How will Din Thomas be remembered? Maybe not at all, and maybe that’s just fine
When I first heard that Din Thomas had decided to retire from MMA after seeing Anderson Silva and Josh Barnett both lose to younger fighters at UFC 168, I admit that it didn’t make a ton of sense to me.
Here was Thomas (26-9), 37 years old with more than 35 bouts in nearly 15 years as a pro, and he’s making career decisions based on what happens to other fighters in completely different weight classes? So I called him to ask about it, and the next thing I knew, he was saying a lot of very smart stuff that I really couldn’t disagree with.
For starters, Thomas said, the losses Barnett and Silva suffered weren’t the sole reason for his retirement, but “it played a good little part because I know how good these guys were in their primes, and I know how good I was in mine.”
But seeing his contemporaries go down didn’t just remind Thomas about the inexorable march of time, he said. It also further demonstrated something he’s suspected for a long time, which is that MMA fighters are getting much better, much faster these days. That’s good for MMA, which is still growing and evolving so rapidly that the hot new techniques of this year are old news by next year, but it’s probably bad news for guys like Thomas who started out in the sport’s infancy.
“You look at other sports, and boxing hasn’t really gotten that much better in the last 10 years,” Thomas said. “The athletes might have gotten a little bit better and stronger and faster, but the skills haven’t changed that much. In MMA, I think guys are getting better at all the areas so much faster. When I was coming up, there were so many holes that guys had. Even if they were good on the ground and good standing, they were still blue belts on the ground and amateur boxer-level on the feet. Now, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for a fighter is not that big a deal.”
It makes sense that a sport as young as MMA should see such great leaps in the quality of talent and training in the span of a relatively short time. It also makes you wonder how we’ll look back on fighters like Thomas, who fought his first pro bout in 1998 and went 5-4 in several stints with the UFC, including one as a cast member on the “comeback” fourth season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” What do you say about a fighter who was good but not great? How will he be remembered?
Turns out Thomas has spent some time thinking about it, and he’s arrived at an answer he can live with.
“The fans won’t remember me at all,” Thomas said. “On some level, I’m OK with that. I know how the game is. You’re only as good as your last fight, and that lasts for a couple months because there’s always someone else coming up who’s hot. It’s the entertainment industry. I’m OK with that. But what makes me proud is the other fighters who come up and say they used me for inspiration.”
In other words, the question of what we – fans and media – will say about these fighters is almost irrelevant. It’s the difference between what total strangers think of you and what colleagues within your own industry think. The latter group is, pretty much by definition, much smaller, but it’s also more informed. The opinions in the group really mean something, especially to guys like Thomas who helped other people get there.
“I get this all the time, guys saying, ‘I watched you since I was in high school, and I watched you come up, doing your thing,’” Thomas said. “I’ve had brothers come up to me, black dudes, and say they remember me for being the first black dude in the UFC with a good skill set, who was technical. To me, that’s what makes me proud because that was something I strived for, was to be a technical fighter. The one thing they’d give black dudes back then was, ‘Well, he’s athletic or strong or fast.’ I wanted to be known as a technical guy, and I think I accomplished that. I inspired some young guys to come up and do it that way, and I’m happy with that.”
Another thing he’s inspiring them to do, in his own way, is call it quits when it’s time. As Thomas put it, there are guys his age who are still at it and still finding success in the cage. But, he added, “A lot of them are doing it with – I’ll just say help. They’re doing it with some help.”
And yeah, you know what he means. It wouldn’t be impossible for a fighter Thomas’ age to make his case for a therapeutic-use exemption, helping him get on the same synthetic testosterone that’s been a fountain of youth for other fighters.
“But I don’t really want to go that route,” Thomas said. “I feel like when your time is done it’s done, so let it go and move on. I had my time back in the day, and I did my thing. I didn’t need help.”
Now the sport may have passed him by, and the fans of today may not remember him at all, but Thomas seems to have made his peace with that. Whatever we say about him once he’s gone, even if it’s not much at all, at least Thomas knows what he did – and didn’t do – while he was here. It’s not the kind of thing that gets your name carved into plaques alongside the greats, but maybe it at least lets you walk away feeling good about your time in the sport.