One of the hardest decisions a fighter ever has to make is when to hang up the gloves and retire from the MMA game.
In many sports professional athletes are usually forced into retirement by orthopaedic issues. A knee just can’t take the pounding anymore… A problem shoulder just keeps on getting worse…
As the the mileage takes its toll and the injuries add up, athletic performance begins to drop. The athletes start losing more and more.
But losing a series of tennis matches or having your golf stroke go to hell isn’t really that dangerous. The consequences of losing in MMA are much, much higher than in other sports. After all, your opponent wants to turn you into a grease stain on the mat.
MMA is a hard game, a young man’s game, and a risky game. There’s a very real chance that you can end up with your body ruined, a painkiller addiction, and permanent damage to your brain. The decision to fight is not to be taken lightly.
But if your life’s dream is to fight in MMA then nothing I say is going to change that.
Go ahead and do it, just know in advance that you’re not going to do it forever. Understand the risks, monitor how you’re doing, and have an exit strategy for that (inevitable) time when you have to hang up those gloves forever.
Ultimately when to quit MMA is a personal decision. There is no magic medical test that’ll tell you, “OK, now is the right time to quit,” so the timing of retirement is going to be different for everybody.
Now some of you will be thinking, “Who the f*** is this Kesting guy? I haven’t seen him in the UFC…” And that’s true. But I’ve been around this sport a long time, hung with a lot of punch drunk fighters, and watched it twist a number of close friends. I’ve seen a lot of fighters make the decision to quit fighting much too late, and now I want to tell you what I should have told them.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few factors that should make you think about retiring from MMA…
This topic was covered in episode 180 of The Strenuous Life Podcast with Stephan Kesting which is *ahem* my podcast.
You can get this rant in audio form if you subscribe to my podcast for free at the following links:
Or you can read on below
Are You Actually Winning in MMA?
This might sound brutal, but if you’re not winning then you shouldn’t be fighting.
Like other extreme sports (e.g. wingsuit flying, cave diving, free climbing Mt Everest), MMA is incredibly dangerous.
People have broken arms and legs, lost the ability to see in an eyeball, ruptured organs and even died in MMA matches.
And usually you take much more damage losing a fight than winning a fight.
Every time you take a big shot to the head, every time you get knocked out, and every hammer fist your opponent lands as you’re lying on the canvas unconsious does serious, cumulative, and largely irreversible damage. It’s becoming clear that that brain damage is a huge danger in the sport of MMA, often becoming apparent only as a fighter gets close to retirement.
But make no mistake about it it – you’re doing damage to your brain and accumulating trauma long before it actually shows up.
So your win-to-loss ratio is a good predictor of how dangerous MMA is for you, but keep in mind you’re taking damage in sparring and training too.
But for sure, if you’re losing a lot then don’t tough it out. Don’t keep on taking the punishment in hopes of your career somehow getting back on track.
You do not want to end your career like the Nogueira brothers, losing two fights for every fight they win (and taking a pounding in every each one)…
Or like a punch drunk Gary Goodridge, taking handfuls of medication each day to stabilise his mood and mental state…
Or even like Mike Tyson. After a meteoric rise to the very top of the sport, after being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, he only won 5 of his last 12 fights. I realise the dude had no choice financially (more on that later) but wouldn’t it have been better to go out on top, rather than making a mockery of his career with that last batch of fights?
If you’re losing more than you’re winning, then maybe it’s time to consider quitting.
Has Your Career Taken Off Yet?
OK, so your dream is to fight MMA professionally. How long should you strive, train and fight before you know whether you’re cut out for this sport?
Yes, we’re all brainwashed by the cult of achievement, where anything is possible if you just put your mind to it… Conceive, Believe, Achieve… The Little Engine That Could… Fall down 8 times, get up 9…. All that good stuff.
Of course determination and work ethic are essential to succeed in MMA, but so is having the right genetics. And it is exceedingly rare to have both the will power and the correct genetics to be a great fighter.
How can you find out if you’ve won the genetic lottery? How do you determine if you’re really good enough to go pro? Unfortunately the only way to know for certain is to try it, but you don’t have an infinite amount of time to figure this out.
