A champion comes. A champion goes.
Mixed martial arts is filled with comings and goings -- fighters evolving from contender to titlist, devolving from main event attraction to has-been. Last Saturday night in Philadelphia, the undercard of UFC 133 saw the career transitions of two fighters who are champions by a measure other than a brass-and-leather belt.
Rory MacDonald, according to pretty much everyone who's spoken up about the 22-year-old, is not simply a future champ but the very future of his sport, and based on in his performance over the weekend, that future appears to be upon us. Matt Hamill has elevated MMA beyond winning and losing and entertaining, becoming a true-to-life inspiration during a career that, following a feeble showing on Saturday, he's decided to end.
Let's start with MacDonald. Why is he considered the future of MMA? It's not so much about his prodigious fighting ability, but rather the pioneering way in which he's learned to fight. He's a prototype of a new breed, a competitor who comes to MMA not from a jiu-jitsu dojo or wrestling gym but directly from, well, childhood. He has trained as a mixed martial artist right from the start. This makes him practically unique in a sport filled with top-level wrestlers, kickboxers, jiu-jitsu plays and others who've become MMA fighters simply by expanding their repertoire. Even Jon Jones, the wunderkind light heavyweight champion who is just two years MacDonald's elder, grew up in another sport.
MacDonald's well-rounded history has him on a meteoric rise. He arrived in Philadelphia with an 11-1 record, the only blemish being a TKO loss last summer to the formidable Carlos Condit. MacDonald actually had won the first two rounds on the judges' scorecards before succumbing with just seven seconds left in the fight. He was so close to a decision win.
But MacDonald didn't see it that way. The British Columbia native craved improvement and sought it out by moving cross-country to train at Montreal's Tristar Gym, home of Georges St-Pierre. Putting in daily work alongside the UFC welterweight champion showed. In his next fight, last April, MacDonald utterly manhandled Nate Diaz, who's usually a handful.
Last Saturday brought the biggest challenge yet: Mike Pyle, who made his professional debut against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson when MacDonald was just 10. The 35-year-old tough guy was experienced at bursting the bubble of a young phenom. Just last fall he'd stepped in with John Hathaway, who at the time was 23 and unbeaten. Pyle took him apart.
This time it was Pyle who was taken apart, as MacDonald overcame an early takedown, sustaining no damage while on the bottom, then put Pyle on his back. From inside full guard MacDonald connected with several left hands, the last one prompting the veteran to roll over and try to get away. But there was no escape, and MacDonald finished him with punches and elbows.
Immediately, the names of several prospective next opponents were thrown out by folks within my earshot at the Wells Fargo Center. Maybe MacDonald should fight Rick Story, who was a fast-rising welterweight himself before losing in June. Or perhaps he's ready for Josh Koscheck or Jon Fitch. Pretty heady stuff, although not too much to bite off if the kid is indeed, as several observers have called him, "the next GSP." Remarkably, none of this seems to have gone to MacDonald's head.
"Yeah, it's a nice compliment, but I've got a level head on my shoulders," MacDonald, sounding like a junior high kid, said during the post-fight press conference. "And I'm just going to keep training and keep fighting and keep winning -- and hopefully putting on good performances that everyone likes."
Matt Hamill wasn't even at the press conference after putting on a not-so-good performance that he, more than anyone else, surely did not like. Coming off a one-sided loss to Rampage Jackson in May, Hamill had a chance to show he was better than that, but he failed to do so. The three-time NCAA Division III national champion wrestler looked ploddingly slow as Alexander Gustafsson, a 24-year-old Swede who came in at 11-1, picked him apart and finished him by TKO in the second round.
Two days later, Hamill announced his retirement via his website. "Today is a sad day for me," he began, going on to write, "I just don't have it in me to fight anymore, and my last two performances have shown that."
Hamill revealed that he'd wanted to quit after the Rampage fight, "but my friends, family, coaches and most importantly my daughter encouraged me to give it one last chance." If it took that many voices to persuade him to keep fighting, Hamill is making the right choice to retire, because he's an athlete who's never been wanting for motivation.
Need visual evidence of that? Watch video of Hamill's notable wins over Mark Muñoz and Tito Ortiz, or even his decision "loss" (which should have been scored a win) to Michael Bisping. Or better yet, head to a local movie theater this fall to see Hamill, a feature film based on the early life of the deaf wrestler and MMA fighter.
It's taken me this far into the story to mention the deafness because Hamill always has transcended his disability. Others may have identified him as "The Deaf Guy," but Hamill himself never used a lack of hearing as an excuse. I've even seen him describe it as an advantage, as it allowed him to fight without the distraction of crowd noise.
But make no mistake: Matt Hamill is a heroic figure in mixed martial arts. He never won a championship, didn't even make it to the final of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show. But he competed with the best fighters in the world and showed he belonged with them. He even left some of them inspired.
"Best of luck, Matt Hamill, in all your new endeavors," read one of many fighter tributes on Twitter. "You will always be an inspiration to us! Proud to know you!"
What MMA fighter was so inspired by Hamill, so proud to know him? That would be Brian Stann, war hero, who knows what it means to be an inspirational figure because he sees one every day in the mirror.
In the end, last Saturday night in Philadelphia, Hamill's deafness finally did work against him. Not in the cage, but in the walkout from his dressing room. The fans, even with no knowledge that they were about to witness Matt's final bout, showered him with more love than they'd showed anyone to that point of the night. One hopes that Matt Hamill was able to somehow take it in.