- Michael Woods, Boxing
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Being a 40-something athlete, trying to wring the last bit of juice out of your body to prolong your career, is one thing if you're a pitcher.
An aged MLB hurler's fastball, which might've once hurtled toward home plate, now probably meanders toward a batter with all the bite and bark of a changeup.
The stakes for a 40-something fighter are in another league entirely. The older fighter can't rely so much on guile and trickery to elongate his career.
If a 40-something fighter like Mark Coleman, who steps into the Octagon with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on Jan. 17 at UFC 93 in Dublin, Ireland, "loses his fastball," it is Coleman who will absorb the impact as his diminished reflexes allow his foe to batter him. The ball bears the brunt when a former fireballer's fastball gets old; in the Octagon, the fighter's head is the object getting tattooed -- and the results aren't pretty.
Coleman (15-8), who turned 44 on Dec. 20, does not expect Rua (16-3) to be able to convince him that he is not still an athlete of superior stock, a vibrant, dangerous title threat in the UFC. For Coleman to admit that he even considers his best days might be a vague image in his rearview mental mirror wouldn't be prudent as he prepares to enter a rematch with the 27-year-old Brazilian Rua, whom Coleman defeated in 2006 in a Pride event.
For Coleman to allow doubt to escape his lips, even though he hasn't fought in the UFC since his 1999 loss to Pedro Rizzo at UFC 18, wouldn't be wise. Coleman is 2-3 in his past five outings and hasn't even gloved up since an October 2006 loss to Fedor Emelianenko.
Evidence, in the form of losses, inactivity and a streak of injuries, including a busted right MCL incurred during training for a proposed match with Brock Lesnar at UFC 87 in August, leaves Coleman as a marked underdog against Rua.
Coleman doesn't need to compound that by caving in and admitting that the odds of a triumphant return to the UFC are long.
That is not to imply, however, that Coleman comes off as wickedly delusional.
"It feels great to be coming back to the UFC," Coleman said. "I didn't leave on my own terms, I left on their terms, and my goal always was to get back to the UFC."
Coleman's first go-around in the "old" UFC was a dizzying, glorious ascent. He beat Don Frye to win the UFC 10 tournament in 1996 in only his third MMA event.
Coleman, who will come down from heavyweight for the first time in more than 20 years, was an NCAA wrestling champion at Ohio State and enjoyed success as one of the pioneers of the ground-and-pound strategy. He beat Dan Severn to win the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 12 in 1997, but he flamed out just as quickly. Coleman, who grew up in Ohio and resides there today, suffered losses to Maurice Smith, Pete Williams and Rizzo. He was subsequently dumped by the UFC but has no beef with that call today.
"I didn't deserve to be in the UFC," Coleman said. "As fast as I rose, was how quickly I dropped to the bottom. It was my own fault. I didn't handle being a champion well."
A win over Rua would be a rocket ride back to prominence for Coleman.
When the pair squared off nearly two years ago in Japan, Coleman immediately took Rua down in the first round. Rua fell awkwardly on his right arm, fracturing his elbow. He couldn't continue and the ref hauled an amped-up Coleman off the Brazilian, halting the contest at 49 seconds. Coleman didn't know why the fight was stopped and he tossed the ref aside. Rua's brother and Chute Box teammate, Murilo, came in the ring to make sure Coleman didn't bounce on Mauricio again.
That's when things went from tense to crazed.
Coleman's friend, Phil Baroni, hopped into the mix and immediately scrapped with Chute Box's Wanderlei Silva and Murilo. Order was eventually restored, but Coleman then inflamed the crowd by posturing, beating his chest and proclaiming his superiority.
The rematch is a long time coming, then.
"I'm happy UFC is able to make it happen. More people will get to see it," Coleman said.
He promises that the fight will be more structured this time around.
"I'm a very emotional guy. That was the last fight of my contract and I needed it bad. But I don't blame myself for what happened after. I was defending myself."
Rua said he doesn't hold a grudge for the postfight beef.
"I don't personally dislike Coleman," Rua said. "I think he acted wrong after the fight and I feel the fight ended in an accident, so it wasn't reason for such claims and celebrations. With that said, I'm not angry. We spoke after that and we got into good terms. However, I want the fight between us to have a real outcome, in a fair and square fight, and show that it should have ended in a different way. I think the fans deserve this and I want to prove it."
Can Coleman's more old-school style, based on his wrestling chops, hold up against the well-rounded Rua? Coleman expects so.
"How will I beat him? That's the beauty of MMA; I'm not sure myself," Coleman said.
Coleman has been jazzing himself up by watching old-timers like pitcher Randy Johnson, boxer Evander Holyfield and fellow MMA fighter Randy Couture do their thing. And yes, those athletes have been struggling to win more than they lose, and are one fight or one sad stretch away from hanging 'em up.
Still, they have this in common with Coleman: They are still in the arena, doing what they know, what they love, until it is made brutally, painfully clear they're not near the end of the road, they're already there.
"People say 'retire,'" Coleman said, "but you can only play sports one time, so you might as well do it as long as you can."
Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.