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Why Retired Boxers and Mixed Martial Artists Can’t Give Up the Fight

58-year-old Evander Holyfield might be the most recent example, but he’s far from the only legendary fighter to crave ‘one last bout’

MMA fighter Leonard Garcia retired in March, capping a career that spanned 35 fights over 22 years and launched him from the small town of Plainview, Texas, to the national stage. There were both very high highs, with spectacular knockout wins and gutsy brawls, and very low lows, with losses that seemed to come at the exact wrong time.

Either way, the 42-year-old Leonard is confident that he’s going to stay out of the fight game — until that is, he trains and spars with younger talents, and the instincts come rushing back like it’s 1999 again. “I have that itch. I can have a good gym session, and people I’m training with say, ‘Oh man, you still move so well, you still got power,’ all that,” Garcia says. “As a fighter, I can’t help but believe if I can still move around and think straight mentally, I can still get in the ring and compete against anybody. Maybe physically I wouldn’t be able to. But I think about it.”

Garcia certainly isn’t the first, nor the last, fighter of a certain age to wonder if they still got it. In fact, there’s been a recent resurgence of professional fights featuring people coming out of retirement. The results, however, haven’t been pretty.

The most egregious example is 44-year-old MMA legend Vitor Belfort, who was slated to fight 48-year-old Oscar De La Hoya last month, only for the latter to drop out due to COVID and get replaced last-minute by 58-year-old boxing Hall of Famer Evander Holyfield. The fight was practically a crime scene, with the much fitter Belfort pummeling Holyfield into submission within seconds.

Why would Holyfield and all of these other famous retirees put themselves through such a painful ordeal — stepping away from their presumably comfortable lives to strain and groan through training camp, only to potentially get brain damage while trying to prove something they’ve already proven?

Legendary boxing manager Jackie Kallen, known as the “First Lady of Boxing,” has heard all kinds of justifications for aging men who want to keep fighting. “Number one is pride. A lot of times, a fighter will want to avenge a loss: ‘Let me get that guy again, let me have a rematch, let me go out on top.’ Other times, they just want to go out with a beautiful win: ‘I still had it. I quit on my terms.’ Another reason is the money, because they got used to fighting at a level where they were making big bucks and spending it as quickly as they made it,” she tells me. “The last reason is that they’ve missed the glory, the feeling of walking from the locker room to the ring, which is so exhilarating. When you don’t have that, you’re an Average Joe again.”

Garcia was released from the UFC in 2013 after five straight losses, four of them coming by decision. It was a bad skid, but he felt like he had fought competitively and gotten close to decision victories; he just needed to hone his training. But transitioning coaches and joining a smaller promotion didn’t change the course of his career — he won three, lost two, and announced his first retirement. “Competing meant so much to me, and it felt like I walked away from MMA with a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t feel like I was competitive anymore,” Garcia says.

That lingering “bad taste,” whether from a bad loss or a contractual problem or nagging injuries, is a common trigger for fighters to look for the mythical “one last fight,” Kallen says.

“Without naming names, I can tell you some very, very, very renowned fighters who are well over the age of fighting, who say to me all the time, ‘Give me a fight, Jackie. I can do it. If Mike Tyson could get back in there, I could do it.’ And I mean, these are guys who have won major titles, Hall of Famers, guys who had illustrious careers. And they’re begging for one more chance. These are guys in their late 40s, early 50s, even up to the 60s, who want that one more.”

Actually telling a fighter that they don’t have it anymore is, obviously, a very delicate process, Kallen adds. Sometimes, it’s a matter of downplaying their request for a bout and hoping that they stop pursuing the idea in time. Often, it’s family members who end up discouraging an aging fighter by pointing out the potential risks they assume for a final shot at glory.

So it was with Garcia, whose wife was a crucial sounding board for his anxieties, pride and questions of the future. Four and a half years after losing to Daniel Pineda in the Legacy FC promotion and announcing his retirement, Garcia signed a three-fight deal with the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) in 2019, with a dream of winning and defending the lightweight title.

He did just that in the first bout, knocking out champion Julian Lane in February 2019, but a defense of the belt in August didn’t go his way. Disheartened but ready to wrap up his contract, Garcia was surprised to be called out by rising star Joe Elmore for his final fight in March of this year. It was a bloody five-round brawl, but the 41-year-old Garcia emerged victorious, only to immediately announce his retirement to the crowd in Biloxi, Mississippi.

“Joe Elmore’s a guy who makes people fall when he punches ‘em. And I walked through everything he threw, man. I busted him open, did a lot of good body work,” Garcia says. “But after the fight, my wife came up to the ring immediately. The very first thing she says is, ‘Don’t even think about it. You say exactly what we practiced. It’s time to go, and that’s the best you’ve looked!”

Today, Garcia continues to have a role in the BKFC, managing a team of fighters while also working his day job helping automate oil rigs in the New Mexico desert. He’s fascinated by bare-knuckle fighting and wants to help the discipline expand. Finding something to love and obsess over after retiring from the fight game is no easy feat, he says. But as his former opponent Jens Pulver observes, there’s a blessing in being able to open a new chapter of a life and career after experiencing so many distinct highs and lows.

“You watch someone who’s 65, 70, and when they retire, there’s not as much life left,” Pulver tells me. “I got there in my late 30s, and now I get to make sure that I spend my time coaching, being a mentor, passing on knowledge and raising other champions. I get to do that now until the end of my time.”

Pulver, a Hall of Famer in the UFC and a pioneer for MMA as a whole, faced his own crossroads after several attempts to regain the glory and dominance of his prime years in the early and mid-aughts. In 2010, he was released from World Extreme Cagefighting after losing nine of his last 13 fights. The former lightweight champion forged ahead anyway, swinging headfirst into a series of smaller promotions in the hopes of rebuilding his career.

It didn’t pan out as imagined. After joining the rising Asia-based promotion ONE Championship in 2012, Pulver suffered three losses out of four fights. He quietly retired in 2014, putting to rest years of rumors about his exit from MMA. “I still felt good. I still felt ready. I’m going to the gym, training, just trying to figure it out. And I just didn’t know where it went. Where’d this little world champion go?” Pulver says of his retirement. “I’d sit there trying to put the pieces together, and every time, you could almost fire yourself up enough to think, ‘This time it’s going to be different.’”

Pulver has stayed out of fighting in the last seven years, instead raising his two kids and growing a career as a streamer, breaking down fights and playing games with his many fans. He has plans to coach young fighters more and more, too — “I know the moment they win a world title, in that moment I’ll be 23 or 24 again, remembering what I went through,” he adds.

But it’s not the physical violence or dominating mentality he misses most. It’s something more ephemeral: “It’s time. People giving you their time. Waiting in line to see me, running up to me. And then you go out there to fight and it’s addicting, walking onto that stage and hearing everyone cheering, giving you their precious time. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, and money can’t buy it.”

Which is probably why he hasn’t pursued any exhibition fights for money, even though the opportunities are out there. Pulver talks about fighting as if it’s an addictive drug, noting that once you think you’ve beaten it, the craving creeps back. Streaming is the closest to fighting that Pulver wants to be at this point in his life.

Similarly, Garcia is confident and comfortable with the arc of his life today. But I can’t help but wonder: What does he do when he gets the itch to fight again?

“If I feel real good for three days, I’ll push it to that fourth day, and I sense it. I feel everything from my career,” Leonard says with a laugh. “When you’re young, you bounce back from everything. But on that fourth day, when I feel bad again, I know I’m a 42-year-old fighter. And then I know I made the right choice.”