43-year-old Chris Lytle will return to fighting – for a bare-knuckle boxing match

More than six years after retiring from MMA, Chris Lytle is making his return to fighting. It won’t be in the UFC, though, or even in MMA at all.

At one time considered the UFC’s fight-night bonus king, Lytle (31-18-5 MMA, 10-10 UFC) has kept out of combat sports since he submitted Dan Hardy in his retirement fight at UFC on VERSUS 5 in August 2011. He’s finally being pulled back into combat, except he won’t be lacing up any sort of gloves. Lytle is going to fight a bare-knuckle boxing match.

The 20-fight UFC veteran will face Lewis Gallant at Bare Knuckle Boxing 9, which takes place Jan. 13 at O2 Arena in London. The promotion announced the news this week (via Twitter):

Lytle, now 43, cited a desire to spend more time with his family as one of his primary motivations for hanging up gloves. He doesn’t need to unhang them for his fight, though, because “Lights Out” is going back to work for a battle of straight fisticuffs.

The Blue Corner is MMAjunkie‘s official blog and is edited by Mike Bohn.

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Today in MMA history: Chris Lytle's farewell adds to Dan Hardy's painful losing streak

For two fighters coming from very different places in their careers, Chris Lytle and Dan Hardy had reached some similar conclusions about their respective futures by the time they met on Aug. 14, 2011, in the main event of UFC on Versus 5.

Both of them went into the fight expecting it to be their last, albeit for very different reasons. Time would prove that one of them meant it more than the other, but on that night in Milwaukee they each fought with a similar urgency, two men chasing a feeling that they knew they might never get another taste of.

Lytle was the only one who let people in on his secret. At weigh-ins the day before the fight, he handed out two letters – one to UFC President Dana White and another to longtime UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. The sentiment of the letters was relatively simple, according to Lytle. It said thank you and goodbye. After 12 years as a pro fighter, he’d decided to retire.

“But first I just wanted to thank them for everything they’d done to change my life,” Lytle told MMAjunkie. “People criticize Dana and the UFC, but I fought for the UFC before Zuffa owned it, back when it was (Semiphore Entertainment Group) and I was making $500 to fight.”

Lytle had reached the decision well in advance of the Hardy fight. He was coming off a loss to Brian Ebersole some six months earlier, but more importantly, he’d recently been forced to take a month off from training due to a knee injury. For Lytle, a full-time firefighter and committed gym rat, that was unusual.

“I was one of those guys that was always in the gym, never took time off, and that meant that over the course of my career I missed a lot of family stuff, missed my kids’ basketball games and gymnastic meets and stuff like that,” Lytle said. “I started feeling guilty about that. I realized I’m not as big a part of their lives as I wanted to be.”

When the UFC offered him a fight with Hardy in the late summer, Lytle was initially enthusiastic about starting his training camp. He was a fan of Hardy’s aggressive, striking-heavy fighting style. It seemed to lend itself to exciting fights, which had been Lytle’s main career goal after a disappointing outing against Matt Serra in the finale of season four of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

But when he got back in the gym to gear up for the fight, a strange thing happened.

“I started feeling actually guilty going to the gym, and that had never happened to me before,” Lytle said. “I started realizing, man, you’ve got a basketball game you’re missing today. I realized, I’m getting older, my kids are getting older, and there’s time I’m never going to get back.”

That night, Lytle sat down for a talk with his wife. He told her he’d decided to quit fighting after the bout with Hardy. He wanted to be there for his family more. He wanted to stop missing so many important moments. They agreed that, win or lose, he’d hang up his gloves that August.

“After I said that I felt like, ‘OK, I’m going to win my last fight,’” Lytle said. “I had that extra motivation, and I didn’t feel guilty about going to the gym after that.”

Hardy, meanwhile, was battling some very different emotions. A little over a year earlier he’d been the top welterweight contender, unbeaten in four fights with the UFC and headed into a title fight against champion Georges St-Pierre. He would spend the better part of 25 minutes getting out-wrestled in that fight, having his arm wrenched in multiple submission attempts before ultimately losing a unanimous decision.