As we’ll talk about in the next section, you’re fighting against the clock. Time moves on, and if things don’t go your way in a relatively short amount of time then they may never go your way at all.
A loss or two early in your career doesn’t count for much. Many successful fighters have a few initial losses as they’re getting things dialled in, then go on to have a mostly winning record for quite a long time.
But to have a decent chance of doing well in this game then you should absolutely be cleaning up at the amateur level.
And after moving up to the big leagues, if you’re not winning 3 fights for every fight you lose then you should seriously consider packing it in.
How Long Have You Been Fighting Pro?
Tick tock, tick tock: Father Time comes for all of us. And in MMA that seems to happen on a rather predictable schedule…
In his excellent article The 9 Year Rule: A Look at Career Length in Mixed Martial Arts, David Williams looked at over 300 fighters. He found there was often a steep drop off in performance against quality opponents after fighters had been fighting professionally for 9 years.
It didn’t seem to matter how old the fighter was when he started MMA. It was a question of how long he’d been doing it. It wasn’t the years, it was the mileage…
“For MMA, there doesn’t seem to be a specific age range in which fighters enter their prime or suffer a decline. Great fighters such as Wanderlei Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are 34 and 35 years old, respectively, and both appear to be on the last legs of their careers. Randy Couture, on the other hand, didn’t even begin his career until he was 34 years old.”
So forget about those plans to keep on fighting forever. You’ve only got a small window of opportunity to make your mark. Statistically speaking, you’ve got 9 years, followed by an almost inevitable decline.
And it may even be worse than that…
David’s research showed that a fighter’s prime generally began in his 3rd year of fighting professionally. Which suggests that if you’re not winning a heck of a lot of fights by your third year then maybe an MMA career just wasn’t in the cards for you.
Yes, there are exceptions. Some people buck the trend and keep on winning after their 9 years are up. But do you really want to bet your brain cells on being that 1/100 exception?
Fire in Your Belly, Or Just the Need for a Paycheck?
After gassing out and losing a match he should have won, an old fighter told me, “I never used to understand those guys who would only train 6 weeks before a fight. When I was new to MMA I wanted to train all the time. I loved training twice a day. But now I’m beginning to feel the same way…”
Some fighters take matches they know they’re going to lose just to get a paycheck. This is way more common than you would think, and it comes from having no other options to make money.
After a decade of hard training, getting paid a couple of grand to punched in the face a few times seems a hell of a lot better than working as a Walmart greeter.
People talk about the sacrifice required to become a fighter.
And one of those sacrifices is developing marketable skills in other areas. In their late teens and early twenties, most regular people are going to school, learning trades, or otherwise developing their careers.
Fighters, on the other hand, are spending all their time slipping jabs, landing double leg takedowns, and sinking chokes. They have to do this in order to have any chance at an MMA career. They get a Masters degree in dishing out punishment.
But that doesn’t really give you very many options for a paycheck after you retire from MMA, does it?
Way too many fighters delay retirement wondering, “What the hell else can I do?” They’ve lost the fire in their belly, but they need to keep paying rent, so they just stumble from fight to fight.
MMA is dangerous enough if your skills are sharp and if you’re winning. It becomes so much more dangerous if you’re not living and breathing it every day.
It’s really simple: if you don’t feel like training, don’t fight.
“I still want to fight, but I have to be smart. I don’t want to be the guy that… I stuck around longer than I should, but I don’t want to be the guy who stuck around too long. The guy that’s fighting for a pay check, or the guy that is risking his health.” — Yves Edwards 42 wins, 22 losses, 1 draw in MMA
Are Your True Friends Telling You It’s Time to Retire?
Fighters are surrounded by an entourage of “Yes men”. Coaches, sparring partners and flunkies all have a vested interest in telling the fighter what he wants to hear. The fighter is their ticket to front row seats, cash, and acclaim-by-proxy.
Do you think a single person in Tyson’s entourage ever told him, “Hey Mike, how about settling down, doing some meditation, and getting your anger issues under control?” Hell no! They enjoyed the peripheral fame that came with the status of being a sycophant. It was only when the golden taps turned off that – POOF – they vanished!
