The Question: From GSP to Pickett, Why Are MMA Retirements so Hard to Get Right?

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterMarch 23, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 16:  Georges St-Pierre (right) is interviewed by Joe Rogan (left) during the UFC 167 event inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Brad Pickett's farewell fight was actually going great for almost 14 minutes.

Pickett afforded himself nicely against Marlon Vera in their 140-pound catchweight bout at UFC Fight Night 107 on March 18. The 38-year-old London native used his well-documented striking skills and timely takedowns to build a lead over Vera through two-and-a-half rounds and stood at the cusp of salting away a decision win in front of his hometown fans in the final fight of his career.

Then, with approximately 1:10 left on the clock, Vera kicked Pickett in the head.

As Pickett's body fell prone to the canvas, Vera attacked with a series of hammerfists that forced the referee to step in and call an end to the fight. It was a stunning end and reversal of momentum—one that left the crowd at O2 Arena shocked and Pickett first enraged, then on the verge of tears.

But for many longtime fans, the reaction was likely something more like: Yep, that makes perfect sense.

For years now, MMA retirements have been notoriously difficult to pull off. Pickett's misfortune, in fact, was just one of a smattering of retirement-related headlines in this sport during the last few months.

Former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre—perhaps the archetypical example of a fighter who managed to leave the sport on top when he stepped away in 2013—formally ended his own semi-retirement by announcing a return to the cage last month.

After suffering a first-round submission loss to Michel Prazeres at UFC Fight Night 106 on March 11, longtime UFC veteran Josh Burkman appeared to announce his retirement in the Octagon. Soon after, however, Burkman announced backstage that he'd changed his mind. He wasn't retiring after all.

On top of all this, news trickled out recently that former Octagon great Matt Hughes is considering his own return to the cage—perhaps in Bellator—at age 43.

So, what gives?

Why does the sport of MMA make the process of walking away so treacherous?

And why, once fighters have successfully made their way to the exit, is it so hard to stay gone?

Joining me to discuss this topic is Bleacher Report lead combat sports writer Jonathan Snowden.


Brad Pickett, after his loss to Marlon Vera.
Brad Pickett, after his loss to Marlon Vera.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Chad Dundas: It was impossible not to feel bad for Pickett this past weekend, Jonathan.

Here is a guy who—while never champion—was a mainstay among the world's elite bantamweights for nearly a decade, with 18 fights in the WEC/UFC. Even before that, Pickett had crafted himself into a popular attraction on the British independent fight scene, where he went 15-4 from 2004 to 2008.

Pickett's Guy Ritchie-inspired ring entrance and heavy-handed striking style made him, if nothing else, a unique and recognizable figure in the rapidly homogenizing MMA industry. So, seeing him get laid out by Vera in nearly the last minute of his fighting career was a heartbreaker.

And yet, somehow totally not unusual at all.

It's become something of a running joke in this sport that nobody can figure out the right way to retire. Part of that, I suppose, is just the nature of athletics. You have a short window during which to ply your trade, the aging process sneaks up on you and there's no real reason to plot an exit when things are going well.

It's not until the skills begin to erode and the losses start to pile up that most folks begin to think about hanging up the gloves.

Still, though, I hope I'm not just imagining that MMA seems like a particularly difficult sport to make a clean break from. Dare I say, the whole retirement process seems a bit snake-bit at this point.

Is this just the way of the world, Jonathan? Is this just a strange constant? Like, water is wet, the heavyweight division is eternally a dumpster fire and the perfect MMA retirement is just flat impossible?

What on earth is going on here?

St-Pierre sets foot in the Octagon for the first time since 2013, at his press conference with Michael Lisping.
St-Pierre sets foot in the Octagon for the first time since 2013, at his press conference with Michael Lisping.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Jonathan Snowden: I think this problem is bigger than mixed martial arts or even combat sports. Athletes in general often have to be dragged away from the field, pitch or diamond. Long after their prime has passed, we've seen the greats of their eras struggling to remain relevant. Think Willie Mays on the New York Mets misplaying routine flyballs, Michael Jordan hobbling up and down the court for the Wizards or old man Peyton Manning making one last Super Bowl run despite his arm failing him when he needed it most.

In traditional stick-and-ball sports, the decision is ultimately made by coaches and management types and is based on the athlete's ability to contribute to the team. Spots at the highest level are limited and there is little room for sentimentality. When you don't have it anymore, there is little hesitation to move an athlete on to the next chapter of their life.

