For many young fighters, retirement calls early

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For Mark Hominick, the pinnacle of a well-worn career came in April 2011. Before 55,724 fans at the Rogers Centre in his home province of Ontario, just 90 minutes east of where he grew up, Hominick walked into the UFC Octagon to challenge featherweight champion Jose Aldo. The match at first was one-sided, but as it wore into the championship rounds, the drama ramped up. Bloodied and with a massive hematoma on the right side of his forehead, Hominick summoned the energy to take over and dominate the final round. While Aldo ultimately held on until the closing bell and won a decision, it was the culmination of everything Hominick had worked for. While he was fiercely competing for the belt, at the same moment, his wife Ashley was in her ninth month of pregnancy with the couple's first child, Raeya.

Without knowing it, though, the seeds for his exit from MMA had been planted. He had been so close to being world champion, but within less than 20 months, he was out of mixed martial arts and on to retirement at the age of 30.

"I look at my life now and where I'm going and I know I can't make the same sacrifices that I could before," he told MMA Fighting. "I know what I was doing when I was on a winning streak and what I was doing now. I can't leave for two months at a time to go train for a bout. I don't want to be a fighter who is just competing to be in the UFC. I think I belong fighting against Aldo and those top guys. And if I'm not competing and winning at that level, I'm not in it."

Hominick is part of a surprising trend in the upper echelons of MMA of fighters who are retiring or contemplating the decision to walk away at a young age.

Among those who have called it quits since the start of 2011 include Hominick (30 years old at the time of his announcement), Nick Thompson (29), Nick Denis (29), and Cole Konrad (28). Other young fighters like Jason "Mayhem" Miller (31), Kyle Kingsbury (30) and Jonathan Brookins (27) are currently in limbo, deciding their futures.

Tom DeBlass has been there. The UFC veteran was 30 when he decided he'd had enough, announcing his retirement just days after his second career loss.

For DeBlass, the reason for quitting was simple: burnout. After dedicating most of his early adult life to jiu-jitsu, he began his pro MMA career in June 2010, and in less than 20 months, he was 7-0. That led him to his UFC debut, a short-notice opportunity as a replacement. Despite the fact that he was injured and out-of-shape ("I was eating Fruity Pebbles when Joe Silva called me," he said), DeBlass took the fight. And lost. Then seven months later, he fought again. This time, he had a good camp. And lost. After less than three years of competing as a pro, he decided he was done.

"I got back into the locker room and I was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore," he said. "It's too much time away from the family. It's too much time away from my academy. I had to pick up and leave everything that was important to me. I had to spend money to travel. In looking at the pros and cons, I didn't feel it was worth it anymore."

DeBlass said the feeling had started creeping in even before his last fight. During his final camp, he went through a phase where he was "miserable" while training. It got so bad that he told his family a few times that he was ready to move on.

For some, like DeBlass, the decision to retire is like a slow-moving wave, which builds momentum before finally crashing on to the shore. For others, it's a completely different phenomenon; an unexpected bolt of lighting.

Of all the retirements in 2012, none was more surprising than that of Konrad. The 6-foot-5 powerhouse had been the reigning Bellator heavyweight champion when he quietly called it quits, releasing the information to a local newspaper.

In Konrad's case, the end came when he was recruited for a promising employment opportunity as an agricultural commodities trader. Though he had become publicly known for his power and brawn, Konrad had earned a masters degree while in college, and yearned to put it to use. His situation was complicated by a few factors. He had just gotten married and hoped to start a family, and Bellator's heavyweight division wasn't deep enough to rapidly generate contenders for him to fight. From the start of 2011 until the date of his retirement in September 2012, he competed only twice. That meant only two paychecks.

Even though Bellator was readying a major move to Spike -- a change which promised more exposure and eventually, more money -- it wasn't enough to keep Konrad in the fold.

Colekonradwins_medium "When I was weighing the opportunity I was given vs. fighting, I had to face the reality that fighting is a pretty dead-end job," he said. "Am I going to be 35 or 40 and still fighting? Then where do I go when I'm done, when I've never had a real job? Was I going to make as much money where I would be able to retire at that age? It's possible. But the reality is, given my physique, I didn't see that happening. However you want to look at it, that definitely plays a part. You have to look the part, act the part, be the part to cash big checks. I was pretty successful fighting, but in other aspects I wasn't exactly what was being sought for a high-profile fighter."

Konrad said that Bellator's CEO Bjorn Rebney made a play to keep him, but by then, his mind had been made up.

The decision isn't quite so easy for everyone. Take Kingsbury, for instance. The 30-year-old came on the major MMA scene in 2008 as part of season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter. Almost five years later, Kingsbury is still on his original UFC contract. In his last fight, he made $12,000. To ease the financial burden, he's had to work full-time jobs during each of his last two camps, but that's taken away from his training as well as robbed him of valuable rest and recovery time. It's become something of a vicious cycle.

