Tough year for the diehards. Tough for the old-schoolers and the true-blues. Tough for the midnighters, all of us who stay up to catch a glimpse of PRIDE's glory days, played out in evermore sparsely attended Japanese arenas. And tough for the dearly devoted who swear that the ultimate heavies still have one good ruckus in the tank. Tough for the also-rans and almost-weres we didn't love enough. Tough for those old champs, the Renaissance bruisers, who bore our sport out into the bright lights of the mainstream, and showed us what mixed martial arts could become.
Saturday night, Fedor Emelianenko, a one-man institution in the world of mixed martial arts, lost for an unprecedented second fight in a row, falling in the quarterfinals of Strikeforce's heavyweight tournament to Antonio Silva. The loss prompted him to seemingly retire before some ten thousand protesting fans. Whether or not he has, in fact, taken his final bow is largely beside the point. Should he enter the ring again, it will be as a different man, diminished in the eyes of many. The man he was, the greatest heavyweight of all time, is an artifact of what we must admit is a bygone age. This last fight of his may act as a sign of the times, a seal, fastening shut the book on his generation's exploits.
Truth be told: for those of us who rhapsodize about Chuck Liddell's rise to power, Wanderlei Silva's reign of terror, or B.J. Penn's quixotic, multi-division ambitions; for those who envisioned a UFC belt around Cro Cop's waist, kept a soft spot for Tim Sylvia, or relished the twisting of many limbs under Kazushi Sakuraba's hands, this past year merely caps off a near half-decade of disappointments and growing pains. Cruel years, wherein a whole era of heroes--the names Pulver and Arlovski, Sakurai and Silva, Franklin, Ortiz, Yamamoto, Nogueira--has been gradually rendered, not unskilled, never powerless, but suddenly old.
Some, like Pulver and Sylvia, or one-time contenders Hermes Franca and David Louiseau, have stumbled their way into irrelevance, relegated to the obscurity of regional fight promotions. Others, like Hidehiko Yoshida, were able to bow out with relative grace. Most, however, continue to work on the sport's largest stages, with all their hampered motivations, all their nagging injuries and old wounds there for everyone to see. Consider Cro Cop, whose thoughts wander more and more towards his hometown, a quiet lake, a fishing rod in his hands. Consider deposed middleweight Rich Franklin, rudderless between two weight classes. Consider Rodrigo Nogueira's softening jaw, Matt Hughes's slowing double-leg, all that tape holding Sakuraba together. Take a look at the scattered remains of Chute Boxe, the thinned ranks of Brazilian Top Team, the shuttered windows of Miletich Fighting Systems. By degrees, the old standards have relinquished their place, effaced themselves, and our efforts to hold on to the past have been undone, time and again, by the likes of Frankie Edgar and Junior dos Santos. The Strikeforce tournament, itself something of a conceptual relic, looked to be a final chance for Emelianenko, perhaps the finest specimen of his generation, to stake one last claim not only for himself, but for that crop of mixed martial artist that drew tens of thousands of fans to the Saitama Super Arena, and who served as the first coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. Yet, if there was even a sliver of hope that the old guard had one more lesson to teach the up-and-comers, it's gone now, lost somewhere under the hammer falls of Antonio Silva's fists upon Emelianenko's head.
We're on the edge of an exciting, new time for mixed martial arts. The sport receives greater media attention every year, and tremendous athletes such as Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez prove that MMA is worth all the attention. But for we sentimental knuckleheads-and surely every good fight fan has at least a touch of nostalgia in them-this period of time has been a dirge five years running.
What can you do? Don't look for a comeback. These young bucks and new-fashioned killers are too hungry to let it happen. The new MMA order, it's here. It's been here all along. May it be glorious and violent. May it be worth the bitterness of giving up all our old heroes.