Fedor Emelianenko

Pic by SHERDOG.COM -click for source- Credit: Taro Irei

In 2005 the UFC’s first Ultimate Fighter season aired, opening the door to millions of new fans. It birthed a new breed of fighters that quickly became the face of MMA. Stephan Bonnar, Mike Swick, Forrest Griffin, Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck, Nate Quarry, Diego Sanchez, and Chris Leben were all competing in the original season.

Soon, fans will be tuning in to watch the 18th season of the show. Before Ultimate Fighting made it’s return in the States, battles of epic proportion were taking place in the land of the rising sun. The hour long segments of “Best of Pride FC” on cable television or the tidbits heard from Joe Rogan during his commentary do the legendary promotion little justice.

PRIDE Fights were almost never determined by score cards. Bushido (the name of Pride tournaments on pay per view) means, “The way of the warrior.” The mentality that it was more important to fight honorably than to win quickly captured the hearts of Japanese fans. In the same way the early UFC events produced fantastic battles of will.

Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonner (both now retired) set everything in motion with their war in the Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale. In Bushido fashion, the winner and the loser were both celebrated. It is much less common to see a slugfest now than it is to see a fighter grind out a win. Some significant strikers use “elusive” (scampering) tactics to collect wins.

Since two or three consecutive losses almost always guarantees a fighter his walking papers, these tactics are not surprising. In PRIDE FC fighters were given a yellow card and a percentage of their purse was taken for stalling. Fighters holding on to their opponents or refusing to engage rather than trying to strike or submit were punished for tarnishing the purity of the fight. In 2007 the UFC purchased the Japanese organization and contracted several of its henchmen.

On Saturday night, the UFC’s most celebrated champion, the king of the 185 division since 2006 was dethroned. Anderson Silva‘s reign was stopped by Chris Weidman in the second round of their bout. Silva, one of the first fighters to cross over from PRIDE FC, now joins the dozens of his peers nearing the end of their careers.

Although Silva said he has ten more fights left in the tank, the 38 year old will likely partake in a super-fight or two and then retire. Besides Anderson Silva, strikers like Mark Hunt, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Mirco Cro Cop, Rampage Jackson, and several others were added to the UFC roster from PRIDE. For the old-school fans the list of familiar faces is dwindling, Dan Henderson recently narrowly outpointed by Rashad Evans, Mark Hunt’s incredible streak ended by a JDS wheel kick, and yet as Big Nog hopes to make another run at the title, it’s apparent his best days in the ring are behind him.

It seems all but inevitable at this point, that the legends who crossed over are fading away. Many of these fighters are struggling with the closure of a career. Every one of them hopes to cement their legacy and leave a permanent imprint in the MMA history books. To athletes who have known the spotlight and have been showered with adoration, passing the torch to the new generation proves difficult.

To experience the rush of combat and competition in its purest form and to have that experience stripped from you forever can be devastating. In his documentary Driven, Jens Pulver describes his bout with retirement.

Transcribed word for word below by Kenneth Arthur at fieldgulls.com. “Spend every day training. College, high school, [inaudible- sounds like ‘element’], 3 o’clock wrestling practice. Every day of my life. Three o’clock training. Since then, morning sessions. Afternoon sessions. I take my two weeks of breathing, then I gotta get back to training. But now all of a sudden what the f- are you gonna do to me when you tell me that I got nothing to train for? Other than just to train? I don’t know if I can do that. I always had a purpose. What do you fucking do? You’re a competitor, [stumbles over words] all you know. You do and you’re this young (flexes his muscles as he holds up his arms) Look at that. Bang! Most people are fuckin’ old, skin, grey… I am done and I look like this. I’m done and I can still push a car for half-a-mile if I wanted to. I’m done and I can bench, you know, 200- almost 260 pounds. Seriously? Most people are done when they’re 65 years old, 70. They can barely put their fuckin’ shoes on. Okay, now they’re done. Now they need to relax and sit by the beach. Shit, like me… In our fuckin’ prime. And we’re DONE. How do you adjust to that? I ask anybody out there, how do you adjust to that? (Begins to cry. Holds back tears as best as he can.) And it isn’t about- It isn’t about the money. It’s about ” it’s all you know.” And you train for it. And you love it. And you got an internal clock that tells you, “Today you know you’re gonna go out there, you’re gonna run, you’re gonna bust your ass, you’re gonna listen to somebody and they’re gonna tell you what to do and you know it, so you do it.” You don’t ask, you do it one hundred percent. But I told- It’s like I told my wife today, which is ironic, I’m sitting and I go “What do I do? How do I learn to figure this shit out? How do I learn to be a businessman? How do I learn to be an everyday individual? How do I learn that I’m training for no reason other than to just be in shape? How do I learn to enjoy what I’m doing without that competitive edge? And I feel like this but I have to retire because I can’t mentally put it together. How do you do it? How do you spend the rest of your life accepting that? How do you learn to die twice?” I mean, that’s where I’m sitting. How do you make it past the first one, knowing that you gotta do it again?”

