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Why No One Knows When To Quit, Especially Sakuraba

I don’t believe in telling fighters they should retire. Not really. When fans and writers insist that a legend of the sport should give it up it always seems so hollow. What do we know about what someone like that should do with their lives?

But even I have to admit that Kazushi Sakuraba‘s beating at the hands of Melvin Manhoef in Dream.4 this weekend was difficult to watch. I’ve always had a soft spot for Sakuraba. He embodied so many of the best fighter attributes. He was tough and resilient, and at the same time he was also crafty and dangerous. He always seemed like he was having fun, even on his worst nights.

That’s why it’s so hard to see him continue past his prime. He’s obviously not having fun these days. His efforts are joyless and perfunctory, like a man waiting on his pension. And yet, for some reason, he can’t seem to walk away.

I used to wonder what it was that made pro athletes hold on too long. Almost everyone does it. The difference is that a baseball player who’s too old and too slow gets sent to the minors. A basketball player who can’t keep up gets cut.

But with fighters it’s a different story. They either step down significantly in competition, or they start taking some bad beatings. Sakuraba has done both. The former may harm his legacy somewhat, but it’s nothing compared to what the latter will do to you.

Once I got the chance to interview Ken Shamrock and I asked him why it was so difficult to retire from pro fighting. He had recently lost yet another fight to Tito Ortiz, and though neither of us knew it at the time he had still worse moments left in him.

What he said made a lot of sense to me. He said that in order to be a high-level fighter in the first place you have to be the kind of guy who can keep pushing though anything. You have to be able to break your hand in the middle of a fight and still keep punching. You have to believe that you can walk through fire.

The problem, he said, is that as you get older your physical gifts atrophy much faster than the mental ones. You’re still as tough and determined, but not as quick or as strong. You get hurt and you think it’s just another injury, like the ones you’ve overcome before, only it never heals quite right. That’s when the fighter’s mind — once among his greatest assets — becomes a detriment. His virtues are also his faults.

This is exactly what’s happening to Sakuraba. A normal man would have retired by now. But a normal man never could have taken those knees from Ricardo Arona. Sakuraba is not a normal man. This much is clear. Quitting is such a foreign concept to him. How can a guy like that retire?

But if he doesn’t retire you have to wonder where this path will lead him. The beatings he takes now could stay with him the rest of his life. Much like Larry Holmes said he hated having to pound Muhammad Ali, who had been his idol, Manhoef also expressed regret for what he did to Sakuraba. There may be no sadder scenario in the world of professional fighting than that one.

Sakuraba’s future is his decision. If he’s earned anything in his illustrious career, it’s the right to go on too long if that’s what he wants. I just hope he knows that he doesn’t have to.

(-Ben Fowlkes)

Cagepotato Comments

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perkedel- June 16, 2008 at 2:58 pm
You just made me cry Ben, you h*mo!
JoseMonkey- June 16, 2008 at 1:03 pm
Thoughtful commentary. Good stuff, Ben.
Reminder- June 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm
Anonymous- June 16, 2008 at 10:08 am
saku for commentery...please
Warcraft- June 16, 2008 at 7:55 am
Great read like normal B.F. .
I agree Sakuraba needs to retire or fight less dangerous fighters.
Its so hard to quit something specialy when you are good and are famous for it.
I would find it hard to quit too.
I was shocked Shamrock really opened up and give you a look into a fighters head. The walking though fire is what real fighters are about and its pretty crazy.
It could be 100v1 and they will fight until they are dead or beat so bad they can't fight back a true warrior/samurai spirit.

I think we will see more of Sakuraba sadly even though I heard he doesn't train anymore really.

