UFC Fight Night 66, which went down last Saturday in Manila, The Philippines, provided impressive showings from the likes of Frankie Edgar, Gegard Mousasi and Neil Magny. Perhaps no performance, however, was as impressive as that of Mark Muñoz, who made good on his final pro fight with a sound pummeling of the towering Luke Barnatt. With an onslaught of takedowns, missile-like overhand rights, and Donkey Kong ground-and-pound, the Filipino Wrecking Machine was able to close out his storied career to the roar of thousands of loyal fans. With his final battle behind him, the middleweight veteran made a tear-jerking retirement speech, laid his gloves in the center of the octagon, and rode off into the Pinoy sunset. It was a bittersweet crescendo in a sport of soaring heights and crashing lows and a moment that won’t soon be forgotten. Yet it was also a rarity.
Fighter retirements alone, of course, are not a rare occurrence. Every career, great or otherwise, has to end somewhere. The real rarity is fighters going out on wins. If we look back at the final chapters of some of MMA’s recent retirees, what we see is an inherent lack of happy endings. After having his lights turned out by Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Chuck Liddell had his career stamped out by a short right hand from Rich Franklin. After a slow decline, Randy Couture had his head kicked into the back row of the Rogers Centre by Lyoto Machida. On the heels of two losses, BJ Penn closed out his career with an ill-advised drop to featherweight and a savaging at the hands of Frankie Edgar. These men and so many others fought far outside of their competitive primes to the detriment of their health. They did so for one simple reason: it’s hard to take the fight out of the fighter.
If it were, Chuck Liddell would have called it a career after his historic defeat of Wanderlei Silva, thereby avoiding the three-fight knockout streak that ended his career. Randy Couture would have never stepped onto the canvas with Lyoto Machida and instead called it a day with wins over fellow hall-of-famer Mark Coleman and boxing superstar James Toney behind him. BJ Penn would have wrapped up after his victorious rubber match with Matt Hughes. Then of course, there are fighters like Wanderlei Silva. When we last saw him, he knocked out Brian Stann in a vintage “Axe Murderer” slugfest in Japan, the land that made him a superstar. The upset win followed a shaky stretch and provided the perfect platform for a poetic retirement. Instead, he pushed to keep competing. What followed was the infamous drug test (or lack thereof), the lifetime ban, and the heartbreaking fall from grace. Yes, all of the aforementioned men had opportunities for storybook endings, but none took advantage because the competitive fire is not easily extinguished.
That’s why Muñoz’s final fight in Manila was such a breath of fresh air. When news of the UFC’s planned debut in the country first broke, he announced that he would be on the card. At the time, he was on a three-fight skid of first round stoppages. Under normal circumstances, his taking another fight probably would have been met with quite a bit of criticism, but Muñoz handled it right. First, he accepted a bout with a beatable opponent. He didn’t ask for Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, or Yoel Romero, or Tim Kennedy. He got in there with Luke Barnatt, a good-but-not-great fighter who was on a losing streak of his own. At peace with his decline, Muñoz was careful not to bite off more than he could chew. More importantly, he announced in advance of the bout that win, lose, or draw, it’d be his last.
Wins, after all, can do a veteran fighter more harm than good. Triumph can blind aging athletes to the facts of their own decline; it can blow wind into their sails, convincing them they can still hang even when they can’t. This drives them to continuing competing, only to inevitably lose once again. By announcing before his bout with Barnatt that he’d be retiring, no matter the outcome, Muñoz essentially poked holes in his sails, giving the glorious gusts of victory nowhere to go. He locked himself into his retirement, knowing full that success might change his mind. And it paid off. He retired as planned and he did so with a tremendous win.
It’s not the first time fighters have taken this route—it’s the same strategy Chris Lytle employed in his retirement fight with Dan Hardy—but it is a rare occurrence. All too often, fighters forget where the brakes are, and careen into career twilights marred by stoppage losses and the infamous Dana White retirement talk. To the thunderous applause of his Filipino supporters, Mark Muñoz avoided such a fate, and it was glorious. The Filipino Wrecking Machine retired the right way, with an excellent legacy behind him. Here’s hoping his peers took note and that happy endings become a more common feature of our fine sport.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.