There was no shame in the defeat. St-Pierre was already regarded as one of the best all-around fighters in the world, and Hardy had hung tough with him. But then he lost his next fight via knockout at the hands of Carlos Condit that October, and in the spring he was once again wrestled into defeat, this time by future light heavyweight contender Anthony Johnson, who surprised everyone by eschewing his usual headhunting tactics in favor of takedowns and top control.

Losing his third consecutive fight was upsetting enough, but the way he lost it was particularly frustrating for Hardy.

“I remember being backstage after that fight and I was sitting with my hand in a bucket of ice because I’d dislocated my thumb, and in my head I was just like, ‘I’m done,’” Hardy said. “I said that to my coach. I told him, ‘This isn’t fun for me anymore. I’m not enjoying it anymore. I’m ready to do something else.’ I was already looking at going back to university and doing something else with my life. When they came to me with Chris Lytle, I thought it was going to be my last fight regardless. I kind of got in there just to have a good time. I had complete disregard for my own career and my own future in the sport, because I really didn’t think I had one at that point.”

It was something of a surprise for Hardy to even get the opportunity to headline a UFC event by that point. The UFC had made a habit of cutting fighters who hit three losses in a row, and already fans had begun to ask how and why Hardy still had a job.

From the outside, that made the fight with Lytle seemed like do-or-die territory. But in his head, Hardy was mainly after one thing – a brawl.

“That was the first time I didn’t get into a fight thinking too much about winning,” Hardy said. “I just wanted to get what I felt like I hadn’t gotten from my last fight with Anthony Johnson.”

When word circulated the day before the fight that it would be Lytle’s final bout, that complicated things for Hardy, he admitted. He’d been an admirer of Lytle’s style and his penchant for thrilling scraps in recent years. It was a compliment, in a way, to be his last fight. It also added even more pressure to entertain, which was evident in the fight’s early exchanges.

Hardy came marching forward that night with a bright red mohawk to match his shorts, and Lytle met him in the center of the cage, ready to plant his feet and throw. His plan, he said, was to prevent Hardy from developing any offensive momentum as he advanced.

“I was always wanting to come forward,” Lytle said. “I felt like I had a better chance if I was moving forward, and I felt like he wasn’t quite as dangerous if you could get him moving backward.”

That strategy would prove to have some flaws. Lytle managed to back Hardy up often in those first two rounds, mainly by employing body shots that opened up Hardy’s defenses for the big bombs that followed. But as Lytle got too enthusiastic about chasing Hardy down, he also ran directly into some short counter strikes from Hardy that sent him wobbling back early in the fight.

“Usually when you get hit with one like that, it’s usually not the first punch – it’s the second one that gets you,” Lytle said. “Because then you’re a little bit slower and that nice, clean, flush shot is the one that hurts you. I knew I had to to be smart then, and I was usually pretty good at avoiding that follow-up shot.”

Lytle’s ability to recover and survive came as a surprise to Hardy, who saw several openings in the first two rounds vanish as Lytle shook off strikes that seemed like potential fight-enders.

“I remember catching him with an elbow on the temple, and I remember him putting both of his hands down,” Hardy said. “I think that was in the second round. More than anything I was amazed at his durability. Most of the time, when I hit someone with a good shot, they tend to go down.”

By the third round, Lytle seemed to be in control on the scorecards. Hardy’s corner was telling him that he likely needed a finish, and his increased aggression in that final frame showed his willingness to take risks in search of it. No matter how many times Lytle rattled his skull with power punches, Hardy never stopped attacking, in part because of how aware he was of the need to put on a show.

“I was taking a lot of chances in that fight, a lot of risks,” Hardy said. “I took more shots in that fight than the majority of the rest of my career, purely because I wasn’t thinking strategically. I kind of got drawn into Chris Lytle’s style of fighting, although I was more than prepared to do that. I was surprised that he was as durable as he was, but at the same time it was a horrible performance from me.”

With precious time draining away in the final minute, Hardy pressed forward behind a punch combo and then shot in for a takedown, looking to surprise Lytle. While Lytle had long ago decided that he wasn’t interested in going for takedowns of his own, the jiu-jitsu black belt was more than ready to grapple when Hardy initiated it.

