For a while, it looked like former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia was putting everything back together.
After a disastrous string of losses against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria, Fedor Emelianenko and an unprecedented defeat at the hands of former boxing champion Ray Mercer, Sylvia was facing the lowest point of his career and a long climb back to relevancy.
Despite the fact that his only losses came at the hands of "Top 10" MMA heavyweight fighters and a former WBO heavyweight champion, Sylvia was suddenly outside of the UFC and looking towards the unenviable task of slowly rebuilding his reputation on the regional circuit.
Perhaps with enough wins, he would be welcomed back into the UFC roster. Perhaps with some tuning up, Sylvia would once again resemble the monster that once crushed the likes of Ricco Rodriguez and Gan McGee.
And it was working, too.
Prior to tonight, Sylvia was the former UFC champion tearing up the regional circuit with four straight wins—two of those against the famous Mariusz Pudzianowski and fellow former UFC veteran Paul Buentello.
In many circles, there was talk of a return to the big stage, re-signing with the UFC and a rare second stint in the world's most important MMA promotion. Surely, another chance for Sylvia to make a final run at the UFC heavyweight championship was just one more win away.
And then came Abe Wagner.
In hindsight, the most obvious warning signs started at the weigh-ins, where Sylvia tipped the scales at a gargantuan 311 pounds. All the muscle definition from a once-challenging fight career had dissolved into flabby layers of fat. Abe Wagner, by contrast, carried a physique much more appropriate for a headlining MMA fighter.
In the actual fight, the implications of this didn't take long to hit home—Sylvia absorbed a barrage of punches to the face, groped dimly for Wagner's leg and sunk to the ring.
Had Sylvia been in shape, he may have been able to slip more punches, complete that takedown or spring up to his feet before the referee decided to intervene and end the fight.
Unfortunately, Sylvia's blown his winning streak, and with it, his credibility as a threat in the heavyweight division.
So what does Sylvia do now?
Quite simply, he needs to retire before he takes more fights against lesser opponents. He needs to retire before he loses another match to an unranked fighter. He needs to retire before he tarnishes what's left of his legacy. He needs to retire before he runs out of money. He needs to walk away with his head held as high as he can manage.
It's not easy. Many MMA fighters don't retire when they clearly need to. Tito Ortiz still manages to headline UFC events despite not having won a fight in years. Chuck Liddell and his once-solid iron chin slowly eroded over time before UFC president Dana White talked him into hanging up his gloves.
Embarrassingly, even Jens Pulver needed a win over a fighter with a 6-18 record (and three losses going into the bout) to grasp some small bit of relevancy.
But Sylvia can face the facts.
Not only did he make a good run while he was still (relatively) healthy, but he's also competed with the best that the sport had to offer. His record is still a who's-who of famous fighters, and he's been a part of some incredibly famous moments in MMA history.
But he's also 34 years old, out of shape and facing the biggest setback to his fight career since getting knocked out by Ray Mercer. He doesn't have the time to rebuild all over again.
Unless he makes incredible changes in attitude and lifestyle, another climb up the MMA rankings (and back into the UFC) is going to remain far out of reach. At the very least, Sylvia can admit his time has come, stick it out making a good living in law enforcement and retire with some dignity.
Hopefully, Sylvia knows that there's no shame in knowing when to quit.
Not knowing when to quit is another story.