Matt Brown didn't realize what his UFC career meant to people — until it was over

Matt Brown didn't figure his retirement would be a very big deal. That's why he put off making any sort of public announcement. He'd already told the UFC, which seemed like the important part. He supposed he should say something publicly, just to get it out there, but he didn't expect much of a response.

“I was literally at my daughter's soccer game,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “She had a doubleheader, and in between the two games I was sitting there and thought, ‘oh yeah I need to make some Instagram post about this.’ Apparently that’s what makes it official, not when I called the UFC like a month before that. So I found a picture that looked good for a retirement post, and really put no thought into it beyond that.”

Soon he was sitting in the hot sun, watching his daughter in game two, when his phone lit up. The buzzing, the notifications, the texts. One right after another until the phone was on the verge of overheating in his hand.

“I guess it was a little naive on my end, but I was kind of just like, ‘damn, people actually give a s***?'” Brown said. “It honestly made my eyes water a little bit.”

For fighters, retiring can be a little like eavesdropping on their own funerals. Suddenly everyone has nothing but nice things to say. Your faults are forgiven and your triumphs are magnified. People who once seemed indifferent or even hostile realize they’re really going to miss you now that you’re gone. With the story ended, everyone gets a chance to step back and look at it in its entirety.

Brown had one of those UFC careers that can’t be easily explained with stats or achievements. His overall pro record of 24-19 looks unremarkable on paper. He never won or fought for a UFC title. If you don’t follow this sport, his 15-year stay in the UFC probably seems only notable for its longevity.

But MMA is one of those sports where it’s not just about the wins and losses. What Brown brought to a UFC event was the near guarantee of a certain kind of fight. He was the archetype of the hard-nosed, hard-charging welterweight who fought like he was allergic to taking a backward step. He hit hard and often. Hitting him back only seemed to make him mad.

Opponents always knew they were in for a tough night of work when they accepted the fight, just like fans always knew they wanted to be in their seats when Brown walked to the cage. His was a career built on blood and determination. Turns out people noticed and appreciated him for it.

That was a nice surprise for Brown, as was the UFC’s video package commemorating his time in the cage. The retirement decision was a slowly unfolding process, Brown said. He’s been less active as a fighter in recent years. His focus has gradually moved elsewhere as he’s gotten more involved in running his gym and various real estate projects. He’d hoped to fight Jim Miller at UFC 300 and maybe call it quits there, he said. When the fight didn’t materialize, he felt some of his passion for the sport drain away.

“That’s when I figured, I’ll just retire,” Brown said. “(The UFC) made me an offer soon after that, but I just didn’t feel it. It didn’t feel like a hard process. My mind was kind of already on the next steps in my life. It just felt very natural, to be honest.”

There are parts of the fighter’s life he’ll miss, Brown admitted. The excitement. The nerves. Even the fear, that feeling of living right on the razor’s edge.

“Probably more than anything I’ll miss just that feeling of being in fight mode,” Brown said. “Six or eight or 10 weeks of just sheer focus. You kind of zone out of the entire world. You're not worried about the stress of life or business or anything else. I mean, you’ve got to take care of your family still, but they're supporting you on that journey. It’s just such a simple life, man. You’ve got one job, one focus.”

There are other parts he won’t miss, like the uncertainty that’s built into a fighter’s whole existence. You’re always either waiting around to fight or else training for a fight that, with an injury to you or your opponent, could evaporate at any time. You invest so much time and money preparing, but the fight could be yanked out from under you the day before — even the day of — and there’s no guarantee you’ll see a single cent in payment.

When he looks back on his career now, it’s not just the highlight-reel wins that stand out. His fight against Robbie Lawler, a close bout where he lost the decision that would have propelled him into a UFC title fight with just a couple different numbers on a couple scorecards, that one stands out. Even though he lost, Brown said, it was the best he’d ever felt in a fight.

Then there was the one just before that, where he beat Erick Silva in a wild brawl that packed a whole lot of living into just over 12 minutes of fight time. With news of Brown’s retirement, the highlights of that fight made the rounds of social media. But what he remembers now is not just his performance or the thrill of the victory, but all the people around him.

“I had more family at that fight than at my family reunion,” Brown said. “My kids were there, and I was the main event so they got to come in the cage after and get pictures and stuff. That made it really special.”

Maybe the biggest surprise for Brown, now that his career is over, is the extent to which his relationship with fans ended up being a two-way street. Many of them reached out over the years to tell him how inspired they were by his journey from a near-fatal heroin overdose to a UFC career. But as he engaged more with fans on social media over the years, he found that they inspired him too.

“There were days when I felt like I needed some extra motivation, and I knew I could go on my social media and there would be people telling me good stuff, getting me motivated for the day,” Brown said. “I know a lot of fighters or athletes in general talk about the negativity they experience online. I didn’t really encounter too much of that. I’m cognizant of who I’m following and who I’m blocking, but I’ve had really positive experiences just connecting with people on there.”

Standing there on the sidelines of the soccer game that day, with his phone almost melting from the messages of love and support that flooded in after he told the world he was done with the fighting portion of his life, Brown got to see that his time in the cage actually did mean something to the people who watched. It’s enough to make even a tough guy get a little misty.

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