“After climbing the mountain, you can finally enjoy the view.”Unknown
It’s hard for me to watch fighters continuing to compete past their prime and sustain more and more damage. But is it our place to decide when someone should end their competitive career?
The first fighter to come to mind is BJ Penn. His fight career started in 2001 at UFC 31. He was 22 years old at the start, and for 9 years and 22 fights had a great run. But around 2010 his career started to go down hill.
His speed, timing, and technique started to fade. Whether it was age, accumulated damage, or some other factor, it is hard to dispute that he passed his prime. He is now 40 years old and on a 6 fight losing streak – having not won a fight since 2010. Yet, he is scheduled to fight Clay Guida at UFC 237 on May 10, 2019.
Is he out fighting for money? Or is he trying to prove something to himself? Maybe he just enjoys fighting as a way of life? Or he just can’t identify himself without being a fighter?
That is hard for me to say, as I have never met the man. But if I were to wager a guess, I would lean towards fighting being a way of life and an identity for him. He isn’t alone – a lot of fighters and professional athletes fall into this state.
It is important to understand that life is all about change. You will never be the same person for the rest of your life. The only people that don’t change are the dead. Until then, you are constantly changing – whether you like it or not.
Many people get stuck in one identity, whether it is because they love what it means to them, it is what they are “expected” to be, or some other reason. In any case, they feel they need to be that identity forever.
They believe this so much, they can’t even imagine what other type of life they could possibly have. That any identity other than their current one would be inferior.
It is like a caterpillar that refuses to become a butterfly. The stubborn caterpillar doesn’t even realize how different and amazing the identity of a butterfly would be for him, being able to take to the skies and participate in a whole new world.
The fight game is not for the old. At a certain point, you have to evolve into being something else. Whether that means being a coach, an instructor, an agent, promoter, or even something entirely separated from fighting, a change in identity is called for in my humble opinion.
If not, you are going to die a caterpillar, never knowing what other adventures you could have engaged in. Like any venture, there should be definite goals set in advance what you want to achieve. But there also has to be stop limits, and preparations for what happens after you achieve your goals.
As a fighter, you need to realize that by the time you hit your mid thirties, you are at the twilight of your career. It’s cruel, because that is about the time you have the best odds of achieving mastery of technique, but your physical body is also on the verge of breaking down to the pressures of time. Most of our champions are in their 30’s, so it can be hard to call it quits at this point in time.
But your coaches should know when you have hit the end of the road. If your are losing repeatedly, and looking worse in each contest, that is a sign your time is done. Sometimes we can have a hard time admitting this to ourselves, which is why a trusted third party like a coach can be helpful.
In any case, most fighters will never achieve the ultimate goal of being a world champion. That doesn’t make them failures – they are warriors that bravely battled despite the risks and odds against them. I am in that category as I fell just short of a world title when a took a bronze in 2009 at the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships.
I came really close, losing narrowly to Andre Galvao in the semi-finals after nearly catching him with a Kimura Trap off a single leg. I ended up losing 2-0 by a silly technical mistake I made after a leg lock attack. I then competed twice more in 2011 and 2013, but something had changed for me.
The fire to prove myself was no longer there. The preparation for the 2013 ADCC was a forced one for me. I really pushed myself hard, despite a growing amount of injuries that I collected over the years.
I was so attached to a goal I set back in 2002 to become an ADCC World Champion, that even after 11 years I was still clinging on to it. But deep down, I didn’t really care about it anymore – and that was hard to admit to myself.
But afterwards, it was undeniable. There is no shame in that though. As I said earlier, life is change. Refusing to adapt to new circumstances will only cause more pain. So that is when I decided to stop competing and begin a new journey.
For me, that is a big part of the martial arts experience – losing the need to prove yourself. So I share this with you so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t be afraid of making a change. As you can tell, this applies to more than just fighting. After all, the martial arts is just a metaphor for life.
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