There was something sad, stale and bitter in the air during UFC 137. It wasn't just the lingering disappointment from welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre pulling out of the headliner with an injury. No, there was something deeper behind the funk that clouded the Mandalay Events Center on Saturday: the stale smell of dashed hopes, wasted potential and squandered opportunities.
I guess I should have expected as much from a card featuring Brandon Vera, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and B.J. Penn. All three fighters, despite their great gifts and considerable achievements, have long and disappointing track records of letting down their fans in the Octagon.
For fans, mixed martial arts (MMA) is an escape. After another grueling week of under achievement and humiliation in our pathetic little personal and professional lives, we round up our buddies, grab a few six packs and sit our fat selves in our seats to watch our heroes kick ass in the cage.
99.99% of people can't ever hope to kick ass in the Octagon even once, but we can all live vicariously through the feats of those who can. At least that's the ideal.
When we fork over our hard earned digits to the cable company it's because we want to see great athletes triumphing over adversity, conquering their fears and their opponents and putting on amazing displays of skill, fortitude and iron will.
But sometimes what we see instead are great athletes succumbing to their personal failings and surrendering to their mental demons. That's what we saw entirely too much of at UFC 137.
As a long-time and long-suffering fan of Vera, Cro Cop and Penn it was a long, depressing evening that brought back painful recollections of many failures past.
Seeing Brandon Vera, once the most dynamic young heavyweight in the UFC, working hard to slow down the action and seemingly happy to squeak by Eliot Marshall with a broken arm and a dubious split decision victory was a bad start to the evening.
Sadly most UFC fans have come to expect that Vera will be tentative in the cage. It seems like he's always been unable to pull the trigger on any kind of sustained aggression and all too happy to spend the fight clinching against the cage, stalling for time and hoping for an ugly decision win.
But for those of us who remember the Brandon Vera of 2005-2006 it's just painful to see what is and think about what might have been. Once upon a time Vera was an undefeated heavyweight with four straight finishes in the Octagon and a title shot in his future. Then an ugly contract dispute kept him on the shelf for 11 months and he's never been the same since.
Unlike Vera, Mirko Cro Cop actually achieved greatness in MMA, albeit briefly. In 2006 he won the final Pride Open Grand Prix and staked a claim for being the top heavyweight in the world. When he came to the UFC in 2007, it was blithely assumed by fans and promoters alike that he would cruise into the UFC's then-thin heavyweight division and just take over.
Instead Cro Cop never adjusted to the differences between the cage and the ring, lost his killer instinct somewhere over the Pacific and was on the wrong end of the biggest headkick highlight reel in UFC history, courtesy of Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70.
Over the past four years, Cro Cop fans have engaged in the classic bargaining behavior typical of the fourth stage of grieving. We gave up on Mirko ever winning a title and instead set our sights on him scoring at least one spectacular KO in the Octagon. After more losses leavened with utterly unimpressive wins over the likes of Anthony Perosh and Mostapha Al-Turk, we adjusted our sights again and just took to praying that Mirko would finish up his UFC career without being brutally KO'd again.
Cro Cop fought gamely against Roy Nelson at UFC 137, even hurting "Big Country" early in the second round and pouring on the punches in a vain quest for the finish, but it was too little, too late. Cro Cop announced his retirement before and after the fight and honestly, it is a relief.
Which brings us to B.J. Penn. Ah, "the Prodigy," he's a heart breaker. Despite all his considerable accomplishments -- unlike Vera, Penn didn't talk about being a two-division champion, he went out and did it -- Penn's never fulfilled the promise of his amazing talent.
Against Nick Diaz at UFC 137, Penn once again showed why he's considered the best first round fighter in the business, making Diaz miss and getting inside with sharp combinations that busted up Nick's face.
Alas, it was a three-round fight. After that stellar opening frame, B.J. deflated like a beach ball after rolling over a bed of thumb tacks. By the time the third round started I wanted the fight to end almost as badly as Penn did, but he's a brave man and a pro fighter so he staggered back out there and took the five minutes of abuse he had coming.
After the fight, Penn too announced his retirement, although he's since backtracked a bit and is just taking some time off.
Personally, unless Penn brings back his former conditioning coach Marv Marinovich, I'll just brace myself for further disappointment. The infamously sadistic taskmaster Marinovich had Penn in incredible shape for his championship round wins over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez in 2009, but Penn let him go and since then it's been back to the old pattern of starting off sharp and then fading in the second and third rounds.
The burden of fan expectations is a heavy one, but athletes are glorified in our society for a reason: we want to share in their triumphs. Sometimes we share in their tribulations instead.