It’s a tale as old as time.
And, come to think of it, a song as old as rhyme, too.
A fighter achieves a degree of success, fame and/or fortune, and walks away from the game—often citing advancing age, retreating motivation, physical malady or perhaps a blend of all three.
Then, after weeks, months or sometimes years, new headlines are written:
“(Insert name here) gets back in the gym, targets (fill in the blank) for comeback fight”
Sometimes it’s for the money. Sometimes it’s for attention.
Sometimes it’s an antidote to flat-out boredom or to fill a competitive vacuum.
“Fame and the spotlight are habit forming,” the late Dr. Ferdie Pacheco once told the New York Times. “Once seduced by the roar of the crowd, the old champions have to try it again.”
Boxers like Ray Leonard are recalled as much for career starts and stops as for what happened in between them, and no less a combat legend than Randy Couture followed a similar script well into his 40s—winning and losing the UFC heavyweight belt while fighting eight times after a 13-month hiatus.
Two more veterans of the mixed martial arts elite have recently added their names to the prodigious “I can’t quit you, baby” rolls, in the menacing forms of multiple-time ex-UFC light heavyweight challengers Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson.
Keep in mind, theirs weren’t publicity-stunt exits, a la Conor McGregor, where nearly everyone agreed a return was inevitable. Instead, both Johnson and Gustafsson had faded to black after their would-be bests were no longer deemed good enough.
Nevertheless, Johnson, who left voluntarily in 2017 after a second title-fight tap-out against Daniel Cormier, will return one weight class up the ladder early next year, according to manager Ali Abdelaziz.
Abdelaziz told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto that his man is targeting Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem, the UFC’s third- and seventh-ranked heavyweights, respectively.
Meanwhile, Gustafsson has leaned closer to coy regarding his future plans, initially telling MMA Viking that he’s “talking with the UFC” and specifically mentioning former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold as a potential comeback partner.
He walked it back a bit on Tuesday, though, taking to Twitter to say “just to be clear I have not challenged Luke. … I said ‘If I come back someday that would be a potentially a good fight.’”
Either way, Gustafsson last appeared in the octagon only three months ago, when he was choked out by Anthony Smith at UFC’s Fight Night show in Stockholm, Sweden. That loss came just a shade more than five months after he’d come up short against Jon Jones for the vacant 205-pound belt in Southern California.
He’d already lost once apiece to then-champs Jones and Cormier in 2013 and 2015, which greased the skids for a post-Smith speech in which he labeled his near-miss career a “done deal.”
“It’s been a great journey. This is it,” Gustafsson said that night, via MMA Fighting.
“I feel like I don’t do this for money or because of anything else. I do this because I want to be the best and beat the best and if I can’t do that then it is what it is. I lost to Jon and that was the third title fight and I felt like because I got a little bit of an injury in that fight and I didn’t get to show my capacity. ... But now I lose to Anthony too. It feels like I don’t have it in me anymore. It’s like a confirmation to myself.”
Turns out, though, that the competitive itch is more difficult to scratch from the sidelines.
Gustafsson said he felt the get-back twinge just a couple days after returning home, and intends to train to get back in shape while considering his go-forward options.
It’s a vibe to which Kermit Cintron can surely relate.
The former welterweight boxing champ left the ring in 2018 after 39 wins in 48 fights, but recently announced a comeback he ultimately hopes will result in a crossover to the Bellator cage promotion.
All it took to re-flick Cintron’s switch was a trip to the gym.
“I went to help out one of the fighters that needed sparring as he’s preparing for a fight,” he told Bleacher Report. “Getting in the ring with him and doing six rounds, I felt great. It was the first time I’d stepped in the gym since last July.”
“It’s how I feel,” he said.
“To me, it’s not about the money. A lot of fighters do fight for the money, but a lot of them, I believe, come back because the missing of the spotlight, and the competitiveness in them.”
And in that case, even a punch in the mouth or a single-leg takedown beats washing dishes and captaining the carpool.
“It’s hard, knowing you feel really good,” Cintron said. “Regular life is not that exciting, really not much of a rush. I am enjoying watching my kids grow and being home full time. But that regular lifestyle doesn’t have that rush.”
NOTE: Unless otherwise credited, all quotes were obtained first hand.