(Photo via Susumu Nagao)
By Mark Dorsey
One unfortunate aspect of MMA is that far too many fighters continue to compete long after they should have hung up the gloves. It’s hard to watch once-great athletes tarnish their legacies and put themselves at risk for dementia pugilistica. That’s why it’s so refreshing when fighters decide to retire at the right time. Even rarer are the ones who taste success just once before walking away. Here’s our tribute to a few legendary fighters who were literally one-and-done.
Rulon Gardner has faced more hardship throughout his life than most men could ever survive. As a kid, he was punctured in the abdomen by an arrow during show-and-tell at school. As an adult, Gardner survived crashing into a freezing river in his snowmobile after getting lost; he wasn’t rescued until almost two days later, by which point he had suffered hypothermia that would later cost him a toe. Gardner also survived a motorcycle crash and a small plane crash that plunged him into Lake Powell, Utah, and forced him to swim for an hour in order to reach safety.
Despite these tremendous survival stories which could earn any man a made-for-TV movie, Gardner is best known for wrestling the most dangerous man to ever don a wrestling singlet. In one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, Gardner defeated Aleksandr Karelin in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. What made the upset so incredible was that Karelin, the three-time defending gold medalist, was undefeated for 13 years going into the match. Hell, Karelin hadn’t even given up a single point in six years. Yet somehow, Gardner, a pudgy farm boy from Wyoming, managed to shut down Karelin’s offense, making him an unlikely Olympic Gold Medalist.
After winning Bronze four years later at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Gardner left his wrestling shoes on the mat in a symbolic gesture of retirement. However, the competitive urge persisted and Gardner was convinced to compete in an MMA match at Pride Shockwave 2004. His opponent in that classic freak-fight was Hidehiko Yoshida, a judoka and a fellow Olympic gold medalist. Yoshida was a serious submission threat who entered the fight coming off a win over Mark Hunt and a draw against Royce Gracie. However, Gardner had been training with Bas Rutten which paid off, as he managed to win a rather boring unanimous decision victory over Yoshida. Gardner controlled the match and showed that he had a promising combination of raw skills and incredible strength. However, despite his potential as an MMA fighter, Gardner never competed in the sport again. In an interview with Ariel Helwani, Gardner admitted that he didn’t have the killer instinct for MMA because he didn’t really enjoy hitting people or getting hit.
Pride offered Gardner $1 million to fight Fedor Emelianenko, but Gardner knew he would be outmatched, and the competitor in him refused to enter into anything half-assed. Although it would have been a great payday, it was probably a good decision considering the potential for brain damage.
Time hasn’t been particularly kind to Gardner since his foray into MMA. After ballooning to 474 pounds, Gardner appeared as a contestant on the NBC reality show The Biggest Loser where he quickly became a favorite to win the competition. However, after shedding 174 pounds, Gardner abruptly left the show over his desire to try and earn a third Olympic medal at the London Olympics. He feared that losing too much weight would rid him of too much strength and muscle to wrestle competitively. However, once off the show, Gardner failed to make Olympic weight and that — coupled with his declining abilities — cut short those ambitions. Later in 2012, it was announced that Gardner was in millions of dollars of debt and had filed for bankruptcy. It was an unfortunate development for a man who has given the combat world so much. However, at least he can go to his grave knowing he was an Olympic gold medalist and undefeated MMA fighter. Very few other human beings can make that claim.
Another Olympic wrestling gold medalist to successfully enter MMA for one match is Kenny Monday. At the 1998 Seoul games, Monday won the free-style gold in the 163-pound division against the Soviet Union’s Adlan Varaev. Although Monday was an accomplished wrestler and well-known in American wrestling, he was a newcomer on the world wrestling scene. Varaev was the defending world champion and favorite to win the Olympics. However, the U.S. had a strong legacy of 163-pound champions from which Monday could cull advice and experience; he also possessed the strength, skill and technique to be a serious contender. When Monday met Varaev in the finals, it was an incredibly close match in which Monday came from behind to capture the upset gold in overtime.
Monday continued to have success in international wrestling, winning gold and silver at the World Championships in 1989 and 1991, respectively. He also won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. When he competed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, he finished sixth. It would be his last international competition.
Less than a year after retiring from wrestling, Monday agreed to fight in an MMA match against John Lewis at Extreme Fighting 4 in Des Moines, Iowa. John Lewis — who later went on to become one of the most high-profile MMA coaches ever and who is credited with first sparking the interest of the Fertitta brothers and Dana White in MMA — was undefeated (2-0-3) at the time he fought Monday. However, Monday handed Lewis his first loss via ground-and-pound near the end of round two after controlling him on the ground for most of the match.
Monday never fought in MMA again because he was too busy as a wrestling coach, but he didn’t completely leave the sport. In early 2013, he accepted a three-year position as wrestling coach for the Blackzilians, the prominent South Florida MMA team that has included such prominent UFC fighters as Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, and Alistair Overeem. Monday had the raw athletic ability and wrestling pedigree to have lasting success in MMA, but he chose to dedicate himself to coaching. At the time when the prospects for monetary gain were few and far between in the sport, it was probably the right choice for his pocketbook and physical health.