Last Saturday at Santa Anita racetrack, I witnessed the greatest sports comeback ever play out in such a perfect way, that if Hollywood had made this movie, skeptics would cry it was too corny, too predictable, and too perfect. Real life isn’t supposed to give us everything tied up so neatly in a big happy bow.
But there he was, 50 year-old jockey Gary Stevens in the winner’s circle of the richest American race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. He just wasn’t supposed to be here. No one can comeback from a seven-year absence forced by the bad knees and the litany of broken bones incurred during a Hall of Fame career, and compete at the very top of their game anymore. No one can return and win the Preakness along the way, and then keep winning big races climaxed by the Classic win. Yet he did. Through an unparalleled regiment of training and flat out resolve, Stevens had done it, defying age and odds. He didn’t just ride again–which would’ve been remarkable in itself–he stormed back to be the best.
During his hiatus from riding, Stevens was a TV analyst and an actor starring in the movie Seabiscuit. His story is every bit as inspirational. Adding to this the horse he rode, Mucho Macho Man was thought to be dead at birth. He wasn’t responding to cuddling even prodding, then miraculously he bolted up and ran. Adding to THAT is this improbable too-good-to-be-true but it is story, trainer Kathy Ritvo, who became the first female trainer to win the Classic, is a heart transplant survivor.
It is the perfect storm of sports moments that will never be forgotten and retold as the years pass, probably in books and yes, a movie. It’s just too good of story the kind that everyone can embrace. Even those who can’t appreciate what it is like for a 115 pound man to guide an 1100 pound Thoroughbred, at 40 miles per hour around and past ten other thundering equine athletes only inches apart, knows there is something special in the accomplishment.
At least a dozen people came up to me at the track telling me how much they enjoyed Inside MMA each week because of the sports approach to the show, the stories and interviews that bring fans closer to the fighters, more understanding of their own paths to success. The architect of the show, my immediate boss Darrell Ewalt was there for the spectacle that only giant sporting events can offer. Danny, who puts the microphones on Bas Rutten and me each week, was there as well.
That the show has been surrounded with sports guys, people who appreciate what athletes go through, and seek to find out how and why things happen in the process, has been a staple of Inside MMA from the start. Gary Stevens himself has been a guest and he and the fighters shared tips on weight cutting and conditioning while sitting in the green room. Athletes respect each other and what is needed to reach goals, be it in the winner’s circle or having the hand raised in the cage.
Billy from Brooklyn is a real sports guy. He approached me to ask which sport I prefer. It’s simple- it’s the one I am covering at the moment. The story lines drive all. Billy got it ’cause he gets the inherent drama in the sports game. He then lamented, as a Yankees fan, that the Red Sox of all the teams, had to win the World Series. As a lifelong Cardinals fan I concurred only that my team didn’t win, but had respect for what a solid, well- assembled team Boston has. As well as that wonderful beard wearing camaraderie that makes sports what it is, the diversion from real world woes for a few hours. He nodded and said he was sure Chris Weidman could beat Anderson Silva again. A topic of debate that will keep growing.
Jack from Reno wanted to know if Georges St. Pierre could continue his reign over the division against a dangerous Johny Hendricks. I don’t know and again the beauty of sports is that it stimulates our curiosity of how a great champ like GSP, a great comeback example himself after major knee surgery, has lasted when other talented fighters haven’t, and won when many thought his best was behind him. Oh, Jack also liked Mucho Macho Man’s chances. Good call.
I know Marc Ratner is a horse racing fan, the UFC Vice-President and I have had a few quick discussions. I am positive he got how daunting a task Stevens had to get that victory Saturday. Fighting is more than just hitting another. I am guessing that UFC brass Dana White and the brothers Fertitta, Lorenzo and Frank are sports fans as well. Every Bostonian friend I have loves all sports, so I bet White does, and you can’t stay in Vegas as long as the Fertittas have without an appreciation of all the different games and events passing through.
As the UFC approaches its 20th Anniversary, there is not a doubt in my mind that if Zuffa hadn’t bought out the original guys in January 2001 for what is now, a ridiculously low price of $2 million, the celebration wouldn’t be happening. It was their feeling for what it is that sports can offer, combined with their appreciation for the appealing flare of entertainment, that led to the creation of The Ultimate Fighter show. Simple and effective, it told the stories of these aspiring men (as it were at the start), and some were compelling and talented enough to follow; some so goofy that brought amusement; some that sadly just passed through and have been forgotten. Each week another story unfolded and on and on it has gone, telling us stories, introducing possibly the next big thing. The essence of sports, it is why we follow them.
It is about moments, they are something to savor for any fan. To remember and challenge in an endearing way with friends and other fans. I say the moments always make the sport and Gary Stevens’ (I’m not even going to count Michael Jordan’s one year foray into minor league baseball) is the greatest comeback sports story all time. Unless Randy Couture wins another championship in 2020.
Watch Kenny Rice along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Friday night on Inside MMA, and check out Kenny’s book “Not Hit Yet” an insider look at the MMA world, available at Amazon now
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