UFC 141: A Look at Failure in Sports and How the Public Responds

Brock Lesnar smooches wife Rena after UFC 141 loss to Alistair Overeem. PHOTO BY ESTHER LIN.

What is failure within a combat sport?

Is it losing in the dying moments of a five round title fight that you spent twenty-four minutes dominating? Is it losing a decision to one of the best in the world? Is it waking up and seeing the referee looking down at you with concern? Is it being forced to accept you no longer have anything to offer at the elite level? Being outpointed by a sparring partner? Missing opportunity after opportunity?

Wherever the goalposts for success are set, it should be clear that there are infinitely more ways to screw up than there are to succeed. A hooking left can land on your chin the instant before yours on his. A bob instead of a weave leaves you in the face of an onrushing shin freighted with bad intentions and terrible velocity. Waiting an instant too long means fighting off a takedown against the cage all round long - instead of implementing your own gameplan. There comes a moment when fighters fail, when their bodies do not respond to commands, when their concentration stutters and sparks or when every decision leaves them further mired into the quicksand that leads to a Loss - one defined by others beyond their own brains and entered into their permanent record.

The way fighters face this dementor-like specter varies - much like our own responses to more mundane failures - becomes an individually unique calculus of physical sensations and emotional attachments to their families, careers, self-belief, combat sports and public/private identity.

The positive response to that idiosyncratic combination is apparently the "heart" that defines champions, the "fuel" that drives a comeback to the top of the mountain and the "noble competitive spirit" that allows athletes to risk Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and other lifelong debilitating ailments for hunks of plated metal and cereal box covers.

The negative response to such things by an athlete prominent in the public eye is somehow ridiculous and something worth heaping every iota of scorn that can be possibly be mustered. A decision to quit, to move on or to say that the rewards are not worth the risks cannot be sane or sporting. We expect our fellows humans to always dig deep and do superhuman things. Not measuring up to that ideal can mean the redaction and rewriting of an athlete's legacy and an opinion rendered: "You were never that good."

The same stuff that happened to Ricky Williams is happening to Brock Lesnar. He can't walk away in peace or take the sport on his own terms. The vocal public feels the need to arbitrate that process. Yet, the fighter alone deals with professional and personal success being possible - or even probable - within a few months all disappearing down the gaping void of a Loss at the hands of a better fighter.

All of the other fighters who lost on the UFC 141 card are sitting somewhere and wondering how deep do they have to go within themselves to fix those bad habits or the weakness that lost them the fight. How they bounce back will be a microcosm of how all combat sports athletes deal with failure. How we treat them should reflect how we view failure in our own lives.

The best - and perhaps only - way to improve is by failing. High, loud and repeatedly. Stringing together random syllables until first words are spoken. Tennis racquets whiffing on those fuzzy neon green ovoids. Staring blankly at an electrical engineering diagram. Most of the time, we fail in practice - which for a professional mixed martial arts means tapping out to chokes, getting pinned by better wrestlers or being outpointed by the local stand-up badass. They are able to take these micro-failures, internalize them to learn the lessons taught and move past the negative aspects of not succeeding because the goal posts of success have been moved to the fight night that they are training for. The little failures are the means by which the end is accomplished and the ring or the cage will be the stage where successes and failures are determined by a fighter, by the judges and by the audience at large.

Which is why things get so emotional when someone takes a Loss. What the training leads up to and what Fight Night turns out to be can diverge from one another in a fashion that can really mess with heads. Earlier this year, Randy Couture retired on the spot after Machida sent his tooth flying and his consciousness winging into the Temporary Black Hole of Unexpected Sleep. Matt Hughes, an unquestioned legend in the sport, is taking time off to assess things after Josh Koscheck unceremoniously knocked him out. B.J. Penn, one of the baddest men to ever walk the earth, has no idea when or if he'll return to the cage after Nick Diaz swiped that third round from him.

Only Penn has received anywhere near the criticism Brock Lesnar has gotten and will receive for stating that he wants to walk away from the sport with a 5-3 professional MMA record, a UFC title belt and millions of dollars after being summarily dispatched by Alistair Overeem. It seems that the perceived waste of extraordinary talent is a worse sin of omission than any of the more mundane committed sins by other athletes or public figures. People just can't stand someone not doing as well as they think that person could and if that person walks away from the sport while they're still performing at a high level, the gods help them. The reactions seem to split evenly between complete bemusement or violent backlash. We've seen this elsewhere in sports with Marvin Hagler, Barry Sanders and Ricky Williams.

Hagler retired because Sugar Ray Leonard wouldn't fight him again. The man was 33 years old and probably could have beaten everybody else in the division at the time. But no Sugar Ray fight that year? Marvin was gone. He's never looked back either. Barry Sanders faxed his resignation to the Wichita Times in 1999 and that was that. The most electrifying running back in NFL history stayed home with barely a word said and his health intact. Nobody understood him, but the overall public opinion seemed to settle in a grudging respect for that decision - much like they did with Hagler.

Williams had a far different set of reasons for walking away from football - some of which were drug testing-related - yet he took an unbelievable amount of flak for saying that the sport of American football and the rich financial rewards that went with being a star running back were not worth it anymore for him. Winning a Super Bowl title or being named Most Valuable Player were not the things that Ricky wanted. Williams eventually worked his way back into the NFL, but he did it on his terms and with the creation and refinement of support systems that allowed him to stay happy. He also took an enormous amount of negative public commentary, dealt with constant questioning and probably wished he was good at and famous for something else less close to the hearts of vitriolic fans at least a bajillion times.

Why do the vocal members of the public not learn from these sporting sagas? Why is Lesnar being treated more like Ricky than like Hagler or Sanders? Losing in swift and violent fashion to one of the elite fighters within the heavyweight division should be small cause for shame. Alistair is Sagat personified. Lesnar has had eight fights, with perhaps the hardest string of opponents any MMA fighter has ever attempted - despite Paulo Thiago's best efforts - and he won most of them. Dominated a couple too. If I had the analogous success in my grappling pursuits, I'd be pretty happy. Going 5-3 against people like Marcelo, Leo, Pablo and Kron? I'd take that in a heartbeat, retool and keep trying. But I am not Lesnar. I do not know him. I have not experienced what he has and will go through.

We outsiders do not know the individual calculus Lesnar is using, how much weight he attaches to each and every thing and person in his life. What that math tells him, and tells all the other combat sports athletes taking a break, is something we can only guess - and probably very, very badly - at. Respecting that decision to leave and moving on in a mature fashion yields only benefits.

Let Brock Lesnar walk away in peace.

Maybe he'll come back rested and ready - if the math feels right.

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