To make matter worse, in his last fight against Jimi Manuwa, he took a pounding. According to FightMetric, Manuwa landed 53 significant strikes against Kingsbury, who was the victim of a TKO loss after the cageside doctor stopped the bout, fearing for the health of his swollen-shut left eye. At the time, Kingsbury wanted to fight on, but as he later learned, it was the right decision; his orbital bone was fractured in two places.

But it was really his fight with Glover Teixeira that first set career doubt into his mind. Here he'd had the best camp of his life. He'd never sparred better or felt better. And yet Teixeira mopped the floor with him, stopping him in less than two minutes.

"It's really easy to get caught up in the moment when you're on a win streak," he said. "You think this is great. You start buying into the hype. You start believing the money is going to keep coming. But when you get cut back to size, it's a lot harder to deal with."

It wasn't just the losing. In the gym, Kingsbury had been alarmed by what he'd seen from teammates and others in the fight game. He'd heard some slurring words. There were others who drooled sometimes without realizing it. With his proclivity for wars, was that where he was headed?

"I've had my face broken twice in my last four fights," he said. "This last fight it was broken in two different places. Taken all that into consideration, I’d be a fool to believe it won't have long-term affects on my body and my brain."

At the money he was making, it just didn't seem worth it. Yet Kingsbury hasn't officially shut the door on his career. For now, he is straddling the line between two worlds. In the gym, he continues to train but refuses to spar and take more blows to the head. He's working towards his jiu-jitsu brown belt -- which would catch him up to his father, Rick -- and he still does mitt work, trying to improve upon his head movement and make himself a less available target. But he's also chasing his goal of becoming a firefighter. He plans to apply and test with several departments but doesn't know how things will turn out. That's why he's not necessarily ready to say he won't fight again. He might have to.

Contrast that with the situation of Denis, who like Kingsbury, had second-thoughts about the future effects he might suffer. Denis, who was working towards a Ph.D. in biochemistry when he began chasing his UFC dreams, could not help but analyze the situation critically.

At first, he simply accepted as true the talking points about MMA's safety, but as he looked deeper into studies on concussive and sub-concussive trauma, he began to truly understand the potential dangers he was facing. In his mind, as long as he continued to fight, he was making an implicit trade, dealing his own long-term health for a paycheck and some temporary glory.

"It was sad but when I made the decision, it had to be done," he said. "I wasn't going to second-guess myself, and say, 'These things aren't going to happen to me.' If I didn't have an education to fall back on or any other interests, that might lead to me thinking this is all I have. But I came to the realization this isn't the healthiest thing for me."

Denis has now almost completely divorced himself from the sport. He says that while he tries not to think about any future brain issues, there are little moments, like forgetting the name of a famous actor, for instance, that make him wonder how much damage was already done. He's also haunted by the thoughts of the damage he might have caused his opponents and sparring partners.

Denis said at one time he was obsessed with the sport, but the love affair has burned out. Asked when was the last time he watched a fight, he pauses for several seconds. Ultimately, he can't remember. "Part of me doesn't want to support it," he says. But he also believes that people have the right to do what they want with their own bodies. They just need to understand the risks.

Some, like Kingsbury, know the risks, but still consider fighting on anyway. After a two-month retirement, DeBlass decided he'd come back. He signed with Bellator, where he's scheduled to fight on their April 4 show. He says the changes he's made in his camp will allow him to spread out his time between his training, his two-year-old daughter Isabelle, and the gym he owns, Ocean County Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. That, he hopes, will alleviate the feeling of the unending grind that overtook him the first time.

Family was among the reasons most cited by those who walked away from the sport young. For others, it was the unrelenting pace of training multiple disciplines day after day, even through injuries. For yet more, it was fear about future unknowns, whether regarding health or finances or self-identity. Even for the youngest and fittest athletes in MMA, the lure of walking away is sometimes more magnetic than the attraction of fame and the possibility of fortune.

Nearly to a man, though, they all say they can take positives from the experience. Kingsbury said after facing the pressure of a fight, common life problems don't seem quite as big. Hominick made some of his best friends through the sport. And even Denis, who voiced the most fear over what the sport did to him, admits that it was a "great part" of his life.

But at some point, for all of them, what fighting brought to the table was no longer enough. And even at a young age, they walked away from something they once loved.

"In MMA, you train year-round, every day," Denis said. "You put in tons of hours. Your job evaluation -- what your boss sees -- is only 15 minutes, maybe every 4-6 months. And your boss and everyone else judges you on that. They don't see everything else that you do. They don't see the grueling training. On top of that, at any time, you could lose your job. If you have a family and bills, you probably wouldn't want to stay there too long. There are people out there who think this is the best job in the world. But when you have intelligent fighters leaving young, what does that say?"

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