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.