Vladimir Matyushenko, the old guard, and why this new era of fighting is just too much fun to quit

MMA Fighting

Catch him in the right mood, and Vladimir Matyushenko can start to sound like grizzled old war veteran. The kind of guy where stories involving the phrase "old-school" would be relayed over a glass of cheap bourbon in a smoky Russian dive, with Sinatra crooning on the jukebox in the corner of the room, and if you're lucky, you might even stumble into a few "back in my days." Though that probably just comes with the territory when you're among the last of a dying breed; the men who did this before this was actually a real thing. A reckless few who did it just do it, and wouldn't be surprised if that check from a grueling three-fight night bounced when they deposited it into their bank account.

It's that last part that Matyushenko remembers the most, and it also helps explain why he's still trucking at the spry age of 42, when nearly all of his contemporaries are either back to the 9-to-5 grind or sucking down a wine cooler on some tropical beach somewhere. Because back when another one of those pesky checks bounced, if you told Matyushenko that in a little over a decade, million-dollar purses would be possible and fights on network television would be taking place almost bi-monthly, he'd have said you were crazy. "And not just me," Matyushenko muses quietly. "I think I speak for not just the fighters, but also the UFC officials. Nobody knew it was going to be that big, that fast.

"I wish I would be 10 or 15 years younger. I would be at a different level," he finishes, half-joking, but with just enough fire to make it seem like he's considered the possibility. "It's just much more fun to deal with it and to be part of it than before."

And so it often goes in the life of a predecessor, one of which is never quite fair. For guys like Mark Coleman and Don Frye, who laid the groundwork for a multi-million dollar industry but never lasted long enough to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor, it must evoke conflicting emotions to see the next generation prospering so lavishly.

Matyushenko can relate. Though even if he's intent on sticking around long enough to enjoy himself, he still likes to look at things in a different light. "I'm an older guy," he liberally admits. "I see up-and-coming young guys who are fighting, and I know it's a hard thing to do. When they think about retirement, they're like, ‘Hey, if those old farts can do it, I can do it.' So in a way, I think we set an example for other fighters. If I can do that, they can do that."

The thing is, with a few exceptions, the life of a talented but an aging fighter is usually predestined to be a rough one. The young eat the old in the fight game, a symbolic yet often visceral passing of the torch from one era to the next. Matyushenko's path is no different.

In 2010, Matyushenko faced an upstart 23-year-old kid from New Jersey named Jon Jones. By 2011, Matyushenko was challenging a quiet 24-year-old Swede by the name of Alexander Gustafsson. And following a 13-month injury layoff, Matyushenko finds himself right back into the fire, preparing to fight a top-10, former All-American in Ryan Bader.

Matyushenko had tasted defeat just once in seven years prior to that stretch, but now the taste is growing uncomfortably familiar, and he remembers each one like it was yesterday. "Of course it's not a pleasant feeling to lose to somebody," he exhales. "But I try to get as much as I can from them, and move on."

The Jones fight, in particular, typified not only the self-consuming circle of the fight game, but also the fascinating new direction mixed martial arts was heading. "Actually, right after the fight, we talked and I told him, ‘You better freaking win, because I think there's nobody better than you. I'm not losing to losers,'" Matyushenko recollects. And win is exactly what Jones did. After besting Matyushenko, the young up-and-comer became the youngest champion in UFC history, inked a breakthrough sponsorship with Nike, and ultimately, used his leverage to turn down a short-notice title defense, leading to UFC 151's cancellation and inadvertently producing a seminal moment in the ongoing development of fighters' rights.

Matyushenko admits, "back in the day, [UFC 151] wouldn't have happened" that way. But to him, it was just one more sign of the way the sport had changed. "I still have a hard time saying no to fights," he laughs. "Maybe I should be smarter in that. But it's become more professional.

"There's a bad side and good side. It's bad for viewers, for fans, because they want to see some blood. They want to see some fights anyways. But I think for fighters, it's better because they're more protected. Right now we have health insurance and, more than anything, we have choices."

Matyushenko knows the retirement questions will inevitably come. They always come, that's nothing new. When you're an aging body working against time in a young man's game, you learn to accept it. "I've been thinking about it a long time," he concedes. "It's not just people asking. You think it in your head, too. But, I think speaking for all of us old fighters, what helps us to make a career longer is the sport itself evolved. Not just because of the level of fighting, but also the innovation and interaction with fans have become much better. So the fighting has become much easier. You just train and go perform.

"It's much more pleasurable right now than back in the days. That's one of the reasons, too, I'm trying to keep going and be part of it."

Matyushenko isn't sure when his time will come. For all he knows, he may be on his last run, and this next fight, when it's all said and done, could an indication of that.

But strap him into a lie detector test, and Matyushenko would swear up and down that it won't be the case. Bader doesn't have nearly the reach advantage of neither Jones nor Gustaffson, so if there's ever a moment to make a statement for the old guard, it's now.

With that knowledge weighing on his mind, the man they call "The Janitor" sinks back into his seat as he considers what lies ahead. "I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm not done," he gravelly concludes.

"I'm always trying to win as hard as I can, and I know I'm going to win. Otherwise you have nothing to do in that cage if you have any doubts."

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