For Cole Konrad, there is no living in the past. The Bellator heavyweight championship belt that he once won and proudly wore now sits collecting dust on a bookshelf in his basement. It is one of few remaining reminders of his past life, including only one single photo of him from his fighting days. In it, he stands alongside friend and former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and coach Erik Paulson. At the time, both Konrad and Lesnar were on top of their respective promotions, and the duo had just finished a practice that ended with them putting on their belts and horsing around. It is still Konrad's favorite memory from his days as a pro fighter, which ended last fall.
Konrad's retirement came as a surprise to the sport's observers and his promotion. When he called it quits, he was just 28 years old, had an undefeated record and a world of potential in front of him. Yet he swapped it not for some other glamorous role, but to trade agricultural commodities.
With the heavyweight division arguably the weakest in MMA, Konrad's potential value if he reached free agency unbeaten was enormous. To see that, all he had to do was look at his friend Lesnar, who made eight figures during his seven-fight run in the UFC from 2008-'11. While Lesnar's cultural crossover from pro wrestling stardom to MMA made him a special case, no one disputes that heavyweight stars are among the best-paid talents in MMA. For evidence, just look at the recent guaranteed paydays of Junior dos Santos ($400,000) and Alistair Overeem ($285,714.29). Add in the pay-per-view cut received by several big men, and it's clear that seven-figure paydays are quite possible for heavyweights of the highest order.
At 9-0, and in Bellator, which has never produced a pay-per-view, Konrad was far from reaching millionaire status, but on the other hand, at the time of his decision, the promotion was about to re-launch under a massive marketing blitz from Spike that would bring the widest exposure yet for the brand and its fighters.
Despite surveying the landscape before him, Konrad could only see uncertainty. Fights were slow in coming, with only one bout in 2011 and another single fight in 2012, with each one earning him around $30,000, he said. So after being repeatedly approached about a full-time job in trading, he weighed the pros and cons of continuing on, and in the end, he says he could only see fighting as a "pretty dead-end job."
"I always knew it in the back of my mind," he told MMA Fighting in his first interview since retiring. "I did it because I was having fun. I think when it changed was when I got married. Perspective changed. We wanted to start a family and my job is to provide for them the best I can. I just reevaluated things and fighting wasn't my best opportunity to take care of them to the best of my ability."
While the sportsman in him had no questions about his talent and ability, the businessman in him innately understood something that is of almost no concern in the rest of the pro sports world, that his paunchy physique and quiet personality would hold him back from the giant paydays seen by others.
That an athlete would even have to make such considerations about surface characteristics is an unspoken reality of MMA. As many top fighters have discovered, it's always not enough to train hard and out-compete the opposition. Careers are often made and fizzle out based on perception.
"I'm a realist," Konrad said. "I see some fighters that probably aren't at the same talent level as some other fighters, but because they talk like a jackass in interviews and have some tattoos, and have a look, they seem to draw people in and draw checks. I guess it should to an extent. If you draw interest and get people to watch you, you should be rewarded."
Yet there were certain things Konrad was not willing or able to do. His big body had always been what it was, despite a grueling training schedule that made him a four-time collegiate All-American wrestler at the University of Minnesota. It was, he acknowledged, an important part of the presentation, and in his words, "wasn't exactly what was being sought for a high-profile fighter."
His personality was not up for negotiation, either. Konrad said no dollar amount could have changed the way he presented himself, and even if it did, his father would have reined him back in quickly.
"There's great money there for top guys, but I don't look like Brock and I don't have that same personality," he said. "I'm not outspoken. My interviews are usually clean cut. My personality isn’t the type that would necessarily warrant that big paycheck. In my mind, I think that's just as important as being a good fighter, and I've seen it time and time again. I knew in the back of my mind, that's not me. I don't look that way, I don't act that way. I have two of the three [factors for success] holding me back. No excuses. In fighting, I eventually could have worked my way up there and done well but it wasn't going to be an overnight thing, that's for sure."
In a strange irony, it was Lesnar's example which paved the way for Konrad's exit. Just a few years earlier, it had been Lesnar serving the opposite role, sitting Konrad down and advising him to concentrate on fighting ahead of chasing his international wrestling aspirations.
For most of their careers, Lesnar and Konrad were regular training partners at Lesnar's DeathClutch gym in Minnesota. That association allowed him to leave the sport without any questions regarding his ability.
Lesnar, after all, makes for a pretty useful measuring stick when attempting to figure where exactly you fall in the divisional pecking order. A few fighters who trained at the DeathClutch gym with Lesnars and Konrad are on the record as saying that Konrad was the superior talent. One, UFC's Pat Barry, called him "Cain Velasquez at 300 pounds" and said that once Konrad gained complete confidence in his striking he would be the heavyweight champion of the world "in any organization."
Konrad also competed against many of the MMA world's best heavyweights during his wrestling days, including UFC champ Velasquez, who he beat in four of five matches. Because of all of those experiences, he feels that the questions he personally had have been answered.
"I know it’s totally different and people say, 'Yeah that was wrestling and this is fighting,' but the mentality and approach doesn't change," he said. "I would have continued to work and develop. I'm not saying that I would have been better than everyone because if I didn't fight them, I don't know. But in the back of my mind, I don't really question myself. I've had success at everything I've truly set my mind to. I’m completely content on how things shook out. I feel confident that had I gone on, I would have continued to develop. I won't look back with any regret. I don't have any regrets from wrestling, and I don't have any from fighting."
These days, Konrad lives in Minnesota with his wife, Carlissa. He says he's watched only a couple of fights since retiring, and only occasionally has the itch to compete in something. He says that urge is adequately addressed in his current job. By design, his firm recruits high-level athletes, with three other All-American wrestlers, several former Division I basketball and hockey players, and even a former NHL player on the payroll. Competition is in the company's DNA.
In the end, that's the thing that made Konrad successful in fighting, and it's also the thing that led him to leave when the competition was slow in coming.
"I didn't like the spotlight but liked the burden of having the win and loss determined strictly by my own performance," he said. "I wasn’t doing it so people were focusing in on me. I liked that type of combat. I liked the one on one. I liked that when it’s all said and done, I beat that guy, head's up, no excuses, no B.S. Just me vs. him, and I kicked his ass."