“I don’t ever trust going to the judges,” Lytle said. “I’ve thought I won some fights and then lost some split-decisions. You don’t ever know what’s going to happen. To be honest, my thought was keep pouring it on. I was landing some good punches, and I wanted to knock his head off if I could. I wanted to stop him, but honestly the submission wasn’t even a thought until he shot in on me. Then the muscle memory kind of took over.”

Almost in a single motion, Lytle sprawled to defend the takedown and locked up a guillotine choke that he used to roll Hardy onto his back. Lytle moved to mount and torqued it harder, and for a moment it looked as though Hardy may slip into unconsciousness.

“I was surprised with how quickly he got the guillotine,” Hardy said. “It wasn’t really a concern at first.”

Once he saw that he couldn’t escape, and with 45 seconds still to go in the round, Hardy had no choice but to tap. As he did, the crowd erupted for Lytle, the retiring fighter who’d capped off a storybook farewell that summed up the last few years of his career. He’d gotten the slugfest he wanted, but also a chance to show off his underrated submissions game in the end.

Most importantly, he’d gotten the win in an exciting fight, meaning he could exit on a high note.

“That’s the thing, you’re always going to remember that last one,” Lytle said. “That’s going to be how you remember the world of MMA and the UFC in your career. You just don’t know how it’s going to go. Fighters have a lot of pressure on them, and it was just a big release of pressure. I could just tell it was going to bring me a lot of satisfaction for years to come. Because if you go out there in your last one and get knocked out, that’s going to leave a bad taste in your mouth for maybe the rest of your life.”

For Hardy, a sense of peace followed the initial disappointment of the loss. Even he had to admit that there was a certain poetic beauty in the way Lytle had capped off his career. Plus, while he hadn’t disclosed his thoughts on his own career, by the time he showed up to the post-fight press conference, Hardy was ready for what would come next. He was almost certain that it would start with getting cut from the UFC. It was social media that told him otherwise.

“I was sitting in the press conference when I saw that tweet from (UFC CEO) Lorenzo (Fertitta) saying, ‘I like guys that war,’” Hardy said. “That was the point when I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is my final chance. This is my opportunity to turn some things around.’ Because I’d almost exorcised some demons in that fight. Even though I lost the fight, I got out of my system a lot of the frustrations that I’d been carrying around from my previous three fights. In my head, I was absolutely accepting of the fact that this was it and I was done.”

Once he realized that his life in the UFC would go on, Hardy decided to take some time off before his next fight. He would return nine months later, ending his four-fight losing streak with a knockout victory over Duane Ludwig at UFC 146. He fought again and won that September before being sidelined by medical issues that have kept him out of the cage to this day, much to his chagrin.

And while he can’t help but thinking of things he might have done differently in that Lytle fight, Hardy said, ultimately he can’t complain. He’s found a new career as a commentator, and he’s happy with where his life has taken him. There’s not much he’d want to change about the journey if it meant changing the current destination.

“The other thing that I keep going back to is that the winner of that fight was supposed to get a Harley-Davidson (via a UFC giveaway through the Harley-Davidson Museum),” Hardy said. “And if I’d won that fight and been given a Harley-Davidson as the winner, I wouldn’t be here today, because I’d have driven that into a wall or something. So there’s a silver lining. I’ve just got to look for it sometimes.”

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Can McGregor beat Mayweather? Doubtful, but MMA fighters with boxing experience have ideas

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On Aug. 26, UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor will make his professional boxing debut against arguably the greatest boxer in a generation, which right there sounds like a borderline unsanctionable mismatch.

But that hasn’t stopped McGregor’s many ardent supporters from insisting that he has a good chance to beat Floyd Mayweather. They point to his size and strength. They point to Mayweather’s age (he turned 40 in February). They point to McGregor’s powerful left hand.

You put them all together, they say, and maybe you have a recipe for a McGregor upset. It’s a fight, after all. And while McGregor might not have a single boxing match to his credit, he’s got plenty of fights.

