Let Rich Clementi take you back to a time when the sport still took risks, like back in the spring of 2003, when he took part in a tag-team fight. Yes, in a few instances, organizations have attempted to adapt that staple of professional wrestling into mixed martial arts, and one of those times, Clementi was there.
That night, he lost. The thing about it is, he doesn't much care about the result -- even though he'll helpfully remind you that he later went on to individually beat both opponents. But it was never just about winning or losing. It was about a journey that was more important than the pit stops along the way, making the lessons victory and defeat taught him more significant than the numbers in those categories.
That's the funny thing about MMA. You often walk in as a brash young kid hellbent on victory and leave an enlightened old man that has discovered you learned more about yourself through times of adversity.
"To say you can do this sport and everything’s going to go your way, you’re truly not doing this sport how it’s meant to be done," he said. "Because if you challenge yourself and step up and take on every challenge, it’s not going to work out in your favor every time. The one thing I’m very proud of is my attitude, and that no matter what happened to me, I never faltered. For me, that's truly what being a fighter is about. It's about getting knocked down and always getting back up."
At his best, Clementi was very good. Good enough to win over 40 fights, to compete in the UFC, to beat known commodities like Anthony Johnson, Melvin Guillard and Sam Stout. At his worst, he suffered through losing streaks and injuries. He saw it all. But his life as a pro fighter is now over after shredding all of the ligaments in his ankle during his last fight, a loss to Marcin Held in the Bellator lightweight tournament semifinal.
It's a trip that spanned two generations in MMA, from the time there was almost no money in the sport until the current day, when UFC president Dana White can boast of the "s---load" of money that will be funneled to Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva if they accept a soon-to-be-offered mega-fight.
Still just 35 years old, Clementi briefly considered the idea that he could continue after going through surgery and an estimated 12-14 month recovery time to fight one more time and go out on his own terms. But then he realized, it would never truly be enough.
"It kills me," he told MMA Fighting. "This is the person that I am. I truly love fighting. I've always been that way and always will be. I'm just a huge fan of the sport but it doesn't make sense for me to go on when I can utilize my platform for so much more.
"I wouldn't quit on my own," he continued. "I'd never say, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' So it's almost like it would take something like this to say, "Hey Rich, maybe you need to put the brakes on.' I'm the type of guy who doesn't argue with what life gives me. I'm just going to make the best of it."
That will include more time with his sons Richie and Kash, as well as training up-and-coming fighters at his gym, Clementi's Gladiator Academy in Slidell, Louisiana. In that instance, it means imparting the lessons learned after a career in the trenches, passing along history and promulgating the hungry attitude that was the fueled a young sport.
When he looks around, there is much to like about the current version of MMA, yet there are parts of it that turn him off.
"Where you look at where fights are going now, you see guys pulling out left and right," he said. "You see ideal match-ups where he'll fight this guy but not that guy. It's big business now. Back in the day, that's not what it was about. They called you to fight and you did it because that’s what you do. That's why you’re doing this sport. As weird as it sounds, that’s how it was. I just feel like now, it's just over-exploited and some of it's lost. It's almost like basketball where guys don't care. Guys bounce around, there's no loyalty factor to anything, people say anything to promote a fight or produce money or get the next title shot. It's never been about that for me. That part of the sport kind of disgusts me a little bit."
With MMA now big business, there's no easy remedy. But Clementi hopes the new generation occasionally looks back to the past as an example. His willingness to fight anyone, for example, was how he ended up in the tag-team match, how he fought an unheard-of three times in six weeks during the modern era, and why he matched up with and finished Anthony Johnson on a week's notice and despite Johnson missing weight by almost eight pounds. That along with his win over Guillard were the high points of his UFC run, and many felt he was prematurely released after going 4-2 in a six-fight stretch.
It's a period of time that he has a hard time looking back at, even now.
"I don't know if I'll ever be able to truly swallow that, to be honest," he said. "I lost a lackluster decision to Gray Maynard. I rarely ever have a boring fight. I think he has a little bit more of a track record in that than me but I felt I was blamed for that. And then in my next fight I went for a takedown on Gleison Tibau and got snagged. I just felt like since I took a few fights back to back as a replacement, I was more of a company guy than that. I was fighting nothing but high-level guys and got cut. I never will really, truly understand it."
Moving on though was just another part of the journey, and Clementi would go on to author a few more memorable moments before hanging up his gloves. Most recently, while competing in Bellator, he become the first man to defeat Russian Alexander Sarnavskiy after a 20-0 career start.
In speaking about his career, the memories come flooding back. From his favorite performance against Sergey Golyaev to his long relationship with manager and father-figure Monte Conte to his recollection of old-school fighters like Mikey Burnett that never got to experience the sport's explosion first-hand, the old times still seem vivid.
The sport is in many ways better than it was than when he arrived. In some ways it is worse. And despite the fact that Rich Clementi was never a major champion, his departure is yet another from an old-school talent that helped define to many what a "fighter" is.
"I think what I’ll miss most of all is that the sport makes you feel alive," he said. "I’ve done sky diving, I've done pretty much anything you can ever think of. There is nothing that even comes close to comparing to the feeling you have focused right before for a fight. Right before you step into the ring and go into battle. It's indescribable. No matter what happens, you know you’re putting it on the line. How much more alive can you feel than that?"