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MMA is a cruel mistress.
For the vast majority of its athletes, they’ll put years into their pursuit and never get near the level of iconography that the very best do. They’ll give mind and body to become the best martial artists they can, quite often reaching unimaginable heights when the cage door closes.
Then, in a blink, it’s gone.
They retire—or perhaps are retired by a younger, hungrier fighter closing the loop and keeping the sport grinding forward—and are left without the buzz they craved for so long.
For the first time in their lives they’re just another person in line at the grocery store or stuck in traffic, and it’s a little shocking.
That’s why a fighter needs to have a plan for their exit, and for the time after it’s been completed. There is, it turns out, a next phase of life that occurs once the cage door closes for a final time, and for every Conor McGregor who shrewdly sets himself up to live it, there are ten veterans with GoFundMes looking to pay for some horrible surgery.
But McGregor is not, for once, in a class of his own when it comes to planning life after fighting. Many who have come before him have done remarkable things after competing in MMA, and continue to do so.
They’ve created a blueprint for diversifying and leveraging the lessons of the world’s toughest sport into something greater.
Here’s a look at eight such individuals.
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Jardine was a beloved figure during his time in MMA. He was the type of quirky unorthodoxy that you’d never find in the modern UFC, an entirely unconventional individual and athlete who wouldn’t be found within a hundred miles of a silly Reebok Fight Kit.
Skilled in all areas of the game, Jardine had a bizarre style that was somehow equally loose and flowing but stiff and rigid, a style that allowed him to throw punches from strange angles and beat some of the best of his era.
In fact, almost every major 205er of his time fought Jardine, and few got out unscathed, even in victory. He beat Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, while also throwing down against Rampage Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Ryan Bader, Gegard Mousasi and Luke Rockhold, among others.
There truly are not many resumes like that in the sport.
Today, five years after his last fight, Jardine is something of a Renaissance Man. He’s getting regular acting work in Hollywood, starting out as a stunt man and building himself into speaking parts, and has had a number of business ventures on the side as well.
Most recently he’s into the coffee game, co-owning Caveman Coffee with fellow former UFC fighter Tait Fletcher.
Jardine’s path is quite instructive of how to do things right once it’s clear the game is passing you by. There’s little doubt he’s doing better now than he did as a fighter, having escaped the game early enough to maintain his faculties and then put them to good use out in the real world.
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Speaking of Tait Fletcher: Well, Tait Fletcher is doing pretty good too.
Though he never formally made it to the UFC, Fletcher briefly rose to some modest amount of fame on The Ultimate Fighter 3 before losing a fight to Josh Haynes and returning to the regional circuit. He retired in 2008 with a 4-2 professional record, and for many he was something of a footnote in the sport. As it turns out though, his life in MMA was just a springboard on to bigger and better things, because Fletcher has taken in off in a number of other areas.
While he’d kicked around the acting circuits a little before his career in the cage, it was upon retirement from fighting that he began to get more work. He’s provided performances for well-known films and television shows like Jonah Hex, Fright Night, Breaking Bad, John Wick and Jurassic World, and that’s only scratching the surface.
His IMDb profile page is actually quite remarkable, if you check it out. Furthermore, on top of those acting gigs, he’s in on Caveman Coffee with Keith Jardine and has done some public speaking as well. It’s the exact type of career path that makes sense for a charismatic, intelligent athlete, but one that very few such fighters think to tackle.
For his part, Fletcher once said he didn’t want to end up as a “tired, old fighter” like so many who had come before him.
If that was the goal, it sure appears to have been accomplished as of this writing.
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“The Natural” put together a career most would only dream of. In a time of legends he was among the most legendary, a two-division world champion before it was cool and a man who continually defied the odds.
While the more casual fan might look at his 19-11 career record and challenge the contention that he was excellent, Couture truly was. He sought out the biggest challenges he could find and built his career on attempting to overcome them. His strength of schedule is second to none and he won more than he lost, mixing in title runs and one-night tournaments in a way the sport will never allow again.
During his career he was also known for taking a stand against UFC management, a position he still speaks on occasionally today. While many at the time were simply frustrated that he was sitting out so long, a decade later it’s become clear he was something of a trailblazer in the area of fighter relations.
After concluding his MMA career against a prime Lyoto Machida (staggeringly, just shy of his 48th birthday), Couture parlayed his charisma and industriousness into a decent Hollywood career. Though no one will ever laud his diversity as an actor, his life as a legitimate tough guy has afforded him the luxury of playing the part of a movie and video game tough guy with relative ease.
He’s also had his fingers in a number of business ventures over the years, including his Xtreme Couture gyms and clothing line, and is among the more recognizable faces to have emerged from his era of MMA as a result.
Oh, and he’d still probably fight Fedor if he got the chance.
Is there anything about this guy that isn’t enjoyable?
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Rousey is an interesting proposition because her MMA career may not be done. Also, arguably the best of her non-MMA work might be behind her given how quickly and perilously she fell from grace following two devastating losses.
Nonetheless there was a time, not that long ago, that Rousey was the biggest female athlete on the face of the planet and among the biggest athletes, period. While her acting work—the main accomplishment she can boast outside the cage—has become more touch-and-go, she’s still got plenty going on to warrant a pat on the back.
She’s still got a film in production, but also had a role in the television show Blindspot that was initially a guest spot but that may expand into something greater based on the response she got for her work.
