clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

UFC pioneer Mark Coleman looks back on career after recent retirement

The "Godfather of Ground and Pound," one of UFC's earliest stars, Mark Coleman accepts that his career in the cage is over. Yet, he leaves the sport with some regrets, the expected injuries, and some high highs and low lows.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Mark Coleman, the first world-class wrestler still in his prime to compete in the UFC, made official a couple of weeks back that his fighting career was over due to the hip replacement surgery he had on March 4.

It was more a confirmation of the obvious. Coleman, 48, hadn’t fought in three years, since his lost to Randy Couture at UFC 109. He’s been in a lot of pain for two years before that. He spent years hoping it would heal before a recent examination told him his hip was gone.

He was dreading the operation before hand. Today, he’s thrilled, and can’t stop raving about the work of his surgeon, Dr. Joel Politi of Columbus, Ohio.

"I walked the same day," he said after an operation that lasted less than one hour. "I got real lucky. I had one of the best doctors in the country, period. My scar is four inches. That’s unheard of for a hip replacement. Nobody has a four-inch scar. My physical therapist, I showed her the scar. She said that was the smallest scar she’d ever seen from a hip replacement. It made a big difference in recovery. I woke up from surgery and it was such a relief. I wasn’t feeling so confident going into the surgery. I was a little nervous."

Coleman noted he could lift his leg immediately, was walking with a walker four or five hours after surgery. He thinks he could have walked without the walker, but they wouldn’t let him. He said his hip is far stronger than it has been in years. He’s been told he can’t do anything but controlled movements. That means no more competition wrestling or fighting.

"If not for this hip, I’d have done the journeyman tour, and collected a few paychecks," he said. "Guys don’t like to quit, wrestlers or fighters. You don’t tell MMA when you want to retire. It tells you when you’re done. I was done. I didn’t know what the problem was. I finally got the MRI done. They told me, 'You don’t even have a hip basically.’"

Coleman noted that his former sponsor, MMA Elite, kept him on insurance which paid for the surgery, and he’s grateful.

"I called them up, basically begged them to keep me on," he said. "They stepped up and put me back on insurance. I’m very grateful to them."

This past weekend was big for him in his new role as a full-time spectator.

"My daughter (Kenzie, 15) took second in the state in gymnastics in level ten, which is the top level. She was a former level nine national champion. Level ten, that’s the best. She does gymnastics four or five hours a day, for ten or 12 years. It’s brutal. It’s amazing the calluses on her hand. That’s a sign of hard work"

The goal has been to get her daughter a full athletic scholarship to college.

Then he watched Kyle Dake become only the third wrestler in history to win four Division I championships. This year was the 25th anniversary of when Coleman, wrestling for Ohio State, won the tournament at 190 pounds.

"That was one of the biggest matches ever," he said of the 165-pound final on Saturday night. "Kyle Dake was going for his fourth title in four different weight classes. The guy he wrestled was no slouch. David Taylor is a great wrestler. I’m glad they made it the last match of the night. It was like a UFC main event. That was a big night for wrestling. I think Dake will do a great job being a spokesperson for wrestling. It’s going to be super intense for him against Jordan Burroughs (the 2012 Olympic gold medalist at 165 pounds). They’re in the same weight they’re going to going to go at it for the next world and Olympic trials. Jordan Burroughs (the defending gold medalist at 165 pounds), he’s a hero to many. He’s incredibly good."

Coleman immediately thought back to when he was a college freshman in 1984, and lost to Doug Dake, Kyle’s father, then a redshirt senior.

It’s been a long road since then for Coleman, one of UFC’s first superstars and one of only nine members in its Hall of Fame.

Coleman came into the UFC in 1996, after failing to make the Olympic team at 220 pounds, a weight class won by Kurt Angle, who went on to win the gold medal. Coleman represented the U.S. in the 1992 Olympics, placing seventh. The year before, he placed second in the world championships.

Mentally burned out, he took a few years off before coming back, and even then, he had watched the UFC and was trying to figure out how to get in it.

