The Fighting Life: MMA Elite Talk About the Sport's Small Window of Opportunity

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The Fighting Life: MMA Elite Talk About the Sport's Small Window of Opportunity
David Banks/USA Today

A career spent traversing the terrain of combat sports is a risky route to travel, and mixed martial arts is as unforgiving as it gets.

Where those who compete in other major professional sports across the mainstream landscape have the potential to enjoy lengthy and possibly lucrative careers, the men and women who ply their trade in the business of hand-to-hand combat are at constant odds with time and circumstance.

Of the sports that fall under this category, MMA is perhaps the most demanding occupation, as the athletes involved must acquire a multitude of disciplines to be competitive.

That said, even with a solid investment in multiple forms of martial arts and an unquenchable lust for victory, there is no guarantee success of notable variety will ever come. The unpredictable nature of the sport alone makes it a risky endeavor, but when the uncertainty of the window of opportunity that may or may not appear is factored in with the rigorous demands MMA puts on the human body, a jagged picture begins to materialize.

Fighters are by and large a different breed of human being.

They spend their careers not only battling the competition they face inside the cage, but racing the clock every step of the way. Where a talented and fortunate baseball player can work the diamond for the better part of two decades, only a handful of mixed martial artists ever see half that time competing on the sport's biggest stage.

While athletes competing in the NFL face an abrupt average career span, league minimums and signing bonuses put them well beyond what the large majority of fighters would see in a similar amount of time. In order to make the big paydays in MMA, a fighter must become a commodity the fans are willing to throw down their money to see. When this begins to happen, high-profile bouts begin to come down the pipeline.

If the chips fall the right way, fighters will find themselves in a championship opportunity. And if good fortune and talent come together on fight night, a world title will be strapped around their waist.

Yet, while becoming a champion is certainly the ideal scenario for any fighter, it is a perch few ever experience in the ever-shifting world of MMA. But despite the odds a fighter faces in this regard, it is the ultimate prize, and the one great success that can be life-changing for those involved.

Every athlete competing in sports has a desire to be recognized as the best of the best in his or her field, and this sentiment certainly rings true in MMA. Fighting in itself is a quest to prove who is the better man or woman on a given night, and those who dedicate their lives to this grind make an investment of the "all or nothing" variety.

Many fighters have families to support, and this only increases the pressure to capitalize on whatever opportunities are presented. With those moments coming in short supply in an ultra-competitive environment, a fighter cannot afford to have an "off night" inside the cage. 

Killer instinct and the will to win must be present and elevated at all times when competing under the bright lights, and their ability to do so oftentimes makes the difference between becoming a champion or hovering as a challenger throughout their careers. 

Over the past seven years, Carlos Condit has risen to become one of the best welterweight fighters in the world. The Albuquerque native has collected titles in multiple organizations, with his most recent coming in the form of the interim title in the UFC's talent-stacked 170-pound division.

The level of success the 29-year-old has amassed has made him a staple in the upper tier of one of the deepest divisions on the UFC roster, but simply being "one of the best" is not enough for Condit.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

He's tasted the championship level and has every intention of reclaiming the gold he once held. While there is a certain amount of personal ambition involved in the quest to become the welterweight champion, the main source of motivation comes from his personal life. Condit is a family man and knows high-profile fights are the best way to ensure those he loves are taken care of.

Nevertheless, Condit is a realist through and through. He fully understands the short window of opportunity he's facing and has seen the end products his sport can produce to those who have repeatedly come up short.

“That’s something that has been in the forefront of my mind for the past couple years...definitely since I started my family," Condit told Bleacher Report. "It’s a brutal sport. I know so many guys who have trained, competed and given their all to this thing and are left with nothing to show for it except for some old nagging injuries or some good war stories. Ultimately, most of us have to support a family. We have bills to pay.

"As far as personal aspirations of being the best you can in the sport and being champion, that’s all well and good and that continues to drive me. But I’m also trying to get as much as I can while I’m here. Whether it is opportunities or money; this is a short ride. You need to make the best of it. Get it while the getting is good."

When it comes to the matter of capitalizing on the moment and making the most of the limited time frame that comes with MMA, there is perhaps no better example than Randy Couture

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

"The Natural" made his professional debut just south of his mid-30s, yet went on to become a multi-time world champion in two different divisions under the UFC banner. Where fighting is largely recognized as a young man's game, the former Olympic wrestler defied the odds and the grip of Father Time as he made a habit of logging memorable and historic moments inside the cage.