Fighters like Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz, BJ Penn, and Nick Diaz are just a few examples of guys who have struggled with the “R” word. Chris Leben fans watched him take unusual punishment (even for Leben) Saturday night and two weeks ago in the Bellator cage Babalo Sobral bowed as he placed his gloves in the center of the ring for the last time. Where do we go from here?

In an interview (mmafighting.com) before his bout with Ryan Bader in Japan, Rampage Jackson reflected on the differences between Japanese fans and newer American fans, “I don’t think people understand, in America everybody is worried about who’s going to win, and this and that. Who’s winning and who’s winning. Like, it ain’t all about that. It’s entertainment at the end of the day. The fans, they want to see entertaining fights, and fans got that. I don’t think America has that yet.”

Newer fans are quick to fire venom filled blogs about guys like Jason Mayhem Miller, but few (if any) admired the fact that he fought C.B. Dollaway with a torn ACL. No-one mentioned the fact that the Doberman was out on his feet twice during that fight. The hobbling Jason Miller simply couldn’t get across the cage quickly enough to close out the fight.

Instead, fight fans witnessed a ridiculous falling out between Miller and president Dana White. The UFC has prolonged the claims process in order to avoid paying for the knee surgery. Mayhem Miller’s insurance policy with the company has since expired, leaving him to foot the $50,000 bill (in statements by Miller recorded by mmamania.com).

With the endless line of new talent and new divisions being added, fans don’t recognize nearly as many names as they used to on the fight cards. Most of the fighters named above are near their mid-thirties. As each one determines for himself which fight will be his last, more emphasis should be placed on their next chapter.

Fighters who have paved the way for the new class should still be headlining signing events and promotions. Former contender Kenny Florian is a prime example of how a fighter’s career should be prolonged. For fans who have grown tired of the Rogan/Goldberg show, why not bring in guest commentators to change the pace?

It is far more interesting to hear former-fighters experiences and stories than to hear Mike Goldberg’s awkward attempts to set up Joe Rogan. Frank Mir, Bas Rutten, Randy Couture, and Jens Pulver are just a few examples of guys who belong in the commentary booth during fight broadcasts. By keeping these old lions involved, we maintain a bond between fighters and fans.

If the legacies of newly crowned champions like Chris Weidman don’t hold water and there becomes a revolving door of title holders, fans will long for familiarity. There was nothing like being an MMA fan during the UFC’s infancy. Anyone who watched an entire PRIDE FC event was awestruck by the passion and dedication of the fighters. Those who were fortunate enough to experience the early years of MMA were sucked in and immediately rooted for its success.

For the past two decades these fighters have painted masterpieces on the canvas with their own sweat and blood. What does this changing of the guard mean for fight fans? Obviously, it means we will be seeing see more and more unfamiliar faces, but there are several ways organizations can keep their veteran guys in the limelight.

Keeping the founding fathers in the picture by bringing them in for events and commentary gives fans that old the sense of camaraderie. Audiences would stay interested by adding new seasoning to the Rogan/Goldberg recipe. If the veteran guys are always at home in the fight world it will create a better future for up-and-coming fighters and it will create a lifelong bond between fans and the sport of mixed martial arts.

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