In the world of sports, the next big things come and go with the blink of an eye. They are disposable heroes, adored one minute, forgotten the next. This is the fate of many, even if the reasons for the rise and downfall are rarely fully explored.
A recent mixed martial artist that neatly fits into the narrative is Brian Bowles, a powerful bantamweight who won the WEC championship, lost it partly due to injury, and then, a few fights and a short time later, seemed to vanish without a trace.
At least to the sporting world, Bowles hasn't been seen or heard from since Nov. 19, 2011, when he lost to Urijah Faber on what was perhaps the best night of major MMA in the last 10 years. On the same evening that Dan Henderson outlasted Mauricio Rua in a ferocious war of attrition, and Michael Chandler bested Eddie Alvarez in a brilliant technical masterpiece, Bowles tapped to Faber's vaunted guillotine. After that, he walked back to the locker rooms at the HP Pavilion, out the arena's doors, and disappeared into the California night.
Just as quietly as he left, after 18 months away, Bowles returns. At the upcoming UFC 160 event, he will face George Roop.
It's a comeback a long time in coming. Bowles, who turns 33 next month, said he originally intended only to take a short time off, but saw the days and weeks multiply largely because of injury as well as his own apathy for training.
"Sometimes going in the gym, it wasn’t fun to me anymore," he said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I started doing this out of fun. I didn't start doing this because I wanted to fight in UFC. I just started doing it for fun. When it became my job, and all the pressure got on me, it quit being fun, the grind of it."
Bowles' issues were compounded by ongoing injures. He broke his hand three times. He hurt his knee. He contracted staph infection. He was diagnosed with two bulging discs and two degenerative discs.
Of all the problems, the back injury has been the most troublesome to his career. Bowles said that he must constantly work hard to stay in shape, doing pre-habbing and strengthening exercises. Whenever he misses any time, it inevitably leads to disaster.
"When I sit out and try to come back, I have to come back so slow to get my back conditioned to it, that if I don't, I'll hurt myself," he said. "That actually happened to me. We tried to come back too fast, and then I ended up hurting my back and that would put me down for another month. Then before you know it, you're out 5-6 months without doing anything just from trying to take off a month or two."
The solution, it seems, is to consistently stay active and stay on his workout regimen.
For this return, he has been training hard since last October, and the workouts have allowed him to put his past experiences in perspective.
"You kind of get down on yourself when you're not training and you're sort of laying around," he said. "You're like, 'Man, I don't know if I want to do this.' I guess it's like you get depressed because you're a fighter and you're not fighting, you're not making money, you're not doing interviews, you're not doing anything. But as soon as I got to training hard again, I realized how much I loved it, and this is what I want to do."
Bowles said the last 18 months of living without earning a fight purse have been a financial challenge. He's lived off his past earnings, as well as some investments he made. He's also tried to make extra money by teaching classes and giving private instruction.
Incredibly, the division has not passed him by. Bowles is still ranked No. 8 in the UFC's divisional rankings, where ostensibly, a couple of wins should put him squarely in the hunt to challenge for a belt. Bowles thinks a solid three-fight win streak will be enough to gain him consideration, and the flashier the wins, the better.
Against Roop, he thinks the key is to find a way inside his range and put himself into position for takedowns.
After 18 months of inaction, and seeing what life is like away from competition, Bowles says there's no chance he's going back to the dark time in his life when he lost sight of how fun it all could be.
"Now I realize what it’s like without it," he said. "I don't want to feel that again. I realize when all that’s gone, I was sitting around the house doing nothing. I need to be out there fighting. Now that I'm back, I realize it was stupid of me to get lazy like that, and I think it got me refocused."