The beginning of the end for Frankie Perez—such as it is or might be—came at 54 seconds of the first round, when he dropped Sam Stout and landed punches on his supine opponent until the referee intervened. A predictable scene followed: Jon Anik put a mic under Perez's chin as he praised Stout, gave daps to his training partners, and told kids to follow their dreams just like he did.
Then, unexpected words came out of Perez's mouth and bookended his career with a victory at UFC Fight Night 74. "Me being at 26, man, this was my first win in the UFC and my last. I'm done after this," he said. "I've brought my dreams to come true, and I'm ready for the next chapter of my life. I'm done putting my family and my body through all this." To hear him tell it, there was no pivotal life event making the decision for him—he was just done, right now.
Just as unexpected as Perez's words, there was the reaction of UFC middleweight Michael Bisping, who sat alongside sidelined bantamweight Dominick Cruz in Fox's analyst chairs. "No offense to Frankie Perez because I don't know the guy and I'm sure he's a very charming individual and a solid person, but if he retires after knocking somebody out in his second UFC [fight], I would say he hasn’t got the cajones to really be in this sport because it's a very tough sport," Bisping said. "He said he's sick of what it does to his body, he's sick of feeling like this. Well, guess what? This sport isn't designed for everybody [audio cuts out]…let the real men do it." He added that Stout, who suffered his third stoppage loss in a row to Perez, deserves at least one more fight.
MMA is a business notoriously suited to short careers, and the specter of retirement hangs over every fighter all the time. Announcements of retirement, however, always inspire skepticism, and Randy Couture, BJ Penn, Nick Diaz, Josh Thomson, and all the other fighters who claimed to have fought their last round only to come back again prove that Jerry Seinfeld's wisdom for ending relationships applies just as well to MMA: "Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can't do it one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over." A 26-year-old who just got his first win in the UFC and who doesn’t have career-threatening injuries—after calling Bisping "a clown," Perez told MMA Junkie he'd be back in the gym this week—fits the profile of someone whose permanent vacation could easily become a hiatus.
When you consider that fleeting nature of retirement, Bisping's critique takes on a character beyond brashness. Maybe his opinion is born of some backhanded benevolence, and instead of wishing Perez well on his way out the door, Bisping questions his manhood as a way of throwing down the gauntlet and encouraging Perez to realize his talent. If you're a fighter who will gladly take bad beatings past the point when the non-fighting parts of you can handle them, you need gentle words from an outside observer to nudge you toward quitting, telling you that it's okay to leave all this behind, that you have nothing left to prove. Maybe if it's the opposite, that you have more to give and everyone else sees it except you, you need tough love.
Then again, maybe Perez is the rare, rational guy who sees MMA as a quest with an expiration date, and the 36-year-old Bisping can't look at others' careers without thinking about his own. Fighting for a living demands relentless optimism (Bisping might say cajones instead) just to make it through training day after day. To toil in that exhausting place where Bisping has spent his UFC career—where you climb over and over toward a title shot only to get knocked down at the top rung and ungrateful jerks cheer your descent—you need to make an enemy of the alternatives to winning.
The fighter can hear the opinions of others, but they're the only ones who live with the consequences of those words. Whether it’s retirement, pursuing an injury-addled training camp to a questionable conclusion, or throwing haymakers instead of following the game plan, the voice that matters the most is the one that originates between their ears instead of outside of them. And while Bisping's comments have received the bulk of the attention since Perez got his hand raised, Dominick Cruz's thoughts deserve closer scrutiny: considering that the former champion has waded through three years worth of career-threatening injuries and probably contemplated retirement at least once, it's hard not to give what he says added weight.
Cruz looked into the Fox camera, addressing fighters—and, obliquely, everyone who watches fighters—to "start looking at your life outside of fighting, because we can't do this forever," and that no one has the right to tell a fighter when to retire. Cruz added one more thought in earshot of his fellow analyst: "I will say that sometimes it takes more cajones to stop yourself than it does to keep going."
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