It’s a hard part of any fighter’s career, when they’re still feeling fit enough to fight, there’s still demand to see them fight but they’ve in all likelihood passed the point where they are going to be given title shots in the near future.
That’s the prospect which faced Chael Sonnen after his decisive loss to Jon Jones. It’s not that he is without options, with opportunities in broadcasting and coaching ready to hand but still he has chosen to maintain a fighting career which is unlikely to ever again offer the lure of championship gold.
This is because, well… it’s hard to walk away. All forms of combat sports and sports entertainment (because the parallels between pro wrestlers and pro fighters are remarkable) seem to be a bit addictive. The bright lights, the big payday are hard to willingly step away from, even if you probably should.
Hell, as we’ve seen with the likes of Ian Freeman, the lights don’t even need to be that bright, and the payday doesn’t need to be that big if you’re ego is telling you to get back in the cage.
No reasonable person wants to see the world champions of yesterday engaging in tepid bouts in tiny halls to a few hundred people. Except the promoters who collect the money.
Nonetheless, I propose that the UFC in fact has an informal ‘masters division’ where such fighters who are beloved enough by fans and the company, yet will probably never again compete for a world title face off with one another, in the main event of TV cards and in featured positions on PPV cards, sometimes headlining as a stopgap.
This is the slot Chael looks to step into now, and he’s brilliantly adapted for it. Chael is the best self promoter in the business, can create a heated rivalry out of thin air and make a match that EVERYONE knows is basically meaningless into this weekend’s can’t miss attraction.
To start with, he’s going after an old rival who he’s been verbally dogging for years and who also happens to be the mainstay of the UFC’s ‘Masters Division.’
Wandy is as beloved a fighter as you can find – shown by the reception for his recent headlining bout in Japan – but with a UFC record of 4-5, the once dominant Price FC champion is a special attraction at best. Not that he’s only trading on his past, as his recent bouts have been very entertaining, even if you do get the feeling that he’s risking his long term health every time he steps into the cage.
Recent Wanderlei opponents, Rich Franklin and Cung Le are in the same position and the hazy ground between Middleweight and Light Heavyweight is littered with fighters who are known for fun fights, who have built up devoted fan bases over the years but who’s championship days have slipped past.
The likes of Chris Leben, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, Vitor Belfort, Forrest Griffin and Dan Henderson could be considered a part of this circuit, perhaps even the likes of Brian Stann or Yoshihiro Akiyama too. All fighters of quality, who remain in demand, but who’s age and recent win-loss record almost preclude them from title shots or the UFC’s long term plans.
There are fighters in almost every division who sit in this role (but none so crowded as between 185 and 205lbs) with the likes of Josh Koscheck, Nick Diaz and BJ Penn more looking at fun fights than titles opportunities these days. Hell, even Urijah Faber can look forward to such a role once he can no longer beat everyone bar champions in his division.
There are worse ways to slip into retirement than a series of well received bouts against your peers, safe in the knowledge that its more bragging rights on the night and the thrill of a good performance on the line than any future ambition of gold.
As fans, we love these fights. It gives us the chance to see super fights we never saw when the contenders were at their peak and can add familiar names to a card filled with young fighters who haven’t found a place in our hearts yet.
Of course, there is always the concern that our ageing warhorses are continuing past the point if reasonable safety, as the KO losses start to mount up…
Still, I’d love to see almost any combination of the fighters I’ve mentioned. Those are fun fights, and another string to the UFC’s bow which will help smooth the transition from the old generation to the next. The idea is very much that we should watch for Chael vs. Wanderlei but be impressed by the kids on the card as well.
Aside from that, who am I to tell an old lion that they don’t get to go into the arena, one last time?