Retirement in MMA: Walking Away from the Cage Can Be a Difficult Choice to Make

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor INovember 2, 2012

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Let's turn our imaginations on for a moment and picture the scenario.

You are a professional mixed martial artist. You have made a career out of trading punches, knees, kicks, and elbows with other human beings in contests to discover who has more skill, determination and heart.

Where others find validation inside an office or on a work site, you define yourself on preparation and execution in combat. There is no time clock at the gym but you embrace the fact that after six weeks of putting your body and mind through hell, you have everything you need to step into the cage and give it your all. It is a process that has been repeated countless times and becomes just another sacrifice to ensure you make that walk.

When fight night finally arrives, you attempt to find calm head space while "Stitch" Duran wraps your hands and gives you the talk. It's a place you've been plenty of times before, but this time it is different. There is more hanging in the balance than ever before and the urgency only adds to the nerves. After warming up backstage it is time to make your way to the cage and once the door closes behind you, everything you have spent years attempting to perfect is put to the test.

The lights are bright, fans are screaming, and the person standing across the cage is moments away from unleashing his worst intentions upon you. This is the life you've chosen and nothing has ever made more sense than it does once the referee steps aside.

Whether the action lasted one minute or 15, this time was different. It was your last fight and the rest of your life has arrived as the arena lights go out. Walking away from the sport can't be an easy choice, and often times many other factors affect the decision.

Earlier this week UFC president Dana White announced the official retirement of Stephan Bonnar. For more than a decade "The American Psycho" gave MMA fans a reason to get excited any time his name was on the card. The Indiana native experienced varying degrees of success and failure inside the cage, but his contribution as a catalyst to the UFC's boom is difficult to dispute. While his curtain-call performance against Anderson Silva didn't have a Hollywood ending, Bonnar's decision to walk away from the sport brings to light an interesting aspect to examine. It is a place every fighter will eventually stand but the method of arrival is rarely the same.


You are only as good as your last fight...well sort of

The topic header may be an infamous MMA cliche but holds a fair amount of truth in the realm of fan perspective. What happens during that final performance is often the memory that remains. Eventually enough time will pass where, depending on the amount of success obtained, fans will begin to revise the peaks and valleys of a fighter's career.

There may be no better example of a fighter leaving on a high note than Chris Lytle. The "fight night" bonus machine's career spanned 12 years, 49 professional fights, and small but successful stints in the world of boxing. Going into his bout with Dan Hardy in August of 2011, Lytle made the decision his throwdown with "The Outlaw" would be his last. Due to the styles both men brought to the cage, it was sure to be a fan friendly affair, and the two men did not disappoint.

After two full rounds of exchanging leather and Lytle being rocked on two occasions, "Lights Out" performed a fight-ending guillotine in the final frame. His performance against Hardy was a perfect display of the the level of grit and determination Lytle had spent a career showcasing. In addition to the victory he also walked away winning "Fight of the Night" and "Submission of the Night" bonuses. While he never held a title in the UFC, Lytle capped an impressive career with a storybook ending.

On the flip side of that coin is Chuck Liddell. Where the UFC had stars in the pre-Zuffa era, "The Iceman" became the first superstar of a new generation. With his signature mohawk and brick-heavy hands, Liddell dropped bodies to the canvas at every turn. He became a sensation for his ability to separate his opponents from their consciousness and for a large part of the past decade, he held the torch for the light heavyweight division.

But as great as Liddell may have been in that run, once things took a turn the wrong way, the momentum was too much to stop. After losing his title to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2007, the Hall of Fame fighter went on to drop three of his next four outings.

In the midst of the backslide he showed flashes of his maestro of violence abilities by defeating Wanderlei Silva in a "Fight of the Year" performance, but getting knocked out in brutal fashion over his next three fights was enough to have close friend Dana White make the call for Liddell's retirement.

While the end of his career wasn't anywhere near ideal for Liddell, the success he experienced in winning world titles and successfully defending his throne were enough to make him a legend.


Tough news prompts a new direction

Where fighters like Liddell and Lytle are heralded, there are far more who come to the retirement crossroads without ever reaching the upper-levels of the sport. These decisions are often based on a series of losses or setbacks, both inside and outside of the cage, which ultimately dictate a change of direction.

Following his loss to Jacob Volkmann at UFC on FX 5 in October, Shane Roller announced he was retiring from MMA. The three-time All-American wrestler from Oklahoma State University had dropped four of his past five bouts inside the Octagon.

With a release from the UFC looming in the near future, Roller decided to take it upon himself to retire. He made the announcement public through his Twitter account stating it was time to begin the next chapter of his life.

