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The Truth About Knowing When to Walk Away

In the weeks leading up to the night he was supposed to formally announce his retirement from professional fighting, Frank Shamrock kept telling himself that he wasn't going to go through with it. Not really. Not now.

It was classic Kübler-Ross Model stuff, he realized afterward, and not without reason.

"For me, it really was like a death," Shamrock said. "I went through the various phases. At first it was disbelief. I'd think, I'm not really going to do it. But then, I am feeling like I should do it. Second was, once I started moving in that direction, I didn't really want to do it. I thought maybe I could change it and do something different. Then after a couple weeks, I finally accepted it. I knew I had already made that decision and started it, so I had to accept it. That was the crying phase."

For two weeks before he was supposed to step in the cage and say his final farewell, the former UFC and Strikeforce champion was a blubbering mess. He never knew when it would come over him – eating breakfast, cleaning out the garage – but he'd get started thinking about his life without fighting and there he'd be again, weeping uncontrollably.

This was a guy who didn't cry when Cung Le broke his arm with a kick or when Nick Diaz battered him with punches for nearly ten minutes. Now here he was, facing the decision that every fighter knows he must make eventually, and he couldn't control the waterworks.
Past [fighting], there was a lot of fear because I didn't know what I was supposed to do next.
-- Frank Shamrock

To understand why is to understand why so few fighters are capable of walking away from the sport when it's time, or why seeing a fighter like Randy Couture retire on his own terms is the exception and not the rule.

Which is not to say that Couture, who remained competitive well into his forties and who many people still have a hard time believing is gone for good, hasn't had his own struggles with the issue. He's retired before, only to find that leaving is easier than staying gone. Even UFC president Dana White expressed doubts that this latest retirement will stick, and he's not the only one.

As Jason "Mayhem" Miller put it, "I think for every fighter the answer to the question, 'When will you stop fighting?' is, 'When nobody wants to watch me fight anymore.' It's got to be hard for Randy, when people still want to watch him fight, and the UFC is offering a sh-t ton of money. If you've already had your a-- kicked before, and we all have, it's hard to say, 'No thanks, I don't need a new house.'"

For some fighters the money is more necessity than luxury, however. The guys who never made the huge paydays to begin with can easily find themselves waking up one day with no marketable skills that don't involve being punched in the face.

Grudge Training Center head coach Trevor Wittman has seen that scenario unfold in both MMA and boxing, he said, and it's not pretty in either sport.

"It's easier for Randy. He's got other businesses and he's got movies, but a normal fighter who's just trying to ride that money train a little longer, then it's a hard, hard decision," Wittman said. "They haven't worked and held down a regular job for 10 or 15 years, so what do you do? Do you go into a bank and say, 'Hey, I want to work here, have no experience, haven't had a job in fifteen years aside from fighting, so when can I start?' I mean, how do you think that's going to go?"

But for fighters like Couture and former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who was practically dragged into retirement by White, it wasn't just the money that kept them coming back when their best days were clearly behind them. Both had pocketed plenty of cash in the fight game and had lucrative opportunities outside of it, but by that point fighting wasn't just a job for them – it was an identity.

Giving up the one thing that has ruled most of your adult life is harder than you think, Shamrock said, especially when you don't know any other way of getting through the days.

"For me, fighting was my life. It was my mission, and I knew that was what I was supposed to do. Past that, there was a lot of fear because I didn't know what I was supposed to do next. I thought I did and I thought I'd prepared everything. But the fact was, for fifteen years I woke up every morning thinking, how can I get better? How can I beat this next guy? To think that I wasn't going to think that anymore, it was like, wow, my whole world is changed."

36-year-old UFC welterweight Chris Lytle faced similar questions when a string of recent injuries led him to consider retirement after eleven years in the sport. A full-time firefighter, Lytle already had another career to fall back on, so it wasn't as if he didn't know what to do with himself after fighting. But when it came time to seriously consider the prospect after his loss to Brian Ebersole at UFC 127 in February, Lytle said, what he started wondering was who he was going to be without it.

"That's exactly what it is. It's the identity," Lytle said. "Everybody knows, that's Randy Couture the fighter. Or that's so-and-so the fighter. That becomes who you are. A lot of people can't understand that. I know a lot of times people treat me a certain way because I'm a fighter on TV. They wouldn't treat other people the same, or they wouldn't maybe laugh at all their jokes quite the same. I can just tell sometimes, I'm getting benefits because of who I am as a fighter. You get used to that, and I'm sure it's hard to walk away from that."