I hope he doesn't have to suffer a really bad injury before he decides to wrap it up. no one wants to see that.
pfid- June 16, 2008 at 7:10 am
The athletic commissions and fight organizations need to step step up and prevent aging fighters from competing because it is clear that these individuals can't quit on their own. It's fitting that Larry Holmes is quoted. He knew first hand how sad it was to beat down Ali. Despite this, it was a fat and old Holmes that himself got beat down my Tyson. Holmes admitted to being scared in that fight. I was equally sickened by watching Ken Shamrock's last few fights. Watching Sakuraba has been no different. Legend or not, these guys are prime candidates for dying in the ring. MMA has enough to worry about from politicians breathing down it's neck, it simply should not tolerate an aging legend's pride being put before the good of the sport.
Nak Muay- June 16, 2008 at 3:32 am
This article is perfect example why I continue reading Cage Potato. I don't have much else to contribute that hasn't already been said about Saku. I love the dude, but I definitely want to see him hang it up. Keep up the good work Ben.
Dennis- June 16, 2008 at 2:27 am
First, let me commend you on the outstanding quality of the writing style. As for the content, you raise a very genuine concern for a gifted fighter who, turning 39 next month, may or may not realize that he is probably past his prime. But at the end of the day, it is the fighter who, perhaps in consultation with his family and trainers, and more importantly, on examination of what he truly feels inside, must make the decision whether or not to call an end to his career. Some do; others do not. Look at Ken Shamrock who seems to have a perfect analysis of what happens when a fighter's performance begins to wane. What motivates him and others like him to stay in the game when they can no longer perform at the level that marked their celebrity? Is it financial necessity? love of the sport? fear of retirement? Personally, I am saddened to see such fighters resort to step-down matches in order to remain active. I see them but as a shell of the fighter that they used to be. But I am not in their shoes and it is not for me to judge their decision. The hardest thing in life is saying goodbye, and we never learn to be good at it.
Dota- June 16, 2008 at 1:51 am
Dota- June 16, 2008 at 1:41 am
well- June 16, 2008 at 1:37 am
luckily, since he has a good reputation and is experienced, he'll be able to go full-time coaching at his gym and corner for some fighters.. he might make some decent money off this
L Grant- June 16, 2008 at 1:29 am
Onan - If only there was some sort of commission in Japan to oversee the fighters. I wonder if a North American commission would even let Saku pass the medicals?

Either way, Sakuraba is one of the greatest fighters in the history of MMA, I wish there was some sort of World MMA Hall of Fame. Saku would be one of the first people I'd choose to have entered. Along with Royce Gracie of course.
Asian- June 16, 2008 at 1:19 am
I love Saku, he's a fucking legend in my mind and will always be one of the fighters that inspires me in all aspect of the game. His entrances to his fights they all were different yet great. I hope he takes one last fight, I hope it's a can. I can't stand seeing Saku like at DREAM.
Onan- June 16, 2008 at 1:11 am
This is where athletic commisions should step in and have some sort of process for determining when a fighter should no longer be able to fight. They already temporarily suspend fighters who are injured during a match to allow for healing. Perhaps there is some way to apply the same process to fighters who can no longer safely compete.
Cleanshirt- June 16, 2008 at 12:59 am
This post is going to make cry.

BF, you're is my new BFF
ksgbobo- June 16, 2008 at 12:59 am
come guys, hes a Jap...they fight to the we not remember World War II when every single one of them fought to their death, never surrendered...its in his blood!
Joel Chelliah- June 16, 2008 at 12:50 am
sakuraba is such a legend, its ok for him to fight and lose. he needs the cash, and its always fun watching no matter what happens. No doubt we will be seeing more of him soon enough.
-The ox King-- June 16, 2008 at 12:07 am
Very well put B.

Saku is great but he should walk away
ol'pappy- June 15, 2008 at 11:53 pm
Sakuraba is and always will be the man. He has nothing left to prove.
hAteR- June 15, 2008 at 11:21 pm
Sakuraba is a king in the MMA. Im very thirsty to see him loose, buy hu is a king.
Rob from inside Tito Ortiz's Massive Noggin- June 15, 2008 at 11:20 pm
It's sad to see Sakuraba get beaten so bad at DREAM.4. The man didn't get a single piece of offense in. No counter strikes, nothing at all. He just got pounded in the face. This is an unfortunate time since guys like Matt Hughes and Sakuraba were literally the guys that got me excited about MMA and made me want to know more about the sport. Seeing the two of them get so thoroughly bested was hard. Regardless of when they retire, their impact on the sport will be forever known. Hughes did ridiculous slams before Nate Marquardt dropped Thales Leites on his head. Sakuraba was doing flying guard passes well before Shogun Rua used it to become the #1 light-heavyweight in the world.