Like most 40-something professional athletes, Mark Coleman hears the question often. How and when does he envision the curtain closing on his career?
“That question does present itself all the time to me,” he says. “I guess it’s a question that any athlete doesn’t like to deal with or hear. I consider myself very fortunate because there has been a lot of time off over the last 10 years, and that’s been a blessing. My body still feels relatively fresh. I don’t see the end being that near.”
Nine years after his last appearance inside the Octagon, Coleman (15-8) -- one of five men enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame -- will meet Brazilian standout and 2005 Pride middleweight grand prix winner Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 93 “Franklin vs. Henderson” on Jan. 17 at the O2 Arena in Dublin, Ireland.
Throughout Coleman’s storied 12-year career, he has tested himself against some of the world’s premier mixed martial artists, from the sport’s pioneers -- Don Frye, Dan Severn and Maurice Smith -- to modern-day pound-for-pound contenders -- Rua, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko.
A member of the 1992 Olympic team and an NCAA national wrestling champion at Ohio State University, Coleman has not competed since he submitted to a second-round armbar from Emelianenko at Pride 32 in October 2006. During his two years away from competition, Coleman came to grips with himself, inside the cage and out. A father to two daughters, parenthood kept him busy.
Now primed for a rematch against an opponent 17 years his junior, Coleman must confront naysayers who question the wisdom behind his decision to return to competition after more than two years away from it. However, the thought of hanging up the gloves never crossed the 44-year-old’s mind, as the extended layoff afforded him time to reflect on what he wanted to accomplish with the rest of his career.
“Retirement was never an option,” Coleman says. “I had offers to fight since then, but my goal was to get back into the UFC. I waited and turned down some pretty good paychecks in the process. The reason for the layoff is because I really wanted back into the UFC. Fortunately, [UFC President Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva] decided to bring me back, and I’m grateful.”
“I knew I was going to have to go into that fight at 100 percent,” Coleman says. “I was full speed every day at practice, and when you do that, you risk injury. I tore my [medial collateral ligament]. I was working on my kicks, believe it or not, and I got a little kick happy. I threw a lazy one out there and tore my MCL pretty good.”
Having missed out on a golden opportunity, Coleman was left to watch Lesnar from the sidelines, as the former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar dominated Heath Herring at UFC 87 and began his rapid climb to a title shot with little in his way to slow him down.
“It was frustrating,” Coleman says. “I would have preferred to have been there myself. Who knows? Maybe in hindsight everything happens for a reason.”
Coleman predicted success for Lesnar, who went on to defeat another hall of famer, Randy Couture, for the UFC heavyweight crown at UFC 91 in November.
“When I first heard Brock Lesnar was coming into the game, I predicted he would do very well, depending on how much he committed himself,” he says. “This sport will force you to commit yourself, or you will end up getting humiliated. As long as he stays dedicated, he’s going to be tough to beat.”
While Coleman will face Rua (16-3) at 205 pounds later this month, he has not ruled out a future return to the heavyweight division, especially if he finds a bout against Lesnar on the table.
“At this stage of my career, I can’t look past the next fight,” he says. “If you want to look in the future and the UFC offered up Brock Lesnar to me, I realize it would be one hell of a challenge. I’d certainly give it a shot. If that offer presented itself, I would definitely take it.”
Itching to meet the challenge placed before him, Coleman opted not to stay in his comfort zone. Rather than train exclusively in Columbus, Ohio, he ventured across the state line into West Virginia in order to focus on refining his stand-up. Critics have long knocked Coleman’s perceived dependence on his wrestling skills. Stuff his takedowns, they claim, and he becomes quite ordinary. Coleman -- who has not tasted victory inside the Octagon since he submitted Severn at UFC 12 in 1997 -- knows his shortcomings better than anyone.
“Unfortunately, there is a lot I’ve got to learn still,” Coleman says. “I get better every time I go to the gym; I’m still picking stuff up. It’s my own fault I don’t already know all this stuff, but the truth is I’m learning every day.”
Rua, like Coleman, finds himself on the mend after tearing a knee ligament. The 27-year-old Brazilian lost his promotional debut against Forrest Griffin at UFC 76 and went under the knife soon after.
Coleman defeated Rua at Pride 31, though it was not without controversy. The bout ended when Rua broke his arm while trying to brace himself during a successful Coleman takedown. Bad blood still flows.
“He wants me to say it was a lucky win, but I’m not going to come out and say that,” Coleman says. “I feel I’m the one who hit the single leg, then turned it into a double leg, and he is the one who posted his arm and broke it. You create your own luck in this sport.”
Trumping Rua again will be no easy task, and Coleman has drafted a unique strategy for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. He plans to go against his instincts and put aside 40-plus years of amateur wrestling experience. Can he prove the pundits wrong?
“I’ve been trying to let my hands go for 10-12 years,” Coleman says. “I do it pretty well in practice, but when the lights come on, I resort back to wrestling. If I want to take him down, I will. I do consider ‘Shogun’ very slick and dangerous on the ground, so hopefully we can try to turn this into a stand-up war. That’s the game plan, which is subject to change at any time.”