I was at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Silva. My seat was the first row in front of the stage and right of the walk-in ramp. I could feel the heat on the back of my neck when the pyrotechnics went off. My seat was terrible for trying to watch the fights, but good for other things. I was the very first seat next to the pathway where each fight's winners and losers exited the arena.
I watched as Andrei Arlovski passed me after being knocked out by Sergei Kharitonov. He didn't stop for interviews. The look on his face signaled surprise at being knocked out again, but his quick exit and quiet expression indicated this moment - the first horrible moments of processing brutal, violent loss - had become something of a regrettable routine.
Greg Jackson soon followed behind Arlovski. Jackson, coach to a who's who of MMA's elite fighters, was clearly forlorn. I don't have quite the words to describe it except I once saw the same look on a father who lost custody rights of his child after a bitter court room proceeding.
I bring all of this up because of today's news that despite being beaten badly by Kharitonov in the most brain-rattling way, a loss that comes on the heels of three previous losses (two of those by knockout), Arlovski plans to continue fighting.
"Absolutely not," Arlovski said of a potential retirement. "First of all, I'm not going to finish my career like this. Definitely, I'm going to keep fighting, and I know it's impossible to fix all these problems. Honestly, I don't know why I keep losing."
"I just stopped again, and he knocked my ass out," Arlovski admitted. "This is just embarrassing."
This is tantamount to the logic that former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, and many other fighters or boxers, employed trying to rationalize making that one more fight...then that one more fight...then that one more fight.
The thought process by which fighters build themselves through grueling workouts, temporary setbacks, tough times and tough opposition betrays them at the very point in their career where they're most vulnerable: the end. They invest capital in a mindset that pays dividends until the very unexpected moment where it becomes suddenly and unexpectedly bankrupt. Fighters can't let go, though. The "push forward, overcome, don't stop, persevere" mentality is precisely what made them champions or superstars or whomever they envision themselves to be. Let go of it now? Now, when they need it the most? That'd be betraying themselves. This is a game of persevere at all costs.
I don't know if Arlovski should stop fighting. CTE scans can't be done on living patients, at least not yet. Perhaps he can make a few more runs in the cage. Perhaps he can't. But I can't get his face out of my head. It spoke of confusion over how his body could fail him, how his abilities could fail him and how fate could be so cruel. It spoke of that tiny window before crying where you have just a second to collect yourself. How many times was he going to have make that ignoble walk from the cage to the locker room where he would then get the solitary honor of processing personal failure, his face wondered.
Arlovski isn't the James Toney stage of his career where brain damage is apparent even while he's still trying to book fights. He's still in the part of the process where he wants to preserve dignity and avoid shame. He still wants to achieve. To overcome. And who can blame him? Being rewarded with unbridled failure after investing in full and proper preparation makes the world seem designed to engender your downfall.
Wanting to wash away the bad taste of defeat is human instinct. But wanting to do in the face of increased amounts of evidence that doing so could have profound health consequences is a fighter's instinct. That's much tougher to get rid of. And if it isn't washed away quickly, it soon gives way to pathetic bargaining and a cheap facsimile of its former self. Where elite titles once were the object, simply the act of winning over another opponent, with very little deference paid to the quality of opposition or the significance of the act, becomes the goal. Or maybe just a paycheck. That's the goal sometimes, too, but that's at least a little more honest.
Arlovski's blessing is that he's nowhere near that. Arlovski's curse, however, is that he's losing and doesn't know how to stop; not just stop losing, but stop wanting to win to cover up loss. Winning, at that stage, only has meaning as conscious proxy for waking up from a bad dream.
His mind has been sharpened just like his body, directed towards one end. Yet, the mind is supposed to be refashioned after losses. Accumulation of experience is supposed to count at the ugly end as well. Isn't that human instinct, too? Not for the fighter. The relentless pursuit of perfection in a mental and physical game of blood and guts has consequences. It is hard and for some impossible to let go, to change course. The girl that brought them to the dance betrays them at the end of it. And even then, they still don't know how to say goodbye long after she's left. They're still waiting for her to come back. All they have to do is keep dancing.