Still, those fighters with considerable experience in both sports say they aren’t optimistic about McGregor’s chances. While both boxing and MMA are built around two people punching each other in the face, the differences between the two sports are more numerous and more significant than many fans realize, according to those who’ve done both.

Marcus Davis

“They’re not the same sport,” said Marcus Davis, a retired veteran of 20 pro boxing bouts and more than 30 MMA fights, nearly half of which took place in the UFC. “Once you understand that it’s not the same sport, you can’t keep telling yourself that it’s just a fight. The gloves are bigger, the tactics are different. A lot of the defenses that work in boxing are ones you can’t even use in MMA.”

Davis learned that lesson the hard way. He began his pro boxing career when he was still just a teenager, but transitioned to MMA a decade later. In his boxing stance, Davis said, he couldn’t stop a takedown or check a leg kick. Head movement techniques that helped him avoid punches in boxing got him kicked in the face in MMA.

Trying to cover up with four-ounce gloves didn’t provide the same protection, and the fights often took place at completely different ranges. It was a rough transition at first.

“But then sometimes I’d go to MMA gyms, and people who knew I boxed would want to put on the gloves and do some boxing sparring with me,” Davis said. “And when we did that, and I could use all my old boxing tricks, my boxing stance and defense, then I’d just destroy them. They just couldn’t touch me because it was a completely different game. I knew how to play that game, and they didn’t.”

The same was true for Chris Lytle, a veteran of more than 50 MMA bouts and 15 professional boxing matches. He often trained for both sports at more or less the same time, showing up to fight gyms looking to do whichever kind of sparring was available that day. But his experience in boxing quickly taught him his limits.

Chris Lytle

“I thought I was a very good boxer,” Lytle said. “But I was definitely not a great boxer or an elite boxer, and there’s a real difference.”

It’s for that reason, Lytle said, that he’s not expecting much out of McGregor. While he regards Mayweather as “probably my least favorite fighter on the planet,” Lytle also has to be realistic about the difference in skills and experience.

“Conor, he’s a very good and maybe even a great striker for MMA,” Lytle said. “But there is a very big difference between boxing striking and MMA striking. Let’s say you think Conor is a good boxer, which is a pretty big compliment for someone who’s never had a boxing match. But even then, he’s definitely not a great boxer or an elite boxer, and Floyd doesn’t get hit by elite boxers.”

K.J. Noons, who competed professionally as both a boxer and a kickboxer in addition to his MMA career, likened the difference between the combat sports to the difference between tennis and racquetball.

KJ Noons

“They’re both sports where you’re hitting a ball with a racquet, but they’re also very different,” Noons said. “One’s all wrist, and one is no wrist. It’s a similar thing with boxing and MMA.”

That’s not to say there aren’t options open to McGregor. Cub Swanson, an MMA fighter who’s trained extensively with pro boxers, recommended a strategy that pushes the boundaries of the rules. His own sparring with boxers has taught him how different the sports can be. While boxers often fight right on top of each other, trying to establish a jab the same way in an MMA fight can result in punches that fall short by half a foot or more.

Instead of trying to match technical boxing skills with Mayweather, Swanson said, McGregor needs to make things messy.

“If it was me against Mayweather, I would grab him and dirty box and just do as much as I could that the referee would allow me to of grabbing and hitting and trying to slow him down before starting to chuck at his head,” Swanson said. “You’re not going to out-slick him in boxing. He makes amazing boxers look bad, so why box him?”

But as Lytle cautioned, that’s an approach that’s been tried before, only to be abandoned by those who attempted it.

“Everybody thinks the way to get him is to pressure him, make it a dirty, nasty fight, because you’re not going to outbox him,” Lytle said. “But everybody who’s tried, after two or three rounds they stop pressuring him. Floyd must have a little more pop than everybody thinks. Nobody’s been able to make that work against him.”

According to Davis, the real enemy for McGregor may be the sheer frustration of fighting a defensive genius like Mayweather.

“He’s going to have to work really hard just to get a clean look at him, but when he thinks he has an opportunity to hit him, then Floyd will tie him up,” Davis said. “I think he’s going to get desperate, he’s going to start lunging, because he’ll realize he can’t lay a glove on him. That’s when I think he’ll start getting hit with the harder shots, and I think he’ll probably get stopped within six rounds. If McGregor can make it more than six rounds, that looks bad for boxing.”