Realise that even if you’re on a losing streak promotors will still be offering you fights. And trainers will still be telling you to take those fights. They’re not doing it for your well-being; they’re doing that because they think they can make money.
If you’re losing a lot then you’ve become a tomato can for other people to knock down and climb over. You don’t want to be that tomato can.
Only a real friend will tell you the things you don’t want hear. Hopefully you have someone around you who cares for you and is willing to speak truth to power.
Maybe this true friend can see what’s clear to everyone else, and then actually have the balls to tell you to that the time has come to retire and find some other way to be involved in the sport before you take serious, irreversible damage.
Chuck Liddell was UFC light heavyweight champion and held the record for most knockouts in UFC history (13).
Clearly the man could both deliver a punch and take a punch.
But towards the end of his career he started getting rocked by lighter and lighter shots. Punches he would have once laughed at now staggered him.
In his last fight Rich Franklin hit him with a punch that didn’t seem to have too much power behind it all, and – boom – down he went.
In boxing terminology Chuck Liddell had developed a “glass jaw”, meaning that he was getting easier and easier to knock out.
You see this a lot with fighters going deeper into their careers – lighter shots causing more severe concussions and knockouts.
I have a few friends who used box a lot and took pride in being able to lead with their chins. “Take a shot to give a shot” was their motto. And now they can’t spar at all; one shot to the head and they’ve got a blinding headache and a concussion.
I’ve never heard of a fighter ‘curing’ himself of a glass jaw. Once the condition develops it just seems to get worse and worse.
My guess is that a newly acquired glass jaw has to do with the accumulated brain trauma making it easier and easier to short circuit a fighter’s brain.
But regardless of the underlying neurophysiology, if you’re getting more and more rocked by lighter and lighter punches then it’s definitely time to hang up those gloves!
Slower Reaction Times
Reaction times increase as you get older. That means it takes more time to make important decisions – like ducking out of the way of an oncoming punch.
(At the same time you’re now also in an older body, which will typically move slower than a young, youthful body.)
To a certain extent slowed reaction times are compensated for by increased experience. Yes, you might not be able to move and react quite as fast, but because you’ve got a better idea of what to do and where you need to be, meaning that you don’t need to race around quite so fast.
It’s kind of a race to get good enough while you’re still fast enough.
But experience only goes so far. Eventually you’ll get to the point where experience just can’t compensate for lack of speed anymore. You’ll start getting hit more. You’ll start countering takedowns way too late. And people will just start blowing past your guard on the ground.
If you’re unable to keep up with the hungry young killers in the gym then maybe it’s not that they’ve all suddenly become super-fast; maybe you’re getting slow.
If an honest self assessment tell you that you’re slowing down then maybe it’s time to start asking the tough questions about quitting professional MMA competition.
“These guys are young and they’re no joke. My reflexes are slowing down, I got a family to take care of. I don’t want to suffer a serious injury to where it might complicate that. I’m very happy with what I’ve done here and very happy with what it gave back to me and it’s time to go.” — Jorge Rivera, 20 wins and 9 losses in MMA
Why Do You Fight?
MMA is one of the biggest developments in the history of martial arts. We’ve learned more about what works and what doesn’t work in an unarmed fight since UFC 1 on November 12th, 1993 than we had in the previous 1,000 years.
But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous. This sport is going to create a tsunami of orthopedically and neurologically damaged fighters.
If MMA is your true passion then go for it. But keep the risk-reward calculator going at all times. Your ability to fight and the reasons you fight will change over time. Injuries happen. Passion might turn into financial necessity. Love of the sport might turn into addiction to the limelight.
Know that your fighting career is going to end. In fact it can end at any time; one catastrophic injury is all it takes.
What’s your plan for when you retire from MMA?
Is it to go back to school and complete your education? Great – are you putting aside some of your winnings to pay for that down the road? Is it to open a martial arts school? Start studying how to do that and laying the groundwork for that early, so that you’re not completely uninformed when the time comes; fighting, teaching and running a school are 3 very different skills.
Fighters have doing the hard thing all your lives. Training, sparring, lifting weights, doing sprints – it’s not easy.
Sometimes the hardest, bravest thing to do is to accept when it’s time to hang up the gloves and move on to new and different challenges.
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