She appears, regardless of what critics might suggest, to be happy in her personal life as she gets away from fighting for a bit (or forever) and focuses on some other conquests.
She also, probably most notably, is about to make the jump into professional wrestling alongside her good friend Shayne Baszler, showing up on WWE television with some regularity recently and creating quite a stir in doing so.
As with all things Rousey the performance was polarizing, but as is also always the case with Rousey, she didn’t look to start small—she jumped right in at the highest level of the game, parlaying a highly successful WrestleMania appearance from a few years ago into what looks to be a natural next step in her stardom.
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Speaking of pro wrestling stardom and MMA fighters who might not fully be done…
Brock Lesnar is the reigning WWE Universal Champion and has some parallels with Rousey: He was a star who enjoyed a meteoric UFC rise and a blistering fall, many of his biggest career accomplishments happened before or during MMA, and now he’s making money for Vince McMahon every week as a top star.
Based on his return at UFC 200 last year and the talk as recently as July of this year, you might also see him back in the octagon at some point, even in spite of his suspension for a banned substance still having not been served.
Regardless though, Lesnar has truly become one of the biggest stars ever to appear on professional wrestling, and has the type of crossover appeal that not many people in that walk of life ever enjoy. He is a legitimate tough guy and a legitimate athlete, and that legitimacy has earned him the type of respect and coverage in media that is almost unprecedented, both in scope and focus.
He’s also uniquely positioned himself to work a limited schedule for WWE so he can enjoy his personal life more than most wrestlers, and is still enough of a draw that the promotion would put its most prestigious title on him despite being a part-time employee.
All of that, and he’s made enough money to own giant swaths of farm in another country and spend his days hunting and fishing to his heart’s content for as long or as little as he desires.
Not a bad gig if you can get it.
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MMA’s Girl Next Door and the first true female star of the sport, it was only a matter of time before the world fell in love with Gina Carano the way fight fans did in the mid-2000s. She had the type of rare magnetism that drew people to her from the first time they saw her, and it resulted in her creating quite a stir.
It was Carano who brought women’s MMA to the forefront from 2006-09, fighting to a 7-1 professional record along with a 12-1-1 professional kickboxing record. During the same timeframe, she got her television and acting career going by showing up in Fight Girls and as a rebooted American Gladiator by the name of Crush.
After appearing in a couple of video games as well, she got her breakthrough role in Steven Soderbergh’s film Haywire, which he largely conceived of and executed after seeing Carano in action and deciding he had to create something she could star in. That was 2009, right after she lost an iconic fight with Cris Cyborg, and MMA never saw her again.
Though there were rumblings that she may return to fight Ronda Rousey, Carano ended up sticking to Hollywood and appearing in major films like Deadpool and the Fast and the Furious franchise. She also scored a number of accolades over the years since she retired, appearing on the ESPN Body Issue and on a number of lists of influential women.
All that, plus she literally dated Superman for a while.
In terms of great post-MMA success stories, Carano is among the best.
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Nobody—nobody—saw this one coming when Brendan Schaub was a UFC athlete.
There was not one person who ever saw Schaub do anything related to fighting or promotion of fighting who thought: “Gee, that guy will be a one-man media presence five years from now!”
Yet here we are.
Schaub lost four of six fights, three by knockout, on his way to a UFC hiatus in late 2014. He was 31-years-old and while he wouldn’t come right out and say he was retiring, he was memorably chastised by Joe Rogan on one of the most uncomfortable podcasts ever recorded.
Whatever Rogan said stuck however, because the cage door never closed behind Schaub again. It seems every other imaginable door opened though, because three years later Schaub is everywhere and has more fame and fortune than he’d have ever had as a mediocre UFC heavyweight.
Today he co-hosts one of the top podcasts in the world, The Fighter and the Kid, and remains a good friend and regular guest of Rogan on his show. He also has a podcast of his own, Big Brown Breakdown, which he does alone.
He proved more than capable of sharp analysis on television during the run-up to the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight, appearing regularly on Showtime broadcasts to offer a more MMA-centric perspective.
And the ultimate kicker? Schaub is now also a stand-up comedian, touring the world and drawing attention for catching on quickly to the art.
It is truly one of the most impressive, and unexpected, post-MMA runs the sport has ever seen.
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There’s only one Brian Stann.
Former partner Jon Anik would call him “The Greatest Living American” on UFC broadcasts, and it was entirely with good cause.
There simply isn’t anyone else like him.
While much of his decoration comes from a past that includes a storied career in the Navy Academy, athletic glory there and afterwards, an incredible career as a Marine and an MMA career that garnered a WEC light heavyweight belt and a number of memorable UFC fights, it seems Stann is just beginning.
Since retiring after one of the wildest bouts in UFC history against Wanderlei Silva, Stann almost immediately became the best broadcaster ever to step into a UFC booth and one of the best to ever sit at a desk during a UFC studio show.
He is proudly involved in a non-profit organization for veterans, has written a book and has most recently decided to move on from MMA to earn an MBA and enter into the world of real estate as a leader and executive.
There isn’t another fighter who could do the things Stann has done, or likely will do. He is utterly and completely in a class of his own.
For years, Chael Sonnen has (perhaps tongue in cheek, perhaps not) said he votes for Stann for President as a write-in candidate in every election. With so much on his resume already and so many years ahead to conquer whatever else he wants, that might be the only thing left for him at this point.