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Best Before: Quitting is not an option

Nobody does quitting like professional athletes. First there’s a stretch of wildly inconsistent performances, followed by an official retirement in a spectacle of touching ceremonies, heartfelt speeches and highlight-reels. Then they sniff out a bigger contract, come back the following year and do it again. Even when the career finally ends, there is still the rounds of cheating accusations—from steroids, to corked bats, to illegal handwraps—that block the road to the record books. Whatever the circumstances, a career in physical competition almost never ends on a high note.

However, most star athletes are remembered warmly by fans. All the awful statistics and scandalous headlines (usually collected during the last few years) are forgotten in favour of an identified “prime”. Furthermore, slipping talent is more subtle in team sports because the overall success of a franchise is more important than a specific player; that allows for a more gradual realization that the best days are past—though it will still come painfully late.

However, in fighting, entire storied careers can be buried underneath a couple humiliating defeats—Michael Bisping will never live down that knockout by Dan Henderson. Furthermore, faltering performances are not obscured throughout a long season amidst teammates. Rather, the reduced speed, sloppy timing and softening chin are clearly displayed through full HD widescreen and slow-motion replays.

Fighter’s careers rarely wind down with dignity; instead they are viciously beaten out of contention by young-up-and-comers. Former stars like Jens Pulver, Ken Shamrock and Kevin Randleman are struggling to stay relevant while being brutalized by the next generation. Some fighters even opt for a huge drop in competition in order to rack up some wins. Such as former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia (26-6 MMA), who has been proving his legendary status by facing such challenges as Ray Mercer (0-0 MMA, with one exhibition loss to Kimbo Slice) and Marius Pudzianowski (2-0 MMA).

The UFC 115 main event featured two fighters who are passionately ignoring signs that it is time to gracefully retire. Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin had great title reigns but are simply being outclassed in the autumn of their careers. Neither man has a chance of regaining the championship. And as the losses pile up, not only is their physical health at risk, but so is their legacy as fighters.

MMA has grown dramatically over the last five years. One the best results of that growth has been a tremendous increase in overall talent throughout the sport. As a result, being a champion means much more now than it did during the prime of Franklin and Liddell. Therefore, when former champs get destroyed by the next wave of talent, it begs the question of whether that prime was helped along by a lack of real competition.

Take the present UFC light-heavyweight class as an example: there are seven active former champions (Rich Franklin, Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Randy Couture, Forrest Griffin and Tito Ortiz ) competing to get a shot at the newly crowned Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Compare that to the division during Liddell’s reign, where he and Randy Couture were the only real forces, as most of the current big names were still emerging or fighting in Pride FC.

Truthfully, the fizzling of former MMA stars probably has more to do with age and physical deterioration than truly being outclassed. But because it’s impossible to say exactly what would have happened if things had been different in their prime, they’ll never be able to shake the notion of being champ before the divisions were truly stacked. And the longer they spend getting knocked around by new blood, the more fuel it gives to such doubts.

It is hard to say exactly why athletes refuse to retire. Part of the problem may be pure ego, but mental conditioning may also deserve blame. Competing at the highest level means pushing through injuries, rough training camps, struggles with confidence and personal tragedy—see Vitor Belfort fighting Randy Couture while his sister was being held by kidnappers. After years of telling yourself that quitting is not an option, it’s pretty hard to bow out. That’s the nature of MMA though; success requires being tough, stubborn and a little crazy. And those traits do not usually lead to dignified endings.

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