Most of us realized fairly early that we were never going to be professional athletes. Sure, if we were to go back in time to our elementary school classrooms, we’d surely hear about the childhood dreams of gridiron greatness or happiness on the hardwood so many of us had at that age. As we got older, however, the majority of us found out that we were not physically capable of realizing such dreams.

I realized I was not destined for sporting greatness when I was in sixth grade. Until that time, I had very much enjoyed playing driveway basketball with my friends and the occasional neighborhood dad. I had a decent shot, my ball-handling skills were okay and I could jump pretty high for only being about 5-foot-1. I played recreational basketball throughout childhood in YMCA leagues and then for my elementary school’s fifth-grade team. Needless to say, I entered the next year ready to take Vince Lombardi Middle School by storm. (Yes, I grew up in Green Bay, where one of the middle schools is named after Vince Lombardi.)

Alas, however, it was not to be.

While Lombardi Middle’s sixth-grade basketball team did not require tryouts, there was a natural pecking order that was nonetheless established, and I quickly learned that I was actually among the less athletically gifted of my 12-year-old peers. After a sobering year logging minimal time as a forward against far more talented and dedicated pre-teens, I decided to give up my hoop dreams.

The next opportunity to strut my stuff under the lights came in high school, when a number of my friends decided to go out for football. I had grown considerably by that time, and at 5-foot-10, I was larger than a number of other freshman who had not yet started getting taller. The first and only time I mentioned it to my parents, however, they pretty much shut it down. Fearing the worst, injury-wise, and likely not wanting to spend the necessary money just to watch their son be brutalized on the football field. So that was out.

And that was my not-gonna-be-a-pro-athlete moment. I mean, I had more or less put such thoughts out of my mind well before that, but if I wasn’t going to play any sports in high school, there was absolutely no way I was going to make a career out of it. This was only exacerbated by the fact that the height I had reached at age 14 would be as tall as I’d get, so I wasn’t exactly built for athletic performance.

For the next decade or so, I focused on other things—mostly academics and music—until I had finished college and had my life basically put together. It was then, after a few years of watching MMA, that I decided to actually give it a try. After all, I thought, maybe I could practice mixed martial arts for a few years, have myself a fight and then see what happened from there.

What a fool I was.

I’ll never forget my first class. I was a doughy 175-pound 23-year-old who hadn’t eaten a healthy meal since high school in a room full of guys who had been training for years. I barely got through the cardio portion of the workout when I found myself messing up a small corner of the parking lot with that day’s lunch. I didn’t come back for several weeks, and when I did it was more of the same—only this time with guys much smaller than me having their way as we rolled. It was embarrassing, it was frustrating, and I quit before I really even got going.

The reason for this extended prologue is to highlight how easy it is to quit a sport when you haven’t invested any time into it. Sure, I messed around with a number of sports as a kid, but I certainly didn’t put in the time or effort that would have even brought me close to competing on an elite level at any age. Even when I quit jiu-jitsu, it wasn’t tough because I hadn’t really even started. Sure, I went to a few classes here and there, but never enough to even establish a meaningful relationship with anyone on the team.

For people who have put in the time, though—for people who have dedicated large portions of their lives to a sport and who have experienced professional success—it must be one of the most difficult choices in the world to walk away from their sport. When one’s life has been defined for so many years by training and competition, the realization that it’s time to do something else, to break the routine one has established and maintained for so many years, must be a tough pill to swallow.

This is precisely why, even in the face of undeniable research that shows participation in sports like football, boxing and, yes, mixed martial arts can result in diminished brain function later in life, we have not seen the sorts of mass early retirements that one might expect from pro athletes who seek to preserve their cognitive capacity. It’s why there have been zero well-publicized de-commitments from college athletes because of their fear of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain condition most commonly associated with football and other contact sports. And it’s why every UFC fighter currently under contract, guys who have worked for years and years to literally fight their way to the top of their profession and earn the money commensurate with that status, isn’t going anywhere despite the research.

Well, almost every fighter.

This past Thursday, UFC bantamweight Nick Denis announced on his blog that he would be retiring from MMA immediately due to his concerns about his brain health. Denis is not some past-his-prime journeyman, but rather a 29-year-old with an 11-3 record, including a 1-1 mark in the UFC. Most UFC fighters in his position are probably in the gym as you’re reading this, sharpening their skills in anticipation of their next fight, but Denis is taking the long view.

To summarize his blog, Denis began researching concussions after his first professional loss (a knockout). Along with the well-publicized material connecting concussions with CTE, Denis uncovered some additional studies which only raised his level of concern. These studies focused on sub-concussive trauma, which occurs from blows to the head that do not cause concussions but can cumulatively lead to degenerative brain disorders. Denis reasoned that the time spent sparring alone certainly gave him his share of shots to the head, to say nothing of the hundreds of blows absorbed by his skull in his 14 fights.