The former NCAA Division I standout found success inside the WEC but failed to gain footing inside the Octagon. Prior to his UFC debut Roller had notable wins over Danny Castillo, Anthony Njokuani, and former champion Jamie Varner. His only two losses during his him time in the blue cage came against champions Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis.

He made a solid statement with a "Knockout of the Night" against Thiago Tavares in his first UFC showing. Following the victory over Tavares, Rolller dropped three straight and was never able to build momentum.

Jason "Mayhem" Miller had a similar experience during his time in the UFC. While there is no doubt Miller holds a higher profile in the sport of mixed martial arts, his highly anticipated return to the UFC fell short of delivering the fireworks most expected.

The "Bully Beatdown" host was among a small group fighters who were able to build their name outside of the UFC. Where others had been able to raise their stock fighting in the Pride organization, Miller skipped around the sport for the majority of his career.

When the news hit Miller was signing with the sport's biggest promotion, things finally appeared to be settling down for the veteran. But his stint in the UFC would only last a year as "Mayhem" came out on the business end of fights with Michael Bisping and C.B. Dollaway. After his loss to "The Doberman" at UFC 146 in May, White announced Miller had been released from the organization.


The retirement dance

The history of mainstream sports is filled with athletes who have retired, un-retired and retired again. In fact, it is such a common situation in the world of sports, fans now look at retirement announcements as being a temporary situation. Most believe it will only be a matter of time before their favorite athlete returns. This sets a skewed expectation and the world of MMA is no different.

The announcement to walk away is one thing, but the ability to stay away is another. Hall of Fame fighter Randy Couture and future Hall of Famer B.J. Penn have both jumped back and forth over the retirement line during their storied careers.

"The Natural" announced his retirement in 2006 only to return a year later and win the UFC heavyweight title. Later that year he resigned from the UFC due to a contract dispute but ultimately returned for another successful run to finish his career.

During the final stages of his time in MMA, "Captain America" was able to build a successful base in the world of acting, and this has provided a life outside of fighting for the former two-divisional champion.

Following his loss to Nick Diaz at UFC 137, Penn announced he was retiring from MMA. A short while after telling Joe Rogan he was done with the sport, "The Prodigy" made a post on his website stating his retirement wasn't official, but a hiatus certainly was.

Penn's time away didn't last long as he accepted a fight with rising welterweight star Rory MacDonald earlier this year. The matchup was originally slated for UFC 152 in September but a cut suffered by MacDonald pushed the bout back. It has since been rescheduled for UFC on Fox 5 on Dec. 8 in Seattle.

The skipping back and forth between fighting and retirement creates a strange anticipation in MMA fans, and the two best examples of the retirement phenomenon in mixed martial arts are Fedor Emelianenko and Brock Lesnar. "The Last Emperor" will go down as one of the greatest heavyweight fighters of all time while Lesnar became a UFC champion and a pay-per-view juggernaut in the process. Their accomplishments inside the cage can't be compared, but the loyalty of their fanbases are unmatched.

Each man retired from the sport for different reasons, but have moved on to different aspects of their lives. This doesn't stop MMA fans from not only wanting, but anticipating their return, and this keeps the weight to their name value thriving. Any time there is mention of Fedor or Brock, or even better Fedor vs. Brock, a passionate fanbase comes alive with vigor.

While Fedor and Brock are unlikely to return to action, other stars jump in and out of the retirement ship. Most recently the talk has been fixed on Hall of Famer Matt Hughes and his impending retirement. The welterweight legend told Ariel Helwani during a stop by "The MMA Hour" that while he is not retired yet, it looks like that is where he is heading.

It has been over a year since he last appeared inside the Octagon and the 39-year-old has found peace outside of the cage spending time with his family. This doesn't mean there isn't an interesting fight somewhere out in the MMA universe for Hughes, but at the same time, he doesn't appear to have an issue with his great career coming to a close.


Time for the next step

It has been several weeks since the decision was made to bring your career to an end. Now you look around in an effort to find the things you connected with before you journeyed down the path to a fighting career.

For some, the options are plenty. A successful career in mixed martial arts has allowed you to branch off into other forms of entertainment and business. For others those particular possibilities don't exist. It is onto the next adventure in their lives and when it is all said done, fighting may be nothing more than an afterthought.

Once the lights go out for the final time and the thing which defined you for years is gone, it is a difficult thing to stay away from. There will always be a lure to return (money, fans, competition) but whether the pull of the mind matches the ability of the body is a different story.

It is a place every fighter must come to, and the decision to cross that line is one every fighter has to make on his own.