Even the hope that Mayweather’s age will slow him down enough for McGregor to catch him rings false for Lytle. He watched as Roy Jones Jr., long one of Lytle’s favorites, slowed down enough for younger boxers to begin tagging him with the same punches that never came close years earlier.

“The difference with Floyd is that he’s a technically very sound boxer,” Lytle said. “Floyd might be getting older, but he doesn’t take those chances that Roy did, where he would fight with his hands down and rely on his speed. Floyd has his hands in position the whole time, his head in position, his shoulder in position, plus he’s fast and athletic.”

But even if he’s not expecting a competitive fight, that doesn’t mean Lytle won’t watch.

“I’m sure I’m going to watch it,” he said. “Of course I am. I’ve got to see the spectacle train wreck just like everybody else. But I know I’m going to leave disappointed. If Conor is able to land five clean punches the entire fight, and I’m not talking body shots, I’ll be impressed.”

As for Davis, he’s less committed to actually seeing the fight. He “won’t spend a dime” of his own money, he said, but if a friend invited him over to watch?

“Yeah, I might go watch,” Davis said. “Or I might wait and catch the highlights on Facebook, because every fight that ever happens you know you can find at least some highlights, and that might be enough for me. There’s no way this becomes competitive.”

Noons is holding out slightly more hope for a McGregor surprise. Everyone with two fists and a willingness to throw them has a chance, he said, even if it’s not a great one. But whether McGregor can win is almost beside the point for him.

“Will it be competitive?” Noons said. “I don’t know. But it’s fun; it’ll bring eyes to the sport. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. I’m going to watch it for sure.”

For more on The Money Fight: Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, check out the MMA Rumors section of the site.


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Twitter Mailbag: Bellator's big night, Conor McGregor's interplanetary fame and more

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Who would be the ideal representative to represent MMA against a top boxer? What happens if Conor McGregor actually beats Floyd Mayweather? Is Bellator NYC creating enough of its own buzz, or looking too much like a UFC knockoff?

All that and more in this week’s Twitter Mailbag. To ask a question of your own, tweet to @BenFowlkesMMA.

* * * *

It’s tricky, because Bellator wants to appeal to UFC fans but at the same time has to be careful not to come off looking like UFC Lite. It also needs fighters who fans know, but can’t rely exclusively on UFC castoffs, most of whom only struck out for new territory when it became clear that they’d gone as far as they could go in the UFC.

So what’s specifically Bellator about this fight card? Where’s the signature touch?

It’s headlined by two old guys with a grudge that’s more fun to hear about than it probably will be to see, so that’s pretty Bellator-ish. It’s got Fedor Emelianenko and Scott Coker together again, but that actually feels more Strikeforce-ish. It’s got Michael Chandler defending his lightweight title against an undefeated challenger with a harrowing personal story, but Bellator itself has done very little to highlight any of that.

Judging by the amount of pre-fight buzz, this feels like another Bellator “tentpole” event. Which would be fine, except that there’s a difference between convincing people to watch some weird stuff on cable and convincing them to pay actual money for it.

Skill-wise, it’d be nice to have someone with more boxing experience, like Chris Lytle. He had 15 fights as a pro boxer and only one loss. He tried to set up a fight with Roy Jones Jr. at some point, and once even told me it was the one thing he’d come out of retirement for, but of course it never happened because who’d be crazy enough to put an MMA fighter in there with a legendary boxer, right?

As far as handling all the pre-fight stuff, there’s no one better than Conor McGregor. He’s got a weird charisma that makes people want to look at and listen to him. He has that natural ability to speak in quotes, seemingly creating catchphrases as he talks. He sometimes takes the trash-talk too far, but he’s never boring.

That’s a good thing, since pre-fight hype is the bulk of his job here.

Still, I think guys like Lytle would tell you that boxing is a different game. It’s not just a question of whether you know how to throw a punch. The strategy and the techniques, the pace and the distance, those are all important aspects of the sport that take time to learn. Floyd Mayweather’s been learning them all his life, and he’s a master of them.

