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If you have followed my column for the last few years, let me first applaud you for your excellent taste. Moving on, you may be familiar with one of the reasons why I gravitate to this sport. I’ve often said that my fascination with MMA -- beyond its obvious and immediate thrills -- is that fighting is a pure distillation of life. Sometimes the villains win. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Feel-good endings are rare.
Indeed, there are few instances of a fighter’s career coming to a harmonious conclusion. Look no further than B.J. Penn. Once feared by peers, respected by detractors and admired by fans everywhere, the now 40-year-old former phenom dropped his sixth straight fight at UFC 232. Adding insult to injury, it was the first time he had ever been submitted, an unthinkable proposition for someone whose rapid and exceptional talent on the mat earned him the nickname “The Prodigy.”
While most of us have to suffer through watching our former idols get wrecked by younger fighters who would never have had a hope of beating them in their primes, there are times when fighters bow out with their legacy and dignity intact. Georges St. Pierre comes to mind, though his career hasn’t officially ended yet, so there is certainly a chance for him to add some embarrassing stains to an otherwise immaculate career. Phillip Miller, the undefeated fighter-cum-policeman, is a more exemplary model for how to call quits on a career, though if you’ve never heard of Miller, that’s partially the point: You have to dig around in pretty obscure trivia territory to dredge up a happy ending.
Enter Sean O'Connell. Two nights after Penn was submitted, O’Connell became the first light heavyweight champion of the Professional Fighters League. It was by far the biggest accomplishment of his career in the cage, and it was also his final one; he retired after the fight.
There are several lessons to be learned from his departure. In an interview with SiriusXM, he explained why he didn’t want to announce his plan to retire before the fight, even though it was his intention regardless of the outcome: “… it just felt like the right time. I didn’t want to make the run up to the fight all about the discussions of ‘Hey, this is his last shot’ and ‘Hey, this is the last time he’s going to be in there,’ but I knew basically sitting in the sauna cutting weight for this bout that this is the last time I was going to go through that situation.”
That’s good advice. As soon as a fight becomes a retirement fight, it’s a completely different thing. It adds an extra dimension of pressure and distraction: Instead of being a mere win-lose proposition, it becomes a legacy-defining moment. To retire after a loss is to feel an additional weight beyond the singular result; winning leads to second-guessing. Concealing an intent to retire also keeps the focus -- from the media, but also from the fighters themselves -- on the fight itself, as opposed to what will happen afterwards.
Perhaps the more important lesson from O’Connell’s retirement, however, is that he’s walking away from all the ills of the sport -- the politics, the injuries, the further accruement of brain trauma -- with a fat check and a level of publicity that can be translated into a second career. O’Connell specifically has parlayed his experience and skills into becoming a radio host for SiriusXM, but of course not every fighter can or wants to do that. However, post-retirement life for any athlete needs to be considered seriously. To end a career on a high-profile win is about as good as it gets for making that transition, whether the next move is the commentating booth or the coaching corner.
O’Connell won’t go down in the books as a great fighter. Frankly, he wasn’t a great fighter, unless you’re playing fast and loose with the word “great.” This is no insult, as O’Connell admits as much. “I’m not a special athlete,” he said. “I’m not particularly strong, fast, agile, flexible. I don’t have a lifelong interest in martial arts, but I had a work ethic that … if you’re going to do something, just work your ass off at it, and that’s really all I tried to do in mixed martial arts.”
“The Real OC” was a very good fighter, though, and it is certainly impressive to finish a professional career with a 21-10 record and three “Fight of the Night” bonuses in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Greatness is rarely an effective teacher anyway. If you want to up your jiu-jitsu game, don’t emulate the people who have supernatural flexibility and dexterity; study the regular dude with textbook fundamentals. If you want to get better at painting or writing, there’s only so much you can gain from the supreme geniuses of their crafts, whereas the above-average, hardworking artists often demonstrate how to improve much more clearly and accessibly.
That’s what O’Connell has done. He showed everyone else an ideal and achievable way to move on from the sport. Even if he won’t be remembered as one of the great light heavyweights of his era, if we can extrapolate anything from his existing interviews it’s that he will become an outstanding and increasingly important voice in MMA media. That’s not bad at all. In fact, I would say it’s pretty damn enviable.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.