"I started a comeback in 1995," he said. "I actually beat Kurt Angle that year on three months of training. I beat the defending world champion, but then he put in more time than I did. He made the team and won the gold. He was a heck of a wrestler.

"Kurt, he was the hardest worker. He outworked everybody. I had four years on him. I used to get the better of him in practice, but then he caught up to me. He got bigger and stronger. He was in phenomenal shape. He never got tired, and if he did get tired, he certainly didn’t show it. I got a lot of praise for Kurt Angle."

He also credits Angle with literally saving his neck ten years later.

"I was having neck problems in 2005," Coleman said. "I just fought through it. But I had no strength in the left side of my body. Kurt told me about Dr. Jho (Dr. Hae-dong Jho) out of Pittsburgh who operated on his neck. He was the only guy who did the type of surgery. If I had another doctor, I would have had to get it fused. It would have sucked. He told me about his doctor. It was a miracle. He (Jho) sliced me open in the front and he goes in from there, looking on a screen, shaves he bulging disc off, relieving the pressure on the nerves, so the nerves are fine. Dr. Jho went in there, looks up there, shaves it off. If he messes up, you’re paralyzed. That’s why he’s the only one doing it. He’s an artist. I woke up from the surgery and it was a miracle. There was no recovery time. I started working out that day. It was about to end my career back then. It truly was a miracle. It hasn’t come back since."

It was failing to make the Olympic team that ended up being his ticket into UFC.

"I had been watching the UFC and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw," he said. "It was beautiful. I prayed it was real and I was just trying to find a way to get into it. At the Olympic trials, a manager (Richard Hamilton) came to me, Mark Kerr and Tom Erikson (three powerhouse wrestlers who didn’t make the team) and slapped a contract in front of me. UFC 10 was in 30 days. I just thought, `Where do I sign?’ I didn’t care what it said. I wanted to be in UFC 10. The contract didn’t look too pretty, but he did get me into UFC 10. That was an amazing, overwhelming night."

There had been wrestlers in the UFC before. Ken Shamrock was a good high school wrestler, but didn’t wrestle in college, and had combined his wrestling with submission knowledge picked up from pro wrestlers. Dan Severn was a world class wrestler, but was already 36, a decade past his peak, when he debuted in UFC. Don Frye wrestled at Arizona State and Oklahoma State, but was never an All-American in college. Coleman was 31, and coming right out of the top level of competition.

It was a very different UFC in those days. There were few well-rounded fighters. Most competitors were good in one discipline or sport, and the idea was to represent your sport and win using it. In those days, the feeling in the wrestling community was that if there was a real fight, with no rules, that the wrestlers was going to take their opponent down and beat him up on the ground.

"We didn’t think we could get beat in a fight," Coleman said . "We were all very confident. I was really confident. Looking back, I’m lucky I didn’t run into a super great Jiu Jitsu guy on the first night. I had a simple game plan or every opponent. Take him down and pound the crap out of him. I worked hard, but I was scared. After signing the contract, fighting scared and I only had 30 days."

In those days, UFC events were one-night tournaments. Coleman showed up on July 12, 1996, in Birmingham, Ala., and suddenly, was looking at his opponent, Moti Horenstein. All that confidence he’d had since he started watching the sport and thinking what a wrestler like him would do in UFC, started changing with an inescapable thought racing through his mind.

"I remember walking into the Horenstein fight, and then I started getting this bird chirping in my head, saying, 'What if karate does work.’ Now I’m glad I didn’t face a guy like (Lyoto) Machida in my first fight or I might have had a front kick to my face."

Karate couldn’t stop Coleman’s double leg, and he pounded Horenstein out in 2:43. He followed by doing the same to Gary Goodridge.

The next step wasn’t going to be so easy. He was facing Frye, at the time one of UFC’s big three stars along with Shamrock and Severn.

"Trust me, I got worried against Don Frye. There was no quit in Don Frye. He’s the toughest guy I ever fought. Not the best, but the toughest. No matter what I did, he wouldn’t quit. I was getting nervous. I was getting so tired. I was thinking, 'Is he ever going to stop?’ They didn’t stop it and he’s not going to tap out. I was concerned about him getting on top of me."

