One of the oldest, most heated debates in combat sports centers on the issue of when fighters should retire. Aside from the usual terms of "shot", "washed-up", and "past-his-prime" that fight fans consistently—and often foolishly—toss around, there must exist truly tangible measurements that factor into when the time is right.
Boxing has a long, sad tradition of great fighters competing after their glory days have waned. My father recounts to me watching Ali plodding in, if he could ever be susceptible to it, disgrace against Trevor Berbick. Though I’ve never seen the fight, the notion that this same man who I saw lay out the wrecking machine George Foreman, the great champions Liston and Frazier… the notion that this revered god of American culture could actually be embarrassed on his Olympus staggers me. I’ll never watch the fight, because I don’t want this idea validated by my own eyes.
My favorite fighter ever, Evander Holyfield, dominated at a time when I was too young to appreciate him, in the throughout the 1990s. Watch his fight with James Toney in 2003, however, and one wonders how this man could be regarded as one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time.
To an extent, I understand fighting for lost pride. But legacies can easily be tarnished if one presses forward too far. Fighting for another paycheck is simply foolish, and can be remarkably dangerous. And some fighters, however, just delude themselves that they haven’t reached what Foreman calls their "Number."
For MMA, this is a relatively new problem and it’s the subject of current discussion following Jens Pulver’s loss to Javier Vasquez at WEC 47. Being the youngest major sport in the western hemisphere, some of MMA’s earliest stars are still competitive to this day. But for every Randy Couture and Dan Henderson, there is a Mark Coleman or Kazushi Sakuraba.
As Couture slides past middle age into the era when most athletes have become full-time coaches, he remains a highly competitive member of the UFC’s light-heavyweight division. Through impeccable conditioning and brilliant game planning, he has trumped his slowing-reflexes and weakening chin. Henderson marches into the third decade of MMA on the back of Olympic-caliber wrestling, an atomic-right hand and perhaps the best chin in the business.
But the strengths of these extraordinary fighters disguise the lapses that hinder other members of the so-called "senior-circuit". Coleman is truly a victim of the times, a fighter who has failed to adapt with the evolving climate of a sport he once dominated. And Sakuraba, well, he’s just had the shit beat out of him way too many times.
These are two clear examples of fighters that clearly cannot compete at the rate the top of the sport demands. While they could certainly fare well in small shows against C-level competition, their status in the history of MMA almost forbids them from stepping down so low. The same goes for Pulver, the first great lightweight fighter, but perhaps he isn’t even ready to bow down from the highest level.
There are people who would claim that fighters might pursue their profession as long as they choose, but it’s simply not in the sake of prudence that they would do so. The case for Coleman and Sakuraba to hang it up is clear as day; the former has failed to evolve into a complex fighter in a complex sport, while the latter has been busted up more than a Nazi in "Inglorious Basterds". All the while, they haven’t been running through a top-10 gauntlet like Pulver.
So what should the criteria be for a fighter like "Lil Evil"? He’s only lost to the cream-of-the crop in his division, mainly by submissions. Pulver has never been proficient on the ground, and the evolved jiu-jitsu of modern fighters consistently stacks the odds against him. But he hasn’t been embarrassed, either. As recently as 2008 he went toe-to-toe with top-3 featherweight Urijah Faber for 5 rounds in an instant classic.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that until a fighter’s health is more at-risk than normal during fights at his accustomed level (i.e. that he can’t defend any submissions, he gets knocked out by slight gusts, and he actually looks scared in the ring, etc), he has my thumbs up to keep it going. But that’s just me.
Thus, I leave the answer to you, readers. Is it slowing of the reflexes that should raise the white flag? Couture is a victim of slowing reflexes, and might fight for the LHW title later this year. How about a string of losses? Wanderlei Silva lost five of six before rumblings of a title-run in the UFC’s middleweight division began spreading last month.
No one wants to see Jens Pulver become a miniature Gary Goodridge, but at what point should he stop before getting there?