One thing that keeps him level is his job at the firehouse. Whether he wins or loses in the Octagon, it doesn't matter to his co-workers when it comes his turn to mop the floors or clean the toilets.

"And it's hard to think you're a bad-ass when you're mopping floors," Lytle said.
You hear those boxers talk when they've been at it too long, and by then the damage is done and there's nothing they can do about it.
-- Chris Lytle

But at the same time, Lytle knows that he might not realize it right away when it is time for him to quit the sport. To be a fighter at the UFC level – in fact, just to climb into the cage and fight another highly trained human for money – you have to be the kind of person who has an almost recklessly high opinion of his own abilities. You have to be someone who always thinks he can do it, even when he can't. If you were the type to quit when things got difficult, you never would have made it this far.

By the time a fighter is a veteran in the sport, he's conditioned himself to walk through all manner of physical pain and emotional distress. By then he is more ill-equipped than ever to confront the reality of his situation. The mental toughness that was once an asset becomes a crippling liability.

That's why, Lytle said, he's relying on his coaches and teammates to tell him what he doubts he'll be able to see for himself when the time comes.

"I've surrounded myself with people who I know are not just there for a paycheck. I'm friends with these guys, and they're always telling me, 'Chris, we're not going to drive this car until the tires fall off.' They care about me as a person, and they'll tell me when they feel it's time. Guys get older, and their timing starts to go just a little, and that's when they start getting hurt. By the time they figure out that there's a problem, then it's too late. You hear those boxers talk when they've been at it too long, and by then the damage is done and there's nothing they can do about it."

But just because the news comes from trusted friends, that doesn't necessarily mean it's any easier to hear. In both boxing and MMA Wittman has had that difficult conversation with many fighters, he said, and plenty of them haven't taken it well.

"There's a few fighters that's happened with, and you know what they do? They leave my team and go to a different team. That happens on a fairly consistent basis. They kind of get mad at you, because they want to make that decision. But I'll tell them, I'm not going to work your corner anymore."

Then, Wittman said, the fighter is more likely to find himself in a situation where he's surrounded by people who don't care as much about his well-being. They haven't known him for years like his old team, so their only concern is getting their cut of a few more fight purses before the ride is over for good.

And the fighter? To him it's all about getting just one more win to get him back on track. What he often fails to realize, Wittman said, is that not only is he not the same athlete he was five or ten years ago, but the sport has changed as well.

"MMA is changing so fast, and a lot of fighters just can't keep up with it. Guys think about how well they used to do, but then they were fighting guys who were not at the level of the guys now. I used to go to these pro-am fights back in the day and see a full night of fights and leave thinking, not one of those fights should have been sanctioned. These guys looked like they'd been pulled in off the street and were just fighting to impress chicks or something, and you'd see that on a consistent basis. But lately, in the last two or three years, even the guys on the local shows are good, technical fighters."

But regardless of how good your reasons are or how implacable the logic is that brings you to the decision, that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to face the moment.

Intellectually, it's something every professional athlete knows with one hundred percent certainty that he'll have to deal with. Maybe you get too old and slow. Maybe the injuries pile up and don't heal like they used to. Maybe fans just lose interest in seeing you fight, and then the days when you were young and unstoppable begin to feel like another memory that's been folded up and put away somewhere just out of reach.

The only thing the fighter knows is that this day is coming. He doesn't get to decide when. All he can do is recognize it and call it what it is. The signs are always there if he's willing to look. For Shamrock, it was when he no longer dreamt about fighting.

"That's kind of how I knew," he said. "It wasn't in my thoughts anymore. I knew I had to give it up or I was going to get hurt and damage myself."

Even with as strong as that feeling was, it didn't spare him the weeks of tears or the empty moment that came when he had to walk to the cage on a Saturday night and say the words out loud. But when he woke up the next morning, Shamrock said, he knew he'd made the right choice.

"It felt right. It felt like it was the right thing to do. I honestly questioned it all the way I was walking out there. I mean, how do you give up your whole life? I hadn't really figured that one out yet. I just knew I had no other choice."

The Truth About' is a recurring feature on that takes an in-depth look at various aspects of the sport. Check out past installments, such as 'The Truth About Making Weight' and 'The Truth About Losing.'

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