Going into his lightweight bout with Justin Salas at the UFC on FOX 8 event at KeyArena Seattle, Aaron Riley knew that no matter what happened, this was going to be his last one.
He didn't want to make a big deal out of it. Truth be told, he didn't figure all that many people would care. After he announced his retirement on Twitter following the split-decision loss, he was surprised at how many people seemed to think it was newsworthy.
"With all the influx of fans, these days when you lose a fight you've got people on Twitter telling you that you suck, saying, 'I'm happy you got your ass kicked,' and they're pretty brutal sometimes," Riley told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
). "After enough of that stuff, you sometimes forget there are people out there who actually appreciate you. I just didn't feel like that many people cared one way or another if it was my last fight or not."
It didn't have anything to do with losing, Riley said. He'd been planning this for some time now, going back and forth on the decision for the past couple years. After all, this is a man who turned pro when he was 16 years old, then spent the next 16 years slugging it out in cages and rings all over the world. At 32, he's lived literally half his life as a professional fighter.
"I think I've had 45 MMA fights, if I'm not mistaken," Riley said. "That feels like plenty."
It wasn't any one thing that pushed him over the edge. Instead the will and the desire drained out of him slowly, he said, until there wasn't enough left to drive him on to the next fight.
"I've been contemplating it for a couple years," Riley said. "I just vacillated back and forth on the thing. The way I really decided in the end was, if someone told me, 'Hey, you have to do all that preparation and go in there and do all this again three months from now,' I would have told them to just go ahead and shoot me instead. After so long of doing it, really, I've just had enough. There were a lot of indicators, but I think I've had my fill.
"It was a lot of little things. I don't feel as passionate about it as I used to. It used to be the only thing I thought about. Training and fighting, I was consumed by it. I lived in the gym at one stage in my life, when I first moved to Washington state. I lived in the gym for a year and a half. I was so dedicated to this sport. Now, I don't know, I just don't feel as in love with it as I was. I still love it, but I'm not as crazy about rushing out and getting hit in the face anymore."
Of course, you couldn't tell that by looking at his last performance. Against Salas (11-4 MMA, 2-1 UFC), Riley (30-14-1 MMA, 3-6 UFC) gave and took his share of punishment, which is about what fight fans had come to expect from the man who has twice left the octagon with a broken jaw.
He took his lumps against Salas, as well. Most of it came early on in the fight, but by the time it was over, Riley said, he had a broken orbital, a broken nose, and a fractured cheekbone.
"I really pushed through a lot in that match, because I knew it was going to be my last one," said Riley. "I was really pushing hard in that third round to try and get the 'W,' because the damage happened early on. I felt like I fought through a lot of obstacles, but man, getting hit in the face is starting to get old."
It wasn't always that way. There was a time when it seemed like the greatest thing he could possibly do with his life. He still has plenty of high points to look back on, like the time he fought Robbie Lawler at UFC 32 and lost a decision in a brutal back-and-forth battle.
"I still have the clippings from that," Riley said. "At the time, [UFC announcer] Bruce Buffer called it the greatest fight he'd ever seen live. I thought, wow, this guy has seen a lot of fights, so that's a real compliment."
Then there was his own personal favorite, when he knocked out Michihiro Omigawa with a head kick at a PRIDE Bushido event in Tokyo. He was bigger and more experienced than Omigawa, he said, "but to win decisively on what was, to me, the biggest stage at the moment, where they had all this pageantry and the production level was through the roof, it was just amazing."
One of the reasons he waited until after the fight to announce his retirement, and even then only in a brief Twitter message, is because he didn't want to be one of those fighters who dangles the promise of retirement out there as a lure for fan and media attention.
"To me, sometimes it seems like people build that up," Riley said. "I wasn't looking for that. I just didn't think it was that important for me to make a big deal about it. I see people do that all the time, which is another reason I didn't want to trumpet that this was my last fight. You see people who go on and on and on for six months before their damn fight even happens, and then you just know they're going to be back in six months or a year anyway."
When his retirement announcement prompted messages of support and appreciation from fans and fellow fighters alike, that was a pleasant surprise for Riley. People actually did care. They had noticed him in the cage all these years. He just didn't get the chance to hear about it until he had made up his mind to walk away.
So now that it's over, what will he miss about it? Not the pain and the suffering, surely. And while it's nice to get paid, Riley pointed out, "I've never made Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre money, anyway."
"The thing I'll miss the most is being a part of the greatest sport, the fastest-growing sport in the world," he said. "It's so awesome to go out there and know I'm a part of the big show. The UFC really is the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts. It's the biggest and best. It will be sad to not be a part of that anymore."