After retiring from the sport in 2006, Couture decided to make his return one year later, and at 43 years of age, stepped in to defeat Tim Sylvia and become the UFC heavyweight champion. He would compete for another four years and engage in a handful of high-profile tilts over that stretch before finally closing out his Hall of Fame career in 2011.

Couture was able to make the most of the opportunities he found throughout his journey through MMA, and he credits a cerebral approach for making that possible. Where so much of a fighter's success inside the cage relies on physical talent, Couture believes mental adjustments and changing his perspective on certain matters are what made his legendary career possible.

“I think there is a time and a place for everything, and I stepped into this sport at the right time," Couture explained. "At 34 years old, I was more mature. I had a clear understanding of my body and what I was putting it through. Learning to listen to your body—training smarter, not harder—takes the drastic swing off of those ups and downs. I did that in my early 20s as well. You are either celebrating or commiserating after competition and you don’t see the gym again for a month. Then you have another competition coming so you know you have to climb back in there and get your butt back in shape. That’s when a lot of those injuries occur and you tear your body down.

Dan Steinberg/Associated Press

“That’s a younger man’s mentality, and as we get older, we fortunately get smarter. You stop doing a lot of those stupid things and learn what works and what doesn’t. You are constantly refining training tactics and techniques. You become more settled in life with who you are and who you want to be and we hopefully learn to take care of the money when we are making it so we aren’t broke when that last fight happens. But those are all individual things, and everyone is wired differently."

Another aspect that was highlighted throughout Couture's career in the UFC was the need to balance the chaos of a hectic personal life with the demands of being a certified superstar of a growing sport.

As the post-TUF boom hit and the UFC was on a rapid rise, Couture dealt with battles in both realms. He went through a divorce and a nasty court battle with the UFC over a contract dispute, which played out in the public forum of the MMA media.

While both situations were undoubtedly tedious affairs, Couture was able to keep things in balance and ultimately prevented both aspects of his life from spiraling out of control. Adversity outside of the cage can directly affect the way business is handled inside the cage, and keeping things under control is an absolute necessity in order for a fighter to be successful.

Couture certainly subscribes to this notion and believes it's a crucial element for those competing in MMA in a career capacity. 

"I stepped away once before for 13 months on a retirement capacity," he added. "It was for personal reasons, and it wasn’t pleasant. I was going through a divorce and that ended up lasting for over two years. I just didn’t feel like myself. That’s why I moved to Las Vegas, and there was just a whole bunch of stuff going on. I didn’t feel like I was getting the job done, and I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy with how things were going. I wasn’t even happy with training. I couldn’t hide in the gym and training camp. That was kind of the impetus of me stepping out, letting the dust settle and trying to get in touch with myself and who I was. The competitive fires were still there, and I needed to get things back into perspective. Once I was able to do that, I returned and was able to compete for several more years.

“The other time I sat out was more of a legal issue. I had to deal with contracts, contract disputes and not being told the truth. I had to deal being misled and misused by the promotion, and that wasn’t really my choice. It’s just kind of the way it worked out. If I had it to do all over again, I would probably bypass all that crap, but the time I took for myself I needed to take. The dust did settle, and I did get back to feeling like myself and competitive again. I felt like I had more to do, and I’m glad it all worked out. I ended up fighting for another six years.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

“Finding the better parts of myself through fighting has always been the case," he added. "Even when things were falling apart at home and I was physically fried or shot, mentally that was the place I could go. You have to absolutely be in the moment when you are in there. You can’t precipitate or think of anything else. You are right there, and that’s a good place to be when all those other things are going on."

Where the quest for personal ambition can heighten the pace of a career run, there are numerous other elements that can take on a life of their own. In such a rigorous sport where injuries are prevalent, athletes hope to avoid suffering any major setbacks while they have fully invested in the process of becoming complete fighters.

While the tide in MMA is changing, and fighters are hitting the biggest stages of the sport with a more complete skill set than ever before, the 20-year history of MMA has allowed the viewing public to witness the evolution from one-dimensional attacks, to the varied arsenals we see now.

That said, the work required to bring those additional skills to a solid level is a tremendous investment and something a fighter has to factor into a potentially limited career span in MMA.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Former Arizona State University wrestling standout Ryan Bader made an impressive introduction to the UFC fanbase by winning the eighth installment of The Ultimate Fighter. The light heavyweight powerhouse relied on a mixture of his wrestling base and natural power to win the reality show's tournament, then make a solid impact in the 205-pound weight class.

