They don’t come along that often, the truly great ones. And when they leave, especially too early, it leaves a void.
Maybe a sense of mortality for fans who see them as immortal, maybe a disbelief they won’t see them as they had come to know them, or possibly the question that is never really answered, Why?
UFC champion Georges St. Pierre isn’t the first to quit in his prime, and technically he says he is leaving it open to a return. There was that “zoo” he was in, and a need, it appears, to regroup overall that led to his decision last week. One that brings up the other question: when he will come back? Dana White answered confidently this week that St. Pierre would fight again.
GSP isn’t the first to bid farewell with what seemed to be so much left, and so many records to keep building. It can easily be argued that his departure pales in comparison to three men who were unquestionably the very best of their time leaving for good and never looking back. Future Hall of Famers who had achieved everything and more with still much more on their horizons.
Jim Brown was unquestionably the greatest running back in the NFL when he retired at 29, amounting records that stood for decades. He remains for many, including me, as simply the best ever at the position. The same for Sandy Koufax, who at 30 said it was time after dominating on the mound for the Dodgers in the 1960’s like no man ever had. Never, in the opinion of many learned baseball men, was there ever a man in such control of the science of pitching.
In the combative sports world no one compares to Rocky Marciano, still the only heavyweight champ to retire, at 32, undefeated. After a 49-0 career, the Rock left the ring without question, the greatest of the era and some contend as hypothetical computer “match -ups” that followed years later, he was better than them all.
Brown, Koufax and Marciano, all left fans wondering if they would ever see their likes again, and again that question of why? Why leave with so much still remaining? Why not squeeze out every ounce of the other-world talent they were blessed with? Yet they left standing tall with that look of certainty and contentment.
But in the case of St. Pierre, questions come more readily because unlike these other legends, he didn’t appear as sure as to why he was taking a break. It wasn’t that there is nothing left to attain, or that this is the time for other ventures. It was a tired and perplexed looking champion leaving at his peak surrounded in ambiguity, so unlike other winners, so unlike the way he dominated in the cage with an unfettered confidence. A confidence that might have taken some blows, along with his face and body, in his split decision title defense victory over Johny Hendricks.
Decisions. St. Pierre holds the UFC mark with 12 of them. Could that have led to this ultimate decision to take a hiatus? Could he have foreshadowed this over the past couple of years? In an interview for my ebook “Not Hit Yet,” GSP, still in rehab for a torn ACL, said in December 2011, “I’ve had some disappointed performances myself, to not finish the fight. But it’s the way I go into a fight, my mental preparation as well as physical training that gets overlooked. I am very meticulous in my style. I break my opponent mentally first then physically. When they can’t finish me and they know it, then the fight changes. They are fighting not to win but just to survive. It’s tougher to finish a man that is fighting to defend himself and not win. He doesn’t have the same hope (as at the start).”
He was going to be a renewed fighter back then, answering those who questioned why as one of the all-time greats, he just didn’t submit or knockout challengers. “Your critics? It’s expected to say you don’t care. Easy to say, but you do care. It can bother you,” a surprisingly vulnerable champ disclosed. “I went through a period where I was winning but wasn’t happy anymore. If I win I am not gaining anything. If I beat someone I’m not advancing the way I should feel.”
It’s only speculation that in the interview, he revealed the breaking down of an opponent mentally was a drain on his own psyche to the point where it reached a no win situation in his mind, even as he kept winning. The cries of finishing, not only beating the other man, were echoing too loudly for inner peace. Though it is in hindsight, it’s a theory that resonates each time there is a replay of the UFC fixture and PPV mega-star slumped in front of the microphone last week.
Fans, peers and UFC brass all have their own take on GSP’s timing of this (again emphasis) temporary farewell. As quickly they all offer conjecture on a timetable for a return. He is too good to leave now, he is the champion, and only Anderson Silva can rival him for owning a division as he had the welterweight ranks. He has to fight again.
But no one has dealt with so many crazy rumors as of late, as the champ has been dodging, with not quite the same aplomb as he handled an opponent in the cage. From family illness, to love life, to ex-manager, GSP has garnered more attention than successfully defending his crown for a 9th consecutive time. All the other outside focus could be the reason for the “zoo” he described he is living these days–tabloids, allegations and TMZ, oh my.
There is nothing more to prove. He doesn’t owe anyone anything professionally. If this is strictly personal, so be it, and all the best in sorting it out and finding happiness. Only GSP knows the reason for walking away on top, and for all the guessing and predicting, the only thing that matters is what GSP wants to do. The great ones don’t come along that often, they earn the right to leave as well, even if it isn’t always on their terms.
Got something you’re burning on? Tell the man himself on Kenny Rice’s Twitter or Facebook page. Watch Kenny along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Friday night on “Inside MMA,” and check out his book “Not Hit Yet,” an insider look at the MMA world.
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