Lytle leaves MMA on highest of notes

MILWAUKEE -- Chris Lytle wrote the fairy tale ending to his career. He submitted Dan Hardy in the final minute of his final fight. He left Milwaukee $130,000 richer with bonus money and left the sport itself on his own terms.

If there had been a sunset, he would have rode into it.

But watching him sit at the UFC podium for the final time following Sunday's event, Lytle very much looked like a man unsure of how he should feel. He'd done it. He'd lived the movie in which everything works out in the end. But it didn't feel that way.

"I'm just trying to take it all in," Lytle said to ESPN.com in a shaky voice. "It's one of those things I know I'll never experience again. I know I couldn't have asked for it to be any better but I've been doing this since 1998. It's all I know."

There are different reasons men stay in a sport as brutal as mixed martial arts: money, fame, means to feed that competitive spirit when high school and collegiate athletics end.

Lytle did it because he loves to fight. It shows in the length and depth of his career and in his fighting style. As he moved his hand over the bumps and bruises Hardy left on his face Sunday night, you could see a little smile creep across his face.

He enjoyed getting hit Sunday. It made him hit back harder.

Lytle-Hardy By The Numbers

"[Earlier in my career] I would try to get conservative and throw punches at certain times, but finally I said, 'I don't care about that,'" Lytle said. "I probably would have won more but I have a sickness in my head and I can't do that.

"Some people might say, 'He should fight to win more. But I have to be me and the fight the way I want to fight."

Lytle (31-18-5) won't be remembered as a UFC welterweight champion or even one with a winning record. After 20 fights in the organization, his winning percentage rests at an even .500.

As cheesy as it might sound, though, what he accomplished might actually be more. Sitting on the stage with him during the postfight news conference were Hardy, Donald Cerrone and Ben Henderson -- all three of which have either fought for or held a title.

It was very clear all three held Lytle in the highest regard.

"Chris is always somebody I looked up to," Hardy said. "I knew it would be a great fight. I knew he was going to push me. There's no shame in being beaten by Chris."

Four days before his 37th birthday, Lytle leaves the sport on just about the highest note possible. There's no question he could keep going. But he wants to go home to his kids.

There will be some who wonder what could have happened had he chose to stay. He was, after all, 5-1 in his last six fights. Maybe he would have earned that title shot that eluded him his entire career.

It's all right Lytle doesn't know quite how to feel about Sunday. Not many of us do.

"Obviously, I didn't get my title," he said. "If you're not fighting for the title, you have to re-evaluate. I always wanted that but I definitely feel it's time for me to move on.

"We've never seen anybody leave the sport on good terms with wins. Everybody goes out when they get knocked out three times in a row. I wanted to be the only guy to go out on a good streak. Hopefully, I did that."

Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.