It’s the other stuff – the sales pitch, the ability to maintain our interest all summer, the magic trick of convincing us that maybe, just maybe he could win – that McGregor really excels at. In that sense, he may be the perfect representative of MMA at this moment in time.

Well obviously the first thing that happens is the Irish tear apart Las Vegas, literally burn it to the ground as part of their celebration. Then we all wake up the next morning to headlines declaring boxing officially dead. McGregor owns it now, only he’s so rich he doesn’t need it, so he’s decided to shut it down. Oh well. It had a good run.

After that the seas boil and the mountains melt. Earth will become uninhabitable at that point, which makes it a fine time for NASA to announce that it constructed a series of secret escape pods for just such a possibility. Or, well, it was supposed to be a series of pods. Then, you know, budget cuts. So now it’s just one pod, and there’s no argument as to who should take it.

Fortunately, his victory over Mayweather has made him the most famous athlete on other planets as well as this one. As we watch him blast off into space, the fumes of a dying planet choking our lungs and burning our eyes, we tell ourselves that it’s fine, just fine. Wherever McGregor lands, he’s sure to be a star.

That’s a tough question, mainly because there are two different ways of asking it. There’s the question of when you’d be justified in turning down a challenger, and then there’s the question of when it would actually be a good idea (or at least not a terrible one).

Remember when Jon Jones did it, turning down Chael Sonnen as a very late replacement for the injured Dan Henderson at UFC 151? That was a reasonable decision to make at the time, and he got scorched for it. The UFC canceled the event and then scheduled a media call just to yell at Jones about it.

Jones was justified in making that decision, but being right didn’t save him from taking a beating in the court of public opinion. It didn’t keep him from slipping into an adversarial relationship with the UFC. If he hadn’t had the advantage of being the best fighter in the world, it might have been even worse.

I think that’s a clue to the answer we’re looking for here, honestly. When is it a great idea for a champion to turn down the UFC’s preferred challengers? Probably never. Not even when the preferred challenger has no real case for a title shot.

When you can do it anyway and get away with it? When you’re so good or so popular or even just so ensconced as champion that the UFC has no choice but to keep working with you anyway.

Whatever other wonderful qualities she might possess, Germaine de Randamie didn’t have that one going for her.

Don’t you talk about his mom! Don’t you ever talk about his mom!

I’ve seen it here and there over the years. I’ve even seen people disqualified for “timidity.” It’s just not a talk we’re used to hearing from the referee in UFC main events these days, simply because you don’t usually end up there if you’re feeling timid in the first place.

It’s a fine line for a referee to walk, and I thought Marc Goddard walked it well. He told both fighters that he “respect(ed) the game plan” but they still had to work. And what do you know, they did.

We don’t want to tell fighters that they are obligated to run face first into each other’s fists just to satisfy the blood lust of the masses. You get to have a strategy and a game plan and hopefully some defensive maneuvers with which to protect yourself.

At the same time, nobody’s here to watch you two stare at each other. We got enough of that at the dinner table with our parents growing up.

A logjam implies that there are a bunch of talented contenders with their path to the top blocked by some obstruction. What’s happening at women’s featherweight in the UFC is kind of the opposite: There’s a lack of talented contenders, so what few there are might have to go straight to the top before they’re ready.

Cristiane Justino isn’t yet the UFC women’s featherweight champion, even though it basically feels like she is. It was a division created for her, even if the UFC decided to hold the first title fight without her. (And just look at how that ended up.)

If and when she beats Invicta FC champ Megan Anderson to claim the UFC belt, what then? The UFC will have to go hunting for challengers, probably at bantamweight, offering them a choice between toiling for uncertain stakes at 135 pounds or experiencing the “Cyborg” smash at 145 pounds.

That isn’t a logjam, which is what happens when the logs all pile up on one another and block the way. This is more like the other thing that happens to logs, as in the ones that end up in the sawmill and march one after the other to the blade in an orderly fashion.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @BenFowlkesMMA. Twitter Mailbag appears every Thursday on MMAjunkie.

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