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Changing Of The Guard: As Legends Fall, We Ask "What Happened?"

As Quinton “Rampage” Jackson crumples Wanderlei Silva to the deck with a sharp left hook to the jaw, I empathically feel a lump in the throats of a million hard core MMA fans. At times over the last couple of years we have been forced to ask ourselves if there is anyone we can invest our belief in. We have seen long time pound for pound king and living legend Silva lose two out of three in the UFC. Worse still, he and fellow KO artist Chuck Liddell have found themselves adding a fair few seconds onto someone else’s knockout highlight reel. It doesn’t end there. Long time undisputed lightweight number one and miniature wrecking ball Takanori Gomi, who once accumulated a 10 fight win streak over the division’s very best, has now lost his last two fights to a journeyman and a submission specialist little known on the world stage (albeit a very talented one). Heavyweight gods Randy Couture and Minotauro Nogueira both failed to make it through the first round of a heavyweight tournament seemingly made for them. Welterweight monster Matt Hughes has taken severe thumpings in three of his last four fights, so much so that retirement looms for him. With the shining stars of the big bang that has been MMA over the last few years fading, I pose the question- what happened to the fighters we worshipped?

A new theory is banded around every time one of our heroes is exposed as human. Firstly I address my least favourite assertion, levelled chiefly by the interweb community’s favorite annoying younger brother, the bandwagon jumping keyboard warriors. I speak of course of the “Fighter X Exposed, Finally” explanation. A typical effort to discredit the fallen legend’s career begins by rooting through their victories and finding holes in the games of their vanquished foes to tarnish the win. If we as MMA fans are to regain some respect from the fighters and experts, this is something we must cut out. A victory must be viewed from the context in which it happened. For example, people will often site Chuck Liddell’s reign of terror over the UFC light heavyweight division as simply him defeating several wrestlers who couldn’t take him down. The fact is that those fighters he beat, whilst mostly coming from a ground fighting background, were the best contenders at the time, and undoubtedly outstanding mixed martial artists. Can Chuck be blamed that no pure strikers reached the level of contendership during his dominant period? He convincingly destroyed all comers and justified his spot as number one in the division. Bottom line; if you believe a fighter is over-hyped, then say it before the loss and let your vindication be your reward, and keep silent afterward. Crocop, Tito, Wanderlei, Chuck, Hughes, Randy, Gomi et all earned their stellar reputations, beyond questioning.

So if they were at the top, what the hell happened? I’m sure we’ve all asked this after watching our favorite fighter made to look average. In this case perhaps the simplest answer holds the most truth, as painful a truth as it may be. Many of the most popular fighters of out time are getting a little long in the tooth. While Randy Couture has proven it is possible to compete at the highest level past the big 4 0, he is the exception rather than the rule. Also worth noting is that Couture had had only 24 fights coming into his title defence against Brock Lesnar. That is relatively few compared to many fighters going into retirement. As any fighter will attest, every fight requires a training camp, every training camp causes or aggravates an injury of some severity, and every injury takes its toll on how well you can train.

For many fighters it becomes time to hang up the gloves and logo laden shorts when the injuries no longer heal, be it too much abuse or old age slowing the healing process, and they can no longer train properly. But admitting the injuries have beaten you and abdicating your position as the dominant male does not mesh with the psyche of a warrior like Tito Ortiz, who suffered a painful spinal injury which impeded his training for the last three years or so. The temptation is to chase your former glory and a fat pay check, handing in inferior performances along the way. Even after losing your spark and the body giving in, there is still a retirement fund and your legacy to think of.

The wild training sessions of the prolific Chute Boxe Academy are the subject of many stories. Tales of full power sparring and frequent KOs being taken and shaken off paint a brutal picture. To achieve the best preparation, some top competitors spar extremely hard, and as the years progress, the concussions pile up. According to medical studies, this degrades their ability to withstand a strike and retain consciousness, which accounts for what we have seen of recent from Wanderlei and Chuck. Worryingly, combat sports medical expert Dr. Johnny Benjamin recently mentioned in his blog that repeated concussions can impede motor skills, so as time passes by, hard sparring may delay reactions in addition to the natural effects of the ageing process. Worse reactions and a less reliable chin as time goes on mean a battle worn fighter is facing an uphill struggle.

In both boxing and MMA, with age we commonly see the body give in before the mind, but for those who reach the top of the pile, the opposite problem often occurs. Matt Hughes has 49 fights, 49! That means 49 training camps sacrificing family time, delicious foods and partying. 49 times he has taken a month or more of pain, woken up early, headed to the gym to drill the same techniques for the nth time, punished himself and been punished by sparring partners. Hughes is famed for his strength, but this feat of mental strength requires tremendous motivation. For fighters like Hughes, who dominated an entire division for years, or Wanderlei Silva, who has fought in front of crowds of over 80,000 and been a pound for pound god, scraping together the motivation to train properly is a battle in itself. Eventually a lack of motivation becomes a problem for nearly everyone who reaches the pinnacle of MMA or any demanding career. Unlike most careers though, MMA is unforgiving, and one slip will lead to a devastating stock plummet. Once you’ve reached the top there’s only one way to go, and that’s back down.

Assuming a fighter can retain his or her motivation, physical health and chin, there is one more obstacle to overcome. When an opponent has 30 or so fights worth of tape to watch on you, it becomes a tad difficult to show them something new which they won’t have prepared for. Chuck Liddell has suffered from this problem of late, as maestro of violence Greg Jackson seems to have figured out how to pick apart his style. Once opponents figured out how to avoid Mirko Crocop’s left head kick and Wanderlei’s wild barrage of hooks, they both started to look devoid of a plan B. Another old adage proves true here- you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Ego, or reasoning that your style brought you success in the past, can prevent a once great fighter from evolving their style and learning new techniques. It has never been more important than in the modern game to have a tool box brimming with skills, and sticking to what you know just doesn’t cut it these days. Without wanting to sound like a cliché soundboard, styles make fights, and if you know what style your opponent will bring, you can tailor your style to make the fight in your favor.

If your idol can somehow dodge the pitfalls I’ve outlined, then guess what, it’s still not going to be good enough! The new breed of up-and-comers are unbelievable fighters. There are the supergrapplers, the superstrikers, the supertough and the superathletic. They are hungry for success, aggressive, technically proficient, have fresh bodies and minds and there are thousands of them. When you are at the top you are the target and it’s simply inevitable that sooner or later you will falter and the pack will descend on you. Once the first loss slips through, your aura of invincibility is gone and everyone wants a piece of you. They say a champion’s worth is determined by how they bounce back from a defeat, and many of the elite now coming a cropper haven proven their mettle time and again. However, sooner or later, just resolve will not be enough to make it back to the top.

With reflection, next time I see one of my heroes brought down to earth, rather than despairing at them coming up short, I will think just how miraculously good they are to have even strung a couple of wins together at the top level.

On a final note, I will boil the blood of Dana White and many UFC fans, by mentioning one person who still remains untouched by all comers. Over 30 fights and 8 years into his career he is still (in theory) undefeated. I for one still place my faith in Fedor Emelianenko.