In my other life, as someone who covers other forms of pop culture in many of its various permutations, nostalgia is essentially an art form and an industry in of itself. Remakes. Franchises. Anniversary editions and rereleases of films, books, and albums. Anniversary tours. Entire casino concert circuits and county fair programming dedicated to old school musical and comedy acts. And think pieces about these milestones and celebrations of milestones and revisitation of glory days and what it all means.
The point and validity of all of this is as open to interpretation as the original art itself. I personally am far from immune to its appeal as long as it’s more than an empty ploy to try to revisit the youth of makers and consumers of the work in question. I’m going to see the 20th anniversary of one of my favorite albums next week. I am working on a 20 year retrospective of a criminally underrated comedy right now.
But I struggle to maintain that same perspective when I see nostalgia creep into the MMA world. I can’t help but feel a little sad when I watch Fedor or Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock do whatever it is they’re doing, or ambivalent when I read that Bellator, fast becoming the Shout Factory of MMA, recently made an offer to Randy Couture. And I get downright uneasy every time the rumblings of the alleged return of Georges St-Pierre resurface.
It’s hard to fault aging athletes for fighting—or even considering to fight—past what most would consider their primes. In one his CBC Massey Lectures published in the collection The Unconscious Civilization (which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year), philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul pointed out that the traditional 20th century time line of finishing our education in our late teens or early 20s and finishing our careers in our 60s no longer aligned with our increasing lifespans, which left an awkward gap in the later parts of our lives. This gap is significantly increased for any competitive athlete. Childhood and adolescence are dedicated to learning skills and pursuing excellence. If you’re good enough, early adulthood is about achieving it. By the time you hit—or even approach—middle age, it’s all over. The temptation to return to something that was such an intense focus for so many years of your life is understandably strong.
As much as I understand that on a conceptual level, though, and as much as believe that no fighter owes us their legacy or their lives, I also know what it feels like as a fan to watch these later career fights unfold.
On a selfish level, it can be incredibly hard to watch one’s former heroes falling apart in real time. Some might argue that it’s sad when The Who trot our their remaining members for their ceaseless retirement, or when Mick Jagger’s prance becomes slower with every tour, or uncomfortable when a septuagenarian Chubby Checker demonstrates his current abilities in the twisting department (which is something I actually witnessed and mostly appreciated last summer), but the potential for second-hand embarrassment that you might get out of these events if you’re less inclined to let old guys continue to try to be rock stars isn’t quite the same as the existential angst an combat fan can feel watching an accomplished fighter become a shadow of his former self like B.J. Penn did in his third fight against Frankie Edgar in 2014. The passage of time and the inevitability of our decline as the years wear on is felt faster and more definitively in a sport like MMA. When an artist or entertainer revisits their past, the audience can get a giddy look back on their own past, a new perspective on it. When a mixed martial artist does the same, with very few exceptions, we only get the reminder of what they used to be, and what they—and by extension, we—can never be again.
Which brings us to the more empathetic concern with nostalgia fights: health. As any professional wrestling fan can warn you, there’s a soul-deep weariness that starts to set in as you watch generation after generation of hero succumb to the dangerous physical demands of their chosen career. You don’t blame the ones who can’t stop doing the only thing they love, the thing they’ve dedicated so much of themselves to. But you cheer on the ones who can leave when it’s time. It hurts to see them go, but it hurts even more to see them decline —or even die—before your eyes.
The athlete who refuses to give up, who pushes themselves past any rational limit is the stuff of legend. It makes for inspirational and devastating dramas and has even been, in one case, the catalyst for the fictional end of the Cold War. But there’s very little of that glory on either side of the cage or the ring when it happens in real life.
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