Bellator's Heavyweight champion, Cole Konrad, announced his retirement from the sport this week to pursue a career as an agricultural commodities trainer. Citing a long amateur wrestling career and the rigors of training for MMA, Konrad's decision boiled down to one thing: he didn't have the passion for it.
The news certainly came as a surprise to fans and insiders. Konrad was the only heavyweight champion in Bellator's history, compiling a 9-0 record in MMA and becoming a legitimate top ten fighter. He certainly could have had a storied career if talent and pedigree alone were enough to keep a man in the game. But if he doesn't have the passion for it, then we can't really fault him from walking away.
Konrad joins a list of fighters who we would have loved to see continue but, due to various reasons, retired from the sport early.
Rickson Gracie might be the greatest fighter in MMA history who never really had a chance to prove it. A member of the fabled Gracie family and son of Helio, Rickson compiled an 11-0 record in MMA and became one of the sports earliest stars in Japan. He headlined the first and fourth Pride events, establishing the promotion as the top promotion in the world before taking a two year hiatus and retiring from the sport.
Because he ended his career before testing his mettle in North America, there are many who think of Rickson as more of a concept of a great fighter than the real thing. We'll never know for certain, but his skill is undeniable and his contributions to the sport can't be overlooked.
For those who might want to learn more about the man, the documentary film "Choke" is a fascinating look at a disciplined and skilled practitioner, following him from his training right on through to winning the 1995 Vale Tudo tournament in Tokyo.
Here's another fighter who has gained legendary status over the years and was integral to the early development of the sport. Unlike Rickson Gracie, however, he was able to prove it against some of the best competition his era had to offer. He had an incredible run in Pancrase, possessed a stunning ability to land hard liver shots at will, and won the UFC Heavyweight Championship in a fight against Kevin Randleman (one of the best heavyweights in history) even though he was essentially a middleweight. Yet despite all that, Rutten still could have accomplished more if injuries hadn't forced him into an early retirement.
To give you an idea: his brief career spanned less than six years, and yet he had an astounding thirty-two fights(!) that contained wins over the likes of Randleman, Frank Shamrock, Guy Mezger, Maurice Smith, and Masakatsu Funaki. Dangity dangity damn.
There are those that say Brock Lesnar would belong in the MMA Hall of Fame (if it existed) due to his unmatched drawing power, rapid ascent to the top tier of the sport, and the promise of what he could have done had he stayed healthy and remained in the game. I find the argument slightly specious, although he's more likely to get into the UFC Hall of Fame than any legitimate MMA Hall of Fame based on the strength of his pay-per-view buys.
Yet, despite his brief 5-3 MMA career, there's no denying that he was good. Scary good. He was one of those athletes that quickly excelled at anything he put his mind to, turning a storied NCAA career into a lucrative turn in pro wrestling and almost making the Minnesota Viking squad as a walk-on despite having absolutely no experience playing football.
His entry into MMA was met with scoff and derision, but as soon as people saw him fight, they stopped doubting him. Well, to his face, anyway. There are still detractors who say he had a weak jaw that was lucky to not have been caught sooner. Yet he surged onto the scene and quickly beat the best the world had to offer at heavyweight, and there's no telling what would have happened if it hadn't been for the recurring bouts of diverticulitis that put him on the shelf twice and played a big role in his decision to retire.
I have to disclose a bit of bias here. Although I had seen some of the early UFC events, I consider my true entry into MMA fandom to be in the mid to late 1990s when I would visit my brother in Manhattan. One trip we always made was to a handful of sketchy video stores that sold bootlegged versions of fighting from around the world, including VHS tapes of Pride Fighting Championships.
One of my early favorites was Igor Vovchanchyn. He carried with him an eerily calm and peaceful demeanor in the ring, but had an unorthodox yet effective striking style that brought him success in the sport. During his career he scored knockout wins over Mark Kerr, Gilbert Yvel, Gary Goodridge, and others. Timing and circumstance prevented him from ever achieving his potential, and he retired after two consecutive losses at middleweight in 2005 at age 32. If he'd come in at the right time and with the right training camp, who knows what could have been.