It's been said that every ending is a new beginning. We often pull this phrase out of our platitudinal repertoire when trying to comfort a friend who has gone through a bad breakup or to provide ourselves with a boost of optimism after losing a job. The simple kernel of truth that makes this cliche resonate with us is this: even though adjusting to unwanted change is usually hard, life inevitably goes marching on with every passing day. What's not so certain, however, is whether or not tomorrow will be as good as yesterday. This is especially true in the case of professional mixed martial artists after their UFC tenure comes to an end.
Generally speaking there are two paths out of the UFC. The first, and most common, comes when someone is cut after a string of losses. Sometimes this follows the traditional "three and out" pattern where a three fight skid is rewarded with a pink slip. Other times fighters are shown the door after a single loss, particularly following a dull performance that rankles the ire of management (call this "The Gerald Harris Syndrome" if you will). It's a tough situation. There's no clear cut protocol a fighter can follow in order to avoid getting the axe other than winning his every fight and doing so in an exciting manner. The bitter irony, of course, is these two job requirements can often be mutually exclusive to one another.
The second, and far less frequent, way a fighter typically leaves the UFC is through retirement. This can come under a variety of circumstances. Maybe a fighter reaches the age where his body starts to slow down and, despite his wealth of experience, he can no longer remain competitive against the younger generation. Perhaps he's like Kenny Floridan and he suffers a debilitating injury that renders him physically unable endure the grind of training. Then there are those sluggers in the Chuck Liddell mold who have had their ticket punched one too many times and are simply unable to take anymore punches. Far too rare are the Chris Lytle types who not only walk away from the UFC on their own terms, but who also have a well thought out exit strategy that includes a plan for life after fighting.
A comparatively earlier retirement than most professions is a reality every athlete faces but it still doesn't make it any easier to deal with. For an icon of the sport like Tito Ortiz retirement brings with it the challenge of adjusting to life away from the profession that in large part defined him for most of his adult life. While this may be a difficult transition for aging stars like Ortiz, Lidell, Randy Couture, and Matt Hughes to face, at least they do so secure in the knowledge they made enough money to never need to work again. It's a luxury most fighters don't have.
A couple weeks back UFC lightweight Shane Roller announced his retirement following his fourth loss in his past six fights. It's important to note here that "retirement" for Roller doesn't connote the life of leisure spent pursuing one's hobbies that we usually associate with the word. He simply hasn't made enough money as a mixed martial artist to spend the rest of his afternoons playing golf and his nights watching TV Land reruns. Like the majority of mid to lower level UFC fighters who find their tenure with the company at an end, he's going to have to go out and get a job. Roller has a masters degree in health and human performance so he will likely be able to find work in that field, but what about all the fighters who didn't go to college? What career opportunities are out there for a man in his mid to late thirties with a broken down body and little job experience outside of beating people up for a living?
Well, for one thing, these fighters could just keep fighting on smaller shows. The sad formula of trading increasing long term damage to one's body for diminishing monetary returns has been exemplified in the careers of veterans like Jens Pulver and Gary Goodridge. For younger fighters who still have UFC aspirations after getting cut it might make sense to try and go on a run in a smaller promotion in hopes of making it back to the big show. However, for older fighters who feel they are too beat up to make another run at getting into the UFC it can be hard to justify going through substantial pain for very little monetary gain.
Thing aren't like they were in 2008 anymore. Investors aren't lining up around the block for the chance to throw a bunch of money away on another start up promotion, the once mighty Japanese scene is largely dead, and Bellator has a twenty eight year old heavyweight champion who retired a little over a month ago because he can make more money as a financial trader than headlining for the second largest MMA promotion in the United States. There aren't very many financially viable options outside the UFC for a fighter in his thirties anymore.
Jason "Mayhem" Miller touched on this last point in a recent interview with MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani when he opined, "Because of the legal monopoly that is in mixed martial arts at this current state there's nowhere else to go."
Miller later elaborated on his feelings when Helwani asked him about a potential return to MMA and he replied, "In this climate? No thank you. Why would I batter myself until I'm broken all the way when [it won't enable me] to feed my unborn children?"
Whether or not the UFC is actually a monopoly is beside the point. The fact is, at the moment they're the only game in town for anyone who want to make serious money in this sport. This leaves many former UFC fighters in a tight spot. As Miller told Helwani when discussing fighters who get cut from the UFC, "If you know how to fight really well, go ahead, be a bouncer...that's what you're forced to do because there's no fighter's union, no pension."
With the UFC's hegemony over the sport firmly established none of this is likely to change anytime soon. In a lot of ways the UFC's dominance is a good thing for fans in that it lets us see the best fighters in the world face off against each other rather than being spread out amongst a disparate alphabet soup of competing promotions. For fighters, however, it isn't so cut and dried. Sure the UFC offers a lot of opportunity, but it also offers few guarantees for those who slip along the way.
At the end of the day the lack of financially viable alternatives in today's MMA landscape makes a new beginning far from a sure thing for fighters who find themselves on the outside looking in at the only big show in town.
Follow me on Twitter @BorchardtMMA or reach me via email at steveborchardtMMA AT gmail DOT com