In those days, fights were quick. It was more an anaerobic sport of short explosions as opposed to a sport of conditioning in most cases. Coleman vs. Frye, which went 11:34, was the exception. Coleman was exhausted, but the only thing saving him is that Frye took such a terrible beating, that he couldn’t take advantage when Coleman got tired. Coleman’s tournament win, and more so his beating of Frye, who was 6-0 at that point, made him an instant star.

Today, Coleman sees that first UFC tournament win as one of the big four moments of his athletic career, along with making the Olympic team in 1992, winning the Pride Grand Prix in 2000, and, at the age of 44, in his next to last fight, beating Stephan Bonnar at UFC 100.

Coleman won a second tournament at UFC 11, although that wasn’t quite the thrill as the first. He won his first two fights in 3:05 total time. He was so feared at this point that between injuries, and an alternate backing out, he had no opponent in the championship match. At UFC 12, on Feb. 7, 1997, in Dothan, Ala., Coleman defeated Severn with a neck crank in 2:57 to become the UFC world heavyweight champion.

Then, in one of the key moments in the evolution of the sport, after the rival Extreme Fighting Championships folded, its champion Maurice Smith, a world champion in kickboxing, was brought in to be Coleman’s next victim. The idea was this was on the way to a showdown with Coleman against young phenom Vitor Belfort, in what was going to be UFC’s next gigantic fight.

But that fight with Belfort was never going to happen, because Smith scored what was up to that point in time the biggest upset in UFC history.

"It all went to my head," he remembered. "I thought I was going to take this guy down and pound his ass out. But he had a hell of a coach in Frank Shamrock and a hell of a game plan. Maurice Smith can take a punch. I remember we had been told the fight was 15 minutes, with a three-minute overtime. Then, before the fight in the dressing room, we were told that if nobody had won after overtime, they would have a second three-minute overtime. I heard that and I was rolling my eyes. I was thinking, 'This thing isn’t going five minutes, let alone 15.’ It was a wake-up call, a learning experience."

In those days, kickboxers never won at the top level of UFC competition, as it was the wrestlers and the jiu-jitsu fighters that dominated. Very few gave Smith any kind of a chance. Smith goaded Coleman before the fight, saying that he punched like a girl. It was a mind game that worked to perfection.

Coleman came out fast, taking Smith down and doing everything he could, as fast as he could, to try and show Smith that he didn’t punch like a girl.

"Maurice later told me, 'You knocked me out with a head-butt (legal at the time) but you hit me again and it woke me back up.’"

At the five-minute mark, Coleman looked down and Smith was still there, while he was completely exhausted. When Smith scrambled from the bottom to get back up, Coleman was almost completely defenseless against a kickboxing legend.

"That’s a horrible place to be when you’re that tired and somebody is picking you apart.

"It was completely embarrassing. I was so mad, so tired. I walked out of there. I couldn’t get my heart beating under control because I was so mad at myself for letting that happen. When reality set in, I realized how stupid I was. I let down a lot of wrestlers. Over the years, a lot of wrestlers have told me how that match broke their hearts. Wrestling’s a tight fraternity. I was representing wrestlers. I felt stupid. I’m a champion and I tried to walk in there and get by without doing the work. That’s not the way it goes."

Things were only about to get worse. Smith’s low kicks destroyed Coleman’s right leg. A few weeks later, in wrestling practice, Coleman’s tore his ACL. Trying to be like Jerry Rice, he thought he could return faster than normal from surgery, and took a fight with Pete Williams. The end result was Coleman being knocked out by a kick to the face, a moment that was constantly replayed on UFC highlight videos for the next decade.

A lot of things were changing, both in the sport and in his personal life.

