Across all sports, there are several ways we categorize athletes and frame their careers.
We talk about superstars and role players, prospects and veterans, dissecting where these competitors that land on our televisions stand in their sporting life and ponder whether they still have something left or if their prime has passed them by.
On the baseball diamond, football field or NBA hardwood, elite athletes have a greater opportunity to fade away, transitioning from being one of the best in the business to a respected veteran, a role player that contributes in ways that may not be reflected in the nightly box scores.
Additionally, athletes at every skill level and designation in team sports have a greater chance of fulfilling their championship dreams. Robert Horry was never an all-star, but “Big Shot Bob” collected more rings than the all-time leading scorer in NBA history and the man recognized as the greatest player ever.
A very good player in the right place, at the right time and now he’s got more titles than all but six people.
By comparison, mixed martial arts is a cruel mistress.
While championship success on the regional level or in other organizations may be enough for some competitors, most hold wearing UFC gold as the pinnacle of being a professional MMA fighter and chase that dream with dogged determination. Regardless of whether they’re just starting out, in the midst of their prime or a seasoned veteran, the pursuit of winning a title in the UFC remains the driving factor when it comes to continuing to step into the cage.
Unfortunately, reaching the summit in the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a solo pursuit that very few get to accomplish. In the history of the organization, just 72 men and women have carried around the 12 pounds of gold and leather that signifies being the best in the respective weight class, including the handful of fighters to hold interim belts.
Over the years, there have been champions from other organizations and decorated UFC competitors that have come up short in championship opportunities or failed to reach those heights entirely. Retired fighter-turned-analyst Kenny Florian had a tremendous career inside the Octagon, but never managed to add a UFC belt to his vast wardrobe, while perennial middleweight contender Michael Bisping has been a headlining act for nearly a decade, yet “The Count” has yet to challenge for championship gold.
That’s the harsh reality facing fighters at this level, which makes the relentless pursuit of that elusive prize they all commit to even more impressive.
Despite a tremendous career forged in his native Japan, that fixation with becoming a UFC champion continues to drive 33-year-old veteran Katsunori Kikuno.
“I haven't looked back at my career yet,” the Japanese veteran says, discussing his outlook heading into his fifth UFC appearance next weekend when the promotion returns to the famed Saitama Super Arena.
Having claimed the lightweight title in Deep and competed at an elite level for more than a decade, it’s that UFC gold belt that keeps Kikuno from sitting down to reflect on his numerous accomplishments to date.
“In the future when I look back, I want to be able to say that I was UFC champion,” the 23-7-2 featherweight continues. “This is the place that decides the best in the world, which means, this is where I can achieve my goal.”
Kikuno resumes his pursuit of championship gold in the 145-pound weight class opposite mercurial former Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Brandao.
Five years Kikuno’s junior, the Brazilian remains an intriguing figure in the division, having won four of his last six outings, with his two setbacks coming against interim champion Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, who has become a contender in the lightweight ranks after holding the same position in the featherweight ranks for a number of years.
Their paths cross at an interesting junction – Kikuno coming off a first-round knockout loss against Kevin Souza in March, Brandao having earned a first-round stoppage win over Jimy Hettes a month later – and with the Japanese star returning to compete on his home turf in what most would consider the twilight of his career, this feels like a potential “ride off into the sunset on a high note” moment for Kikuno, but that’s not what he’s thinking about heading into next Saturday’s encounter with Brandao.
He’s only thinking about taking the next step towards the title.
“No,” he says definitively when asked if thoughts of retirement and a grand farewell on the UFC stage have crossed his mind.
“I love kakutougi,” a Japanese word that encompasses several combat sports, “and I love getting stronger. I believe that I can continue to get stronger and I believe I can be UFC champion.”
Whether that will happen for Kikuno or not remains to be seen, but given the number of veteran heavyweights experiencing impressive comebacks in their mid-to-late 30s - including next weekend’s headlining duo of Josh Barnett (37) and Roy Nelson (39) – the 33-year-old disciple of UFC veteran Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsaka has plenty of examples to look to for inspiration as he continues his pursuit of UFC gold.
As the noted Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Next Saturday, Kikuno takes the first step in what he hopes will be a journey to the top of the UFC featherweight division. Will that be the case?
As the great basketball philosopher Kevin Maurice Garnett said, “Anything is possible.”