The thing about athletic competition most people do not understand is that winning is the best feeling in the world. It beats anything. Sex, psh, anybody can do that. Drugs? Alcohol. Those just don’t compare.
But winning some kind of title?
Imagine this feeling. You spend most of your life training. You started when you were five years old, maybe somebody handed you a football, or a basketball, or maybe your parents signed you up in an AAU wrestling club. You grow up wanting to win. You set goals. You spend countless hours in the gym. Shooting, lifting, running, whatever it took for you to be the best at whatever sport you were in.
All of that hard work, and then you accomplish what you set out to do.
I used to wrestle and ride bulls. I loved both but eventually I concentrated on wrestling. One of my friends and I always had to cut a lot of weight. We used to sit in the library at lunch, haunted by a lunchroom full of food, yet still several pounds overweight. It could be torture. I remember I would go all out in practice, routinely sweating out 4 or 5 pounds in an hour and a half or two hours. Then I would go down to the Civic Center to lift weights and work out even more. It was brutal. When I wasn’t doing that I was running outside in snowdrifts and ice on my parent’s farm in Montana. They all thought I was crazy. Maybe I was.
But it was worth it.
It became worth it when I won my first division title, then took second at the state tournament a week later. This stuff pays off, and all the hard work, literally blood, sweat and tears, makes those goals even more exhilarating.
So I always understood when athletes came out of retirement. I remember watching a battered Sugar Ray Leonard get blasted into retirement for good by Hector Camacho. I remember watching Michael Jordan regrettably suit up for the Washington Wizards, still good, but no longer the best ever. All those athletes who come back time and time again. I understand how they feel. Part of me dies whenever they fail.
It has become a running joke between myself and my brothers. I come out of “retirement” about once, sometimes even twice, a year, and have done so for about 13 years now. Usually, I half-ass jog and lift weights here and there, start seeing some results and then go back to my normal life. A few times I have had nagging injuries, a herniated disc in my lower back stopped me from my most serious comeback. I was thisclose to being in the proper condition, I was hitting the wrestling room again too. That injury torments me five years later.
The thing is I probably have never been elite level good. I know guys who are, and I’m not them. One of my friends who I went overseas and competed in Bulgaria with in High School, Brandon Eggum, took second in the World Freestyle wrestling championships in 2001. He’s a world level athlete. I am not. I am probably just a notch below that. Just enough to make me wonder if I ever could have made it or not.
And, it’s the wondering that hurts the most. Guys who never could have done it never lose sleep over something like that. Weekend warriors who pull out all that “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” stuff. Those guys have no clue about what it takes to be that good, or how anybody would even get there. I never had delusions, I know I wasn’t as gifted as the best guys in the world, but I always felt I could work hard enough to compete with them eventually. That I could will myself there and hold my own. Then injuries and health issues cut my career short. I got out of shape and concentrated on other things. Sure the bug bit me, as I said I come out of “retirement” from time to time.
But I thought it was all over. At 32, I am too old. Too out of shape. Plus, I am short, 5’1 and the lowest weight classes in all of the grappling and/or MMA competitions are too heavy for me, even if I did get in shape.
However, something in the last few months has changed my mind. Or I should say someone.
That person is Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer Randy “The Natural” Couture.
Couture has always been an inspirational figure. He never started fighting MMA until he was in his mid-30s. Then in 2002, he suffered two brutal defeats to two much larger and younger opponents, Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez. At 39, Couture was thought to be done. It was over for him. He then moved down to Light Heavyweight and defeated three of the sports top superstars in a row, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Vitor Belfort. All much younger than him. He was on top of the world. Then father time seemed to catch up to him. He suffered two knockout defeats, the first time in his career, to Liddell in 2005 and 2006, retiring after the last one.