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Life After MMA

You probably wouldn't recognize Christian Wellisch. Even if you vaguely recognize his name, even if you remember him as the guy who got knocked out by some UFC rookie named Shane Carwin back in 2008, chances are you'd walk right by him as he sits behind the American Kickboxing Academy's booth at this weekend's UFC Expo and never know you were looking at a former UFC fighter.

That dream is over now for Wellisch. After an 8-5 career that spanned a little over seven years, he said goodbye to his fighting life.

"I do sometimes miss it, but I don't wish I was still fighting," says the 34 year-old Wellisch, who now runs his own law practice outside San Jose, Calif. He knows it means that he'll never see his face on a UFC fight poster, never get to hoist the championship belt in front of a throng of cheering fans. And he's perfectly fine with that.

It's a sentiment that might seem foreign to fans who tend to see MMA fighters as people whose identity consists only of what happens in the cage. Once a fighter gets dropped from the UFC and doesn't get picked up by another organization, he drops off the public's radar screen. Once he hangs up his gloves, it's like he stops existing altogether.

But he doesn't, of course. He goes on like anybody else. In Wellisch's case, he doesn't even regard the end of his career as a bad thing.

"I never got into fighting with a specific goal of only doing that for the rest of my life. I got into it I guess because I wanted to see what it was like and I wanted to test myself. I did that, and I got to fight on the biggest stage in the world, which few people can do. I don't really have any regrets."

The turning point for Wellisch came following his split decision loss to Jake O'Brien at UFC 94. It was an extremely close fight that easily could have gone Wellisch's way if just one more judge had scored the final round in his favor. That's not what happened, and the loss was his second in a row. It proved to be all the motivation the UFC needed to release him from his contract.

"I told myself when I got into this sport that I wasn't going to take any steps backwards," he says. "I'm not going to go fight in the small shows. I think I made the right decision."

Unlike some fighters, Wellisch had options. He had earned his law degree from Pacific University's McGeorge School of Law in 2007, even while simultaneously pursuing a career in the UFC. He decided to put it to use, and now he works with many MMA fighters, helping them structure contracts and sponsorship deals, among other things.

Fighting for a living was fun, he admits, but this is fun too. It's just a different kind of fun.

"I don't get the pleasure of punching someone in the face and getting paid for it, and there is something to be said for that, but in the legal world you get to inflict more pain," he chuckles.

Wellisch's path is a useful reminder that fighters are more than just the people we see on fight night. Every athlete may start out trying to reach the top, but the reality is that only a precious few will get there. Once you find out that it's not going to be you, sometimes pursuing other interests is the best way to go.

"I think if he wants to retire, then he should," says longtime friend Mike Swick, who started his training at AKA at around the same time Wellisch did. "This sport is so tough, mentally and physically, that if someone is even considering other options, it's probably best to go do that."

One of the frustrating things, Swick adds, is that many fans might look at a guy like Wellisch and not appreciate the things he accomplished.

"He was a good fighter. He fought in the UFC all through law school. That's no small thing. I don't think people realize how tough that is."

Wellisch, too, says it's slightly irksome to encounter fans who think a five-fight run in the UFC followed by an early retirement is tantamount to failure.

"There's still that attitude that I find surprising, and which has no corollary in any other pro sport, where a fan will think, 'Oh, I could beat you. You're not that good.' Nobody in their right mind would say that about any other sport. You don't even have to look at the stars of those sports; you wouldn't even be able to hang in a one-on-one game with the worst player in the NBA. But with fighting there's that lingering attitude where some people still think that anyone can do it."

The truth is very few people can do it, and even fewer can do it at the highest level. Maybe Wellisch couldn't. And maybe that's okay.

"I think I saw every aspect of MMA," he says. "I fought on small shows on a day's notice. I've fought overseas, on different continents. I traveled everywhere on someone else's dime, which is always nice. I walked out in front of crowds of thousands. I fought on pay-per-view. I think I got a full taste and I had the best seat in the house."

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