After digesting what he had learned, Denis said that he would retire from MMA after his next concussion. Then, however, he began thinking about sub-concussive trauma.

“…[W]hat if I never do get knocked out again?,” he wonders in his blog. “What if for the next decade I keep training hard and competing. I get in ‘wars’ and receive tons and tons of sub-concussive blows. Wouldn’t that be orders of magnitude worse than one concussion?”

It was after considering these facts that Denis decided to walk away in order to preserve his cognitive function for life outside the cage. He says in his blog that the decision was not hard to make, and that’s not hard to believe given his reasoning, but one has to think that Denis suddenly retiring from a moderately successful career as a professional athlete before his body or abilities force the issue must have been a decision that came after some extensive consideration.

Now, Denis is in a bit of a unique position from a career standpoint. Before becoming a full-time fighter, Denis was pursuing his Ph.D. in biochemistry. Along with being one more reason Denis would seek to protect his brain, it also speaks to the potential career opportunities open to him moving forward. If, for example, Denis completes his doctorate and begins a career in academia, he’ll surely make a similar (if not better) living to what he was earning in the UFC. Regardless of where he ends up, Denis’ blog entry is written in a hopeful tone, one that carries with it the presence of many career options outside of MMA.

This is certainly not the case for all, or even most UFC fighters. As we’ve heard from many a professional mixed martial artist, their best opportunity to move into a higher income bracket won’t come from anywhere but the Octagon. The reason so many fighters are willing to sacrifice long-term health for a payday now is because, frankly, this is the only occupation that will earn them the sort of money they see from the UFC. The reason a lot of fighters choose MMA as their profession in the first place is because their lives would otherwise be filled with mundane, lower- or middle-income gigs, and that just doesn’t work for them. So they train, and even though they’re not earning any more money to start, they have tremendous earning potential if they’re able to make it to the UFC.

When they finally do get to the world’s top MMA promotion, they train harder, not only to stay employed by the UFC, but to perhaps further increase their bank account balances by stringing together wins, earning more sponsorship dollars and becoming celebrity athletes. For fighters who have already made it to the UFC, they see other people, sometimes people they train with every day, achieving these very things, which makes them even more tangible. So they train harder, and the idea of giving up on the dream of MMA stardom before you absolutely, positively have to would probably seem absurd.

By the same token, could you imagine what sort of negative feedback someone like Jon Jones would get if he, the dominant light heavyweight champion at all of 25 years old, made the same decision Denis did? Or Junior Dos Santos (28) or Ben Henderson (29)? MMA fans would rip them apart with all sorts of derogatory language questioning their manhood. We might care about the fighters, but not as much as we care about the fights.

Denis, however, doesn’t seem to pay much mind to such potential criticism.

“I am a human being, and I was born with only one brain,” he said in his blog, “and I want to take care of it so that I will recognize the ones I love when I get older.”

The reasoning is so simple, and yet Denis’s announcement caused ripples in the MMA community because of how infrequently we actually see fighters take this advice to heart. He had not only bled and sweat for years to succeed as a professional fighter, but he had actually reached the big stage of the UFC. That Nick Denis, a pro athlete, was able to leave the sport he loves so much with seemingly such ease because of his concern for his brain is not only commendable, but it’s something more fighters will probably begin considering—but not enough to kill the sport, so don’t worry.

Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing if I had stuck with my MMA training. At this point, I’d be in my fifth year and, provided I had put in the adequate work, would probably have even had a few amateur fights at this point. I’m only 28, so I would theoretically have at least a few more years to try to make a brief career out of MMA.

That said, I have no regrets. As I’ve reached my late 20’s, I’ve had several friends who played football in high school undergo knee surgeries because of the damage those joints took all those years ago, and while I don’t have any athletic glory to look back upon, I walk around without pain. I also have positively come to peace with my choice to keep MMA as something I watch rather than something I do. I enjoy having maximum brain function (though my years at UW-Madison surely took their toll) and I’ve seen people get punched in the liver. It doesn’t look pleasant.

In the years to come, Nick Denis will almost surely look upon his decision to retire from MMA at age 29 without regret as well. Just as we’ve seen so many former NFL players turn into shells of their former selves as a result of their careers and the brain damage that they bore, the time will soon come when some of the fighters we saw in the cage not so many years ago will cease to be the fighters we knew then. It will be only then when more fighters will look to Denis’s decision as prescient, rather than premature, and consider their own careers…and futures.

Photo: Nick Denis (L) (MMAFighting.com)

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.