Combat sports is a little different. There is no strict limit on the number of fighters who can compete, no salary cap demanding only the most capable be granted a spot in the sun. A fighter can continue to compete for as long as they want to and as long as a promoter sees some utility in their presence on a fight card. That's kind of a problem.

It seems especially hard for MMA fighters to walk away from the sport. Because only a handful of fighters make truly life-changing money, many continue on long after logic and results tell them they should hang it up. That's part of the reason why, 24 years after the first UFC in 1993, fighters from that event are still active competitors.

But even a Scrooge McDuck-style vault filled with lucre hasn't been enough to convince fighters to walk away and stay away. Even St-Pierre couldn't resist the siren song of the Octagon. With his return, it's possible that there has never been a "good" MMA retirement. Isn't that kind of a problem?

Chael Sonnen returned to fight in Bellator at age 39.
Chael Sonnen returned to fight in Bellator at age 39.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Chad: If nothing else, it certainly shows we're dealing with a complex phenomenon. On top of all the financial factors you mentioned, there's clearly some psychological stuff at work here.

St-Pierre, for example, had no earthly reason to return from his lengthy hiatus. He was fully and positively out, having walked away from MMA while still the UFC's 170-pound champion, flush with cash and possessing all his mental faculties. He'd done it. He'd won.

Before calling it quits a bit more than three years ago, GSP had also indicated that walking the razor's edge of being UFC titlist had driven him to the brink of madness. At the time, he gave the impression taking a break from the sport was necessary for his own sanity.

So, why come back at all? Why return, when he's already rich and has already locked down a spot as one of the greatest two or three athletes ever to compete in this sport?

For more money, obviously, but for other reasons, too, I think. We're not straying too far into the realm of speculation to say there's a distinct addictive quality at work here.

St-Pierre is gearing up to fight for the middleweight title in his return match.
St-Pierre is gearing up to fight for the middleweight title in his return match.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Perhaps more than some other sports, MMA is a lifestyle. It bleeds into the fabric of many athletes' daily routines until it becomes indistinguishable from the rest of their lives. When coupled with the money and the unique quasi-fame—the intoxicating roar of the crowd you often hear about—I bet it can become a cocktail that's awfully hard to quit cold turkey.

In fact, when I asked 39-year-old Chael Sonnen a few months ago why he chose to return from his own lengthy absence from MMA to fight 42-year-old Tito Ortiz at Bellator 170 in January, he told me this exact thing.

Sonnen clearly scored a good financial deal from Bellator, but he also told me he missed the competition MMA provided—and said it was hard to replace that feeling with anything else in life. Training and competing had long been a big part of his social life, he said. The physical fitness was something he craved, and he'd been doing it in amateur wrestling since he was a boy. Even the constant dieting and weight management were part of his life, he said, and perhaps he'd come to depend on them after spending 15 years and 45 fights in this sport.

Read between the lines a bit and I come up with this conclusion: Fighting is all he knows. It's been his whole life and—on top of everything else—he likes it.

How do you quit something like that, Jonathan? Even if you know it might have mental and physical implications down the road, I can imagine it being a nearly impossible thing to walk away from.

The aging version of BJ Penn was not match for Yair Rodriguez.
The aging version of BJ Penn was not match for Yair Rodriguez.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Jonathan: Look no further than BJ Penn for an example of a fighter who doesn't know when to say when. Already a UFC Hall of Famer, Penn made the ill-fated decision to return to action this January and got absolutely wrecked by rising star Yair Rodriguez.

That loss made four in a row for Penn, every single one of them a truly brutal, one-sided beating. He hasn't won a fight since 2010. But this week, UFC announced his return for a bout against Dennis Siver in June.

If the only thing at stake was his pride and a few bumps and bruises, the decision should be his and his alone. But, as Dr. Margaret Goodman wrote at ESPN, the brain shrinks with age, making blows that were once merely dangerous an invitation to tragedy.

In the old days, the UFC brass drew a firm line for fading fan favorites like Chuck Liddell—no more. Somehow I'm not sure the ruthless corporate overlords at WME-IMG will have the same level of concern for warriors on the brink of irreversible brain damage.

Intellectually, we know there is a time to let go. The heart, however, needs more convincing. Combat sports require an almost otherworldly level of self-regard. The introduction of doubt, no matter how well-intentioned, can by paralyzing and perilous.

The Siver fight, at least, is a more appropriate bout for Penn at this stage of his career, similar to Bellator's de facto legend's division. At some point, however, athletes need to be protected from themselves. But in a world known for its cold disregard for human health, it's unclear just who will step in to do the right thing. That should be a sobering thought for all of us as an inevitable tragedy lurks.