Yet, Bader's extensive wrestling background and natural athleticism were only going to take him so far, and he quickly recognized further development of additional aspects of his fight game was going to be required. With that in mind, he invested his time heavily in turning his overhand right—the biggest weapon in his offensive arsenal—into just one of the techniques he had to offer in the striking department.

And while that work would certainly produce results, the 30-year-old was facing an interesting wrinkle in the process.

As Bader was hustling to expand his striking, he was about to move into the upper tier of one of the UFC's deepest divisions at light heavyweight. The biggest opportunities of his career were quickly approaching, and he was going to have to put those newly formed skills to the test. While not every matchup ended in Bader's favor, he has worked tirelessly to adapt to the environment that surrounds him.

That said, the complexity of the process has absolutely brought him to a place where he recognizes the speed an MMA career can travel at. And because of this, he plans to make the most of the time he has.

"That is not something fighters or athletes in general really want to think about," Bader said. "I have friends who were professional baseball players and had to leave the game because their shoulders were shot. They thought they were going to be fine with surgery and rehabilitation, but ultimately they never made it back. Granted, every sport has some degree of physical demand, but where other athletes are throwing a baseball or catching a football, we are getting punched in the face. It's a very unforgiving sport, but at the same time, few fighters ever want to retire. Look at some of the greats like Chuck Liddell. He pretty much had to be forced out.

"There is a window of opportunity for you to be in your prime and to have your body perform at its best. You have to acquire all the skills necessary and keep winning fights in the process. But you also have to use that window to make money and set up a future outside of fighting as well. 

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

"I also believe different styles play a big factor in how long that window stays open. Coming from a wrestling background and being able to take people down to avoid punishment has been a big factor in my career. I'm actually one of the least hit fighters on the UFC roster when it comes to absorbing significant strikes. I'm going to try to keep it that way too. I want to keep my career going for as long as I can, but the physical side of fighting is only a fraction of it. The mental side of fighting is a huge thing.

"You see a lot of guys come back and say they didn't have the fire anymore and that is why they lost," he added. "After you have been doing this for a while, that flight-or-fight response goes away and you lose that fear that you might die out there. Those nerves create the sense you have to take this guy out, but those things go away with time. You start thinking more methodically and rely on your techniques and training. It becomes second nature and starts to take the shape of a competition and not the fight it once was. I think the mental aspect causes more fighters to walk away than physical talents they once had no longer being there."

As a fighter pushes through training sessions and makes the sacrifices necessary to achieve a level of success in MMA, individual motivations begin to come into play. Where some fighters give their all just to make a living fighting inside the cage, there are those who strive to achieve something remarkable during their time competing in MMA.

Of that variety, former UFC lightweight champion and current contender Benson Henderson is certainly a card-carrying member. The MMA Lab-trained fighter entered the Zuffa fold through the WEC in 2009 and has spent the past five years amassing one of the most impressive track records on the MMA landscape. He found victory in 12 of his 14 showings over this stretch.

That continued level of success earned him lightweight titles in both the WEC and UFC, and solidified his status as one of the best fighters in the world at his weight class. After defeating Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in February of 2012 to become the lightweight champion, Henderson would go on to successfully defend his title on three consecutive occasions.

During that run, the Arizona-based fighter publicly announced his lofty personal goals of breaking middleweight king Anderson Silva's record for title defenses. While his statements drew criticism throughout the MMA community, setting the bar at the highest possible level was simply the way Henderson chose to motivate himself.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Henderson is the type of fighter who demands the most from himself and puts stock in the "you get out what you put in" mentality. The 30-year-old contender has committed himself to the sport for no other reason than to be the best fighter in the world, and that goal is the motivation that pushes him forward.

With the speed in which everything moves at the highest level of MMA, keeping everything in perspective can be a difficult thing, and Henderson accomplishes this task by refusing to make things more than what they are. 

"It's a very short period of time," Henderson told Bleacher Report prior to his fight at UFC on Fox 10. "I don't think people realize how short the career span is in this sport. They are fooled by a guy like Anderson Silva and things he's been able to do. But look at what has happened to him at the tail end of his career. It's not easy to be a fighter. It's a hard lifestyle—not just the fights themselves—but the lifestyle in general is difficult. It is something you have to be in for more than just money. If I wanted to just make money, I'd go be a stock broker. I'd go sell real estate because there are a lot of other ways I can make money. I'm not a guy who has to fight to make money. There are a lot of other things I could do in that regard. 

