The difficulty of saying goodbye is that even with your back turned, your gaze never leaves what's been left behind.
Watching GSP's post-fight speech at UFC 167 was one of the stranger experiences of my fandom lifetime. It wasn't like one of Nick Diaz' post-fight speeches, characterized by aimless vitriol, but instead meticulously calculated. And so now fans and observers are racing to the podium to play armchair psychologist.
And so I'll try too.
The fight itself deserves reflection. I had the bout for Hendricks on first viewing (giving him rounds 1, 2, and 4), even while trying hard to ignore Joe Rogan's head exploding in the commentary booth everytime Johny Hendricks would land a 2 inch elbow in close. The first round was the toss up, but nothing in the fight would validate any notions of "robbery". The first round was hardly definitive.
If there's one thing being underappreciated in this fight, it is just how good GSP was. Hendricks is clearly a first rate contender with superb wrestling, and potent striking. Even when he was hurt, and despirited, he staged what I feel turned into a modest comeback. Taking over with quick, chopping leg kicks, and aggressive jabs and doing anything but 'playing it safe'. To summarize in cliche form; he fought like the champion.
Now the question seems to be...does he want to continue being a champion? The words "I want to go away for a little bit", which he uttered to Joe Rogan at the end there, suggest 'eh, not really'.
His words at the press conference were more interesting when he was asked to elaborate:
"I need to make a point now. I can't sleep at night. I'm going crazy. I need to relax. I need to get out for awhile. I don't know what I'm gonna do. I feel like I left everything out, but I need to keep some of my stuff...part of my life personal..."
What's missing in this quote is GSP's demeanor. He's uncertain, unsure, and none of what he secretly wants to say is aided by the sutures under his eyes, or the many bruises and marks of violence that make up his facial terrain. It's the "I left everything out, but I need to keep some of my stuff" part that I find most compelling. Yes, he continues with a soundbite about his personal life. And that's probably true. But taken on its own, there's a broader implication there.
The implication that fighting is taking a toll on not just his body, but on his mind.
In that, there is nothing new. No matter how much nuance I've professed to want with respect to brain injuries in sports, there's little to be unpacked when it comes to sympathizing with the documented impact routine violence has on a person's brain.
You get violently hit in the head, and too much calcium harms your mitochondrial cells which keeps the brain from restoring itself with the glucose it needs. Physiology and psychology are not inseparable...the symptoms that manifest themselves out of these neural events, like sensitivity to light, nausea, memory loss, and fatigue eventually affect who you are around others.
Maybe this is what GSP is experiencing. Being educated, and intelligent like he is, the issue itself is something he's likely well-read on.
The objection that "he's only 32" ignores any semblance of sense or sensibility. His UFC career began in 2004 with a fun but unanimous decision over Karo Parisyan. Now his 9-year UFC career has been capped off with his 9th consecutive title defense on the near-anniversary of his original claim to the throne back in November 18th of 2006. He owes the fans nothing at this point. He's done more than enough.
I've always felt like GSP was a singularly unique figure in MMA. I documented as much in my brief interview with him last year. He's an ambassador for the sport not because he feels obligated, but because he wants to be.
Maybe that's what GSP is really thinking. He may be a killing machine on the outside, but on the inside he's just like the rest of us; unsure of how commitment works in practice, nervous around what we cherish most in life.
He wants a proper future for himself as a man whose past, present, and future is always accessible not just to himself, but to others. And maybe he feels like fighting has threatened that very fabric. Maybe he just wants to say goodbye without forgetting what he's left behind.