There are, potentially, three phases of every UFC fighter’s career.

First, they’re neophytes trying to break into the big leagues by stringing together enough wins in smaller promotions. Next, after they make it to the UFC, they have to continue to be successful while also establishing a reputation for excitement in the Octagon. Then, they compete against the best fighters in their division, maybe even winning a title in the process. This third phase is where fighters can earn the most money.

No matter how successful fighters are, however, all of them eventually reach a point where they start losing more than winning and their bodies begin betraying them. Sometimes that’s after five fights and sometimes it’s after spending several years at the top of a UFC weight class. Whenever it happens, though, the fighters who reach that point must seriously consider how much longer they can continue to train for one of the most physically punishing occupations in existence and how big a return on investment they can hope to achieve from their time spent in the gym.

Most fighters never make it past the first phase, putting together so-so records in regional shows and trying to balance their training schedules with their other bill-paying obligations. For these fighters, the choice to retire from professional combat is likely made for them after they come to the sobering realization that MMA will not be the way they make a living. As mixed martial artists reach each successive phase, however, it becomes harder and harder to walk away.

If a fighter does make it to the UFC, but is released after a handful of fights, the desire to make it back to the sport’s top promotion probably provides sufficient motivation for fighters to stick it out a little longer. And if a UFC fighter spends any time at the top of his division, the decision to retire, after objectively proving that he has what it takes to succeed in MMA, is made even more difficult.

Shane Carwin has reached the highest levels of the UFC’s heavyweight division. After entering the sport’s top promotion with an unblemished 8-0 record, all by stoppage, he laid waste to his first three UFC opponents in a combined time of 3:24 before winning the UFC Interim Heavyweight Championship after knocking out Frank Mir. His career reached its apex when he nearly finished Brock Lesnar in their title fight. Unfortunately, his downfall occurred shortly thereafter.

Lesnar ended up victorious that night after surviving Carwin’s initial onslaught, then taking him down and submitting him with an arm-triangle choke. Carwin was still considered a top heavyweight contender after his performance, however, so it was assumed he would remain a fixture in the division for a few more years. Unfortunately, his body had other ideas.

Since the Lesnar fight in July 2010, Carwin has had more surgeries (two, first on his neck and then on his back) than fights (one, a decision loss to current heavyweight king Junior dos Santos in June 2011) and has lost his vaunted top-contender status in the UFC’s heavyweight division—The MMA Corner currently ranks him eighth. Most recently, we’ve seen him matched against Roy Nelson as coaches on the 16th season of The Ultimate Fighter with the promise of a fight between the two heavyweights.

Last week, however, the UFC announced that Carwin had been sidelined by yet another injury, this one to his knee, and would not be able to face Nelson in the season’s finale. There is no timetable for his return.

Needless to say, Carwin has reached the point in his career where he might consider returning to mechanical engineering full-time. He’s 37 years old and has had surgeries on multiple structurally significant portions of his body. He’s fought just three times since 2010, has lost his last two fights and currently rides an inactive streak in its 17th month. In other words, his best days in the cage are probably behind him.

That being said, however, it also wouldn’t be a tremendous surprise if Carwin decides to stick it out for at least one more fight, no matter how long it takes him to recover. As mentioned above, fighters who have tasted the sort of success Carwin has often have trouble walking away from the fight game. Chuck Liddell is perhaps the most prominent example of this unfortunate but understandable phenomenon, but the list of fighters who have stuck around for one too many fights is not a short one.

In addition, Carwin’s recent career woes come with some stipulations. Yes, he has lost his last two fights, but he nearly finished Lesnar and took dos Santos—an incredibly powerful and effective striker—the distance. He does have a surgically-repaired neck and back, but anyone who watched him dominate the coaches’ challenge on this season of TUF could attest to his dexterity. Provided this latest knee injury is not terribly serious, we could theoretically see Carwin back in the Octagon as soon as early 2013.

Carwin’s career has been a relatively short one, with the heavyweight having joined the professional ranks at the age of 30 (many years later than most fighters typically begin fighting) and never fighting longer than two minutes until his interim title bout with Mir. He hasn’t logged many of the three- and five-round wars that often hasten the downfall of other fighters, and has never looked like an aging fighter, even in his two losses. It’s really been the injuries that have sidetracked what was otherwise a very promising career.

No one is saying that Carwin will have the sort of longevity we saw with Randy Couture. At best, Carwin will probably have two or three more UFC fights in a gatekeeper role, but always on the main card of whatever event on which he finds himself. His days as a title contender are probably over, though, so he now must consider whether it remains worth it to sweat and bleed through a training camp just to sweat and bleed some more in a non-title affair. Unlike so many other fighters, Carwin has a day job to fall back on that pays more than enough to support a family on its own, so it would be, as they say, for the love of fighting that Carwin would continue to put forth the effort required to be a professional MMA fighter.

It’s entirely possible that Carwin himself doesn’t even know what his next move is. He’s obviously no dummy, so he’s certainly considering all the points presented here on a daily basis. He could probably get away with at least one more fight, if only to go out on his own terms, rather than because of a knee injury. Then again, Carwin doesn’t really have anything left to prove in the sport, so a retirement at age 37 after the career he’s had wouldn’t be a surprise either. He’s actually in a pretty good position, relative to where most fighters in their late thirties find themselves.

For now, Carwin will heal his knee and consider his options. His brain is certainly still in it, with Carwin having reached the apex of his career, but his body is sending him an entirely different message. Which direction Carwin goes is anyone’s guess, but either would make sense.

Photo: Shane Carwin (Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.