"The lifestyle itself is tough, and the career span is very short. You have to train for five years before you get good enough to get your name out there. Then you have to bust your butt even more once your name gets out there and continue to do well and have success if you want to push your career further. When you do get there, it's a long time coming for a very short window."

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

As Henderson explained, fighters travel a long and winding road just to reach the top of the sport, to achieve a status that is very difficult to keep.

Champions come and go at a rapid rate in MMA, and very few are ever able to establish a longevity as a titleholder. Over the past seven years, the UFC has had a few come along, but none were bigger or more dominant than welterweight king Georges St-Pierre and pound-for-pound phenom Anderson Silva.

Both men established monstrous reigns atop their respective divisions as they raised the bar for what it means to be a champion at the highest level of the sport. Where St-Pierre handled every challenge thrown his way in efficient and methodical fashion, "The Spider" made highlight-reel material out of a collection of the best fighters in the sport.

Nevertheless, in the world of professional sports, every champion's reign eventually comes to an end, and 2013 was the year both St-Pierre and Silva lost their titles. While "GSP" vacated the throne and stepped into pseudo-retirement at the end of last year, the former middleweight champion was dispatched in a much more abrasive fashion.

The Brazilian knockout artist was dethroned by Chris Weidman in their first meeting at UFC 162 in July, then suffered a potentially career-ending leg break in their rematch in December. While the road ahead remains uncertain for both St-Pierre and Silva, their record-setting runs as champions have come to an end.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For a fighter who has worked diligently to earn his place among the best in the game, Henderson certainly appreciates and respects what both men were able to accomplish. He also understands the factors that brought both men to where they currently stand in their fighting careers and believes they've earned the right to make whatever decisions suit them best. 

"I'm the kind of guy who takes most things at face value," Henderson explained. "I don't look for a deeper meaning in things. I don't look at a guy using his left hand and think it means something else. It is what it is. Georges decided to walk away. He had and defended the belt for a long time and ended on a high note. He had a tough fight, then had some personal things he said he needed to take care of. That happens sometimes in life. You have personal things you have to take care of, and people experience this all the time in their regular jobs as well.

"Even with Anderson as well. He's the best fighter on the planet, pound-for-pound with absolutely no question. He's the man, and for him to lose his first fight ever in the UFC that way, and then to lose the second fight that way, that would be pretty tough to walk away from. When you are the man and you've never been beaten before, I imagine that's a tough thing to deal with. Not that either win was a fluke or lucky or anything like that, but both wins were unconventional so to speak. I could see Anderson having a hard time walking away. To have such a storied career and one as great as the one he's had; I could see him having a difficult time walking away on that note.

David Becker/Associated Press

"But I think everyone has their own reasons," he added. "It would be hard to over-generalize and say everyone hangs on for a certain reason when there are probably multiple reasons for it. I'm sure money has to do with it a lot of times. Some people might like the fame and attention that comes from being a fighter. Other people may just enjoy training and don't want to give that part of their life up. I'm sure there is more than a few reasons why people stick around in such a tough career field when they should have probably called it a day a while ago. That is definitely not going to be me. That is not the way I'm going to have my life go when my time in fighting has come to an end."

And therein lies the paradox of being a professional fighter.

Where the window of time to make good on everything a fighter sets out to accomplish is small and the greatest achievements elusive, missing said window of opportunity can be an almost effortless process. Fights are going to be lost, personal issues will arise and if those circumstances cannot be quelled, the prime stretch of a fighter's career can pass by.

Where only a few ever achieve greatness inside the cage, many stay around longer than they should. Whether the motivations to do so are financial or they are the result of a fighter's refusal to let championship dreams fall by the wayside, MMA is a sport of an unforgiving nature where even the greatest will eventually face a stark crossroads.

What they were ultimately able to walk away with depends on how the journey was navigated, but even the smoothest avenues do not come free of conflict. After all, it's the fight business. There are going to be winners and losers, and tolls of both the physical and mental varieties are going to have to be paid along the way. Even the best stories are short of happily ever afters, where the worst can be nothing short of brutal.

It's a reality every fighter faces, and they chase their own windows differently.

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. 

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