Head-butts were banned after the Smith fight. Head-butts were a great equalizer to combat the guard game. Later, wrestling shoes were banned for competition, which was a rule that hampered wrestlers’ takedown ability.
Coleman also had two daughters over the next two years, MacKenzie (who now insists on being Kenzie), and Morgan, who is now a top-level 13-year-old softball player. He hated leaving his daughters to do camps, so instead would stay closer to home. To this day, he has regrets, thinking he should have trained harder for fights, but noted there is the trade-off, and has obvious conflicts about what he should have done. But he’s also his own worst critic.

"A kid can be very motivational, but for the guys on TV, you have to be selfish. A champion has to be a little bit selfish. To become the champion you’re so hungry and want it so bad. You have to be hungry. That’s why a lot of champions have a tougher time holding onto the belt. It’s almost easier to get it than to keep it. When you get it, your plate starts filling up when you become champion. Some people handle it better than others. I didn’t handle it that well."

Running low on money at the time, the UFC dropped Coleman, who ended up in Japan as one of the regulars during the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championships.

By 2000, Coleman had learned about cardio. The idea of training being lifting heavy weights and gorging with food to become as big and strong as possible was out the window. Now, down to 228 pounds, he entered what was, at the time, the greatest one-night tournament in the sport’s history. Most figured the tournament was going to come down to Mark Kerr, a wrestler with a 12-0 record who was thought to be No. 1 in the sport, and Igor Vovchanchyn, a Russian kickboxer, who was 39-2.

But on May 1, 2000, Coleman, at 35 years old, was in the best shape of his life.

He had trained two months straight for a fight with Ricardo Morais, another two months for a fight with Masaaki Satake, and two more months for the one night final eight.

"It was like I had a whole wrestling season under my belt," he said. "The night of the Pride Grand Prix was the best I ever felt. Mentally, I was strong. I knew this time I did the homework. I did the math. I was going to win in the first round. Then I’ll beat Kerr. Then I’ll ground and pound Igor Vovchanchyn for 20 minutes and win a decision. I really didn’t envision, didn’t think of any way I’d knock that guy out. He could take a punch. I didn’t see any way I’d finish the fight, but I could beat him up as long as I could on the ground and win the decision.

"The day before the fight, they tell me it’s no longer going to be a 20-minute time limit, and the finals would be no time limit. My game plan had to change. If there was a time limit, I’d have thrown more punches. I had to figure out a way to finish, and they had taken elbows away. And I couldn’t finish him by punching him in the face, because he once fought for 60 minutes of taking punches to the face.

At the 23-minute mark of the fight, Coleman threw one knee after another to the head on the ground, a move not legal in today’s UFC, and finished the Russian.

"If you saw my celebration afterwards, euphoria, I couldn’t think straight. I just jumped out of the ring.
But even though he had a long career, it went by quickly.

"I was 31 when I started. The next thing you know, I’m 40 and my body is starting to fall apart."

But he still points to his final win of his career, against Bonnar, as one of the most satisfying moments.

"That Bonnar fight is still one of my favorite wins of all my wins," he said. "To be able to come back and do that at 44 years of age, that’s one of the few times I actually put the work in. I didn’t move out to Las Vegas, but I had 70 days with trainers. I hated leaving my daughters, but this time I said I had to do it, because it was make-or-break for my career. Stephan Bonnar’s a tough guy. It really meant a lot to me to come back and show people how I evolved. I didn’t evolve enough, and I’ve got a lot of regrets. No excuse. But I did enough to beat Bonnar, and I think he won his next four after that ."

Coleman finished his career with a loss to Randy Couture in the only battle of already-inducted Hall of Famers in UFC history. He finished with a 16-10 record, but it really should have been 16-9, given his loss to Nobuhiko Takada in Pride in 1999 was really a pro wrestling match, a subject Coleman today said he would rather not discuss.

His next plan, after rehabbing his hip, is going back to training kids in wrestling, cheering on his daughters in sports, hopefully building a Hammer House gym, as well as working a new job as a spokesperson for the Patino Diet.

"I can still gather a crowd walking around at the Mandalay Bay," he said about returning to Las Vegas to promote his new eating habits.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting