We always push our aging legends toward retirement, and our reasons are rarely good enough for them

A lot of us probably looked at the lineup for UFC 237 in Rio de Janeiro and thought (or maybe just hoped) there would be one or even two potential retirement speeches by the end of the night.

Few of us probably thought that we’d make it all the way through and the only one seriously discussing the possibility of leaving the sport would be 26-year-old Rose Namajunas, who looked as sharp as she ever has right up until she got slammed on her head and lost her strawweight title.

Isn’t that just the way it goes? The fighters you want to see more of aren’t sure they want to give it to you. Meanwhile the ones you almost can’t bear to watch anymore remain as committed as ever to soldiering on indefinitely.

And, with Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn, that commitment seems to only get stronger as more and more people plead with them to let it go.

“There is one saying, I will go until the end and the more they pressure me, the more I will want to go until the end,” Silva wrote on Instagram after his loss to Jared Cannonier via injury TKO. “There’s nothing wild that feels sorry for itself. An old lion surrounded by hungry hyenas, crazy to devour him and he still fights to the death without ever feeling sorry for himself. And it won’t be different with me.”

Penn backed that sentiment in remarks to his own website after his unanimous decision loss to Clay Guida, insisting that he still thinks he can be competitive and still loves to fight.

“Anderson Silva said it best,” Penn said. “Never feel sorry for the lion, because the lion doesn’t feel sorry for himself when he is surrounded by a bunch of hyenas ready to die.”

Isn’t it amazing what you can transform into a semi-romantic idea when you route it through animal imagery?

More than maybe any other sport, MMA loves to shove its athletes toward retirement. Some of this is by necessity. In team sports, getting on a roster and staying there is tied for more to ability and productivity. If you can’t help the ball club, you soon run out of people willing to pay you to try.

But fight sports care more about ticket sales and name recognition. Fans don’t come just to see the home team win; they come for a show. Even when you get to a point where you can’t do it against the best anymore, that doesn’t mean a crafty promoter can’t find somebody you’re capable of beating – at least if he believes that that’s where the percentage lies.

We don’t want our favorite fighters to retire because we think there’s nobody left who will pay them to get hit in the head. We want them to retire because we know that somebody is out there, and we fear what it might look like.

Is it selfish of us? Of course it is. Penn and Silva keep telling us that they’re still here because they still love it, and yeah, that seems true. We can tell ourselves that we want them to stop because we’re concerned about their health, which might also be true, but it’s also because we don’t like what they’re doing to our fond memories of them.

In their primes, both these fighters were titans among mortals. They didn’t just dominate, they expanded the known universe of what was possible in an MMA fight.

Then they got old. Their bodies and their skills began to decay. They turned into middle-aged men. We watched this happen. We had to reconcile who they used to be with who they became.

Pretty soon we got to a place where the new version’s mediocrity was casting a shadow on the former version’s greatness, which is when we decided it’d be easier (for us) if they just stopped.

That’s what this is about, really. We don’t want them to make us feel bad. If we have to watch them get old and average then we might be forced to think about what time is doing or will do to all of us. And if they mess around and wreck their bodies and/or their brains by staying too long in a dangerous sport, some day we might have to watch them go through that in a way that will force us to consider the final costs of all this violent entertainment.

You can see how this would be an unconvincing argument to them, especially while they’re still enjoying themselves and still getting paid. They didn’t start doing this for us, so why should they stop just to spare our feelings?

Besides, if it bothers us so much, we can always look away. When we’ve mastered that skill, maybe we’ll get the version of the sport that we think we want.

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