Antoni Hardonk was no different in that regard. But there came a point when he had to be honest with himself about where he was headed and what he was capable of.
"In your twenties, you don't think about the future as much," the Dutch kickboxer and UFC veteran told MMA Fighting recently. "You do whatever you feel like doing and you don't think about it. In your thirties, the future is more of a consideration. For me, I'm a good competitor, I have some talent, but I can't retire on that. I can survive, but that's basically it. So I decided I had to move on."
Moving on doesn't necessarily mean retiring for good, according to the 34-year-old Hardonk, who went 8-6 as an MMA fighter and 4-4 in the UFC. He's still under contract to the UFC, and he can't say he'll never fight again. But these days, a career inside the cage isn't his focus.
As is the case with the vast majority of pro fighters, Hardonk aimed for the top and ended up somewhere in the middle. When that happens, you can either hang around for as long as the powers that be will let you, or you can change directions.
"It didn't really happen for me, and I'm okay with that," said Hardonk. "But I realized that I had gained a lot of knowledge over the years, and with that knowledge I could help other fighters."
The fact is that MMA is a sport that doesn't tend to revere or even amply reward the many fighters who fall into the 'good but not great' category. Hardonk realized that, but he also realized that it didn't make his experiences as a fighter worthless.
"I felt like I was missing something in my training and it was affecting my performance in my fights. I saw my training partners were going through the same thing, so I thought maybe I should step aside and try to help them with that," Hardonk said. "In the last year, it's something I was struggling with. You can't be the fighter, the coach, and the training partner all by yourself. You need other people."
In April, Hardonk opened his own gym – Dynamix Martial Arts in Santa Monica, Calif. – and began devoting more of his energy to teaching. Soon he had other UFC fighters like Jared Hamman and Vladimir Matyushenko training with him, and shortly thereafter fellow Dutchman Stefan Struve called him up, looking for a new boost in his training.
Working with Struve is a somewhat strange experience at times, Hardonk admitted, because the two share so much in common. Struve has grown up training at the same gyms that Hardonk did, and even took side jobs bouncing at the same nightclubs. But the twelve year difference in their ages means that Struve got to come up at a time when MMA was not only more developed and accepted, but also more profitable.
"Stefan and I walked in the same path in many ways, but times have changed," said Hardonk.
Now, when he looks at the 22-year-old Struve and the bright future he seems to have in this sport, he can't help but want to pass on all the knowledge that he gained the hard way.
"I had a professional kickboxing career before I started MMA, and I feel like I was a little unlucky there," said Hardonk. "I was always going against the flow, had some problems with my management, and mistakes were made. I think I never reached my full potential in kickboxing because of that."
When his kickboxing career stalled, Hardonk moved into MMA at a relatively late stage in his career. He had some highs, including three straight TKO victories in the UFC. He also had some lows, including his decision loss to Justin McCully, which he still regards as the most "annoying" fight he ever had, simply because he had to listen to Tito Ortiz shouting instructions all night.
His knockout loss to Pat Barry at UFC 104 last October was his second straight loss in the UFC. Confronted with the reality of opportunities missed and potential not fully realized, Hardonk had a choice. He could wallow in self-pity, try and cling to his career until he's one day unceremoniously cut from the UFC, or he could turn his focus toward helping others.
The decision came easily to Hardonk, whose parents are both teachers back in the Netherlands.
"I always enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed helping people and making them better – people at all levels. I think you could be a rich man, but if you don't have anyone to share it with it doesn't matter. I think that's one of the great things in life is sharing it with other people. Fighting is my passion, and I enjoy sharing that passion with other people. Also, I think I'm good at it. I think I'm a good communicator and I can analyze things and see things that maybe people can't always see for themselves."
Struve agrees. With Hardonk's guidance he scored a dramatic knockout victory over Christian Morecraft at UFC 117 last weekend. Struve showed his toughness by surviving a disastrous first round to rebound in the second with a perfect three-punch combo that dropped his opponent to the floor and sent Struve running around the Octagon in elated circles.
Cue the screaming crowd, the rush of adrenaline, all the good stuff that fighters picture in their minds as they're drifting off to sleep at night. It was exactly the kind of moment that makes a young man want to get in this business and stay there as long as possible.
If you looked closely that night at the dark edge of the spotlight just on the other side of the fence, that's where you'd see Hardonk. The glory, that belonged to Struve. The quiet satisfaction of seeing a protégé enjoy success, that was Hardonk's.
It's not necessarily where he thought he'd be when he first got in the fight game, but it's where he is, and that's okay with him.
"I think what matters most is that you are happy with what you are doing," Hardonk said. "And I am. I'm happy."