle of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz rekindling their feud (link), we have BJ Penn coming out of retirement for the Nth time to fight Ryan Hall, and Johny Hendricks announcing he bare knuckle boxing debut where he will face Brennan Ward. (Ward retired something like a week ago, so I hesitate to even mention it, he switched sports is what actually happened. Oh, and Floyd Mayweather is apparently going to fight Manny Pacquiao again this December because why the Hell not?!
I'll give Mayweather a pass because he's certainly declined with age, but has yet to look anything close to shot. Pacquiao is a greatly diminished version of his former glory, but is still competent, so I won't say that fight is a travesty like some of these others — but it's still an undignified cash-grab that will do great business. The argument for Chuck / Tito 3 is that there's money still on the table as well, but I don't agree with that at all. I don't think Chuck / Tito 3 will be a complete bust, but I think it's going to shock a lot of stakeholders when the show sells poorly and the audience ends up packed with people holding free tickets. The fight is also going to be somewhere between depressing and horrendous, if my calculations are correct.
Where I can somewhat understand aging stars of MMA's bygone eras trying to squeeze one last payday from their careers, it's less understandable to see someone like Johny Hendricks making a returning to fighting of any sort. Considering how Hendricks' UFC run ended, with him missing the welterweight limit several times and finding himself banished to the middleweight division — where he was egregiously undersized — and racked up more hard-to-watch losses before hanging up his gloves. You can make the argument that bare knuckle boxing is less gruelling than MMA, but I don't know how much stock I put in that. Hendricks is going to compete in bare knuckle boxing at middleweight, where he will, again, compete at a severe size disadvantage. Hendricks had devastating punching power at 170 pounds, but that seemed absent as he moved up.
Even more harrowing is the prospect of seeing BJ Penn compete again. Ever since losing his UFC lightweight title to Frankie Edgar, Penn's career has been in a downward spiral which has seen the former two-division champion accumulated losses which have become more and more difficult to watch as time goes on. We last saw Penn decisively lose a unanimous decision to Dennis Siver. Now, Siver is a tough out for anyone, but prime BJ Penn would have wiped the floor with him — instead he was soundly outstruck for 3 rounds to the dismay of all who watched. I find it hard to believe that Penn is going to look any better after yet another year off. Some may argue that Ryan Hall is a 'safe' fight for Penn, as he's not a dangerous striker and BJ is a highly touted grappler in his own right. I beg to differ.
I think Ryan Hall's youth and high-level experience in the modern Brazilian jiu-jitsu scene will be more than sufficient to handle the BJ Penn of 2018. I don't think there is an 'easy' fight for Penn in the UFC, without plumbing the absolute depths of the lighter weight classes. And, even then, I firmly believe that time has passed BJ Penn by; we're talking about a prodigious athlete whose consistent critique was that he didn't take his preparation seriously. BJ coasted on talent until it was almost too late, had a couple of impressive fight camps with the Marinovich brothers and then dropped off a cliff. The old BJ Penn is gone and not coming back. Ryan Hall is going to either soundly decision BJ or possibly even finish him. He shouldn't be fighting; Johny Hendricks shouldn't be fighting; Chuck Liddell especially shouldn't be fighting. And yet, here we are...
Aside from how difficult it is to watch the shattered remnants of fighters I've watched for their entire UFC careers, it's also such a commonplace thing in combat sports. It is almost the rule rather than the exception that fighters will fight well into their career's twilight, racking up losses that are equal parts expected as they are violent and unneccessary. Whether it is due to financial misadventure or an inability to sate the thirst for competition — and often a mix of both — we're destined to see this story repeat itself until the end of time, it seems. The word retirement should honestly be excised from the vocabulary of fighters; the first 3-4 retirements don't seem to count — they're really just extended breaks.
The more things change, the more they stay the same...
Published: September 19th, 2018.