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Zak Cummings on Retirement Timing: ‘It Was a Perfect Situation’

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Zak Cummings didn’t just retire off a win. He took the gloves off in what he considers the “perfect time.”

Cummings TKO’d fellow veteran Ed Herman late in the third round in front of a raucous crowd, which included his 5-year-old daughter, at the T-Mobile Center in his native Kansas City. It was an impressive performance for a man who dealt with a painful recovery from severe back surgery.

Cummings did not know he was going to retire on the night of April 15, 2023, until referee Dwayne Bess pulled him away from Herman, who also retired that night. He committed to his decision when the fight was stopped.

“Even if I was planning on really retiring, I really was still planning on leaving it open-ended in the cage,” Cummings told MMASucka. “Even if I was like, ‘Is it my last fight or not?’ I knew the gloves weren’t coming off, I wasn’t going to lay them down in the cage. I wasn’t going to do all of that. I would probably say some goodbyes or thanks for the support, but I would not fully commit to it. I was planning on leaving it open-ended. Just, the walkout, the way the fight played out, the way the crowd was. I think if I finished Ed in the first round after I dropped him, I don’t know if I would’ve retired. But having all three rounds of having fun in there, doing everything and still getting a finish, everything kind of came together. The crowd is yelling, everyone is going crazy.”

It was then Cummings realized he was OK with being done competing.

“It was right then that it kind of hit me. Maybe that was an emotional decision or whatever, but I was just taking that moment in. I’m like, ‘Dude, this is it, this is the perfect spot. I’m never going to get anywhere close to this ever again.’ It was right. Even though there was a good chance of me knowing I wasn’t going to fight again after that, I never planned on a legit set-in-stone retirement until right at the very end.”

While Cummings was being interviewed in the Octagon by Daniel Cormier, his daughter came running into his arms. Cummings said that moment was “everything” to him.

“The crowd was great, the money’s good. Getting to come back from my injury. There was so much good that came out of that experience, and nothing, absolutely nothing, comes close to being able to share that moment between me and my daughter,” he said.

He allows her to watch the fights, adding that the passion for the sport is “pretty big” between the two of them. She grew up in the gym watching her father train.

“She loves this stuff,” Cummings said. “She came out to Denver with me for a couple of weeks for fight camp and training. It was really important to me that she was able to see one and watch it live. Her getting to see that, that’s the one she saw. She saw one at home, the crowd going crazy and screaming her dad’s name. And then she was able to get in the cage after. That meant everything. That was the moment I didn’t realize that I needed. I didn’t know I needed it. I didn’t know I wanted it. It basically sealed my whole career.”

Cummings always wanted to retire on his own terms, though he acknowledged that’s something just about every fighter says.

“‘I’m going to go out on my terms, I want to say when I’m done and not have anybody else tell me that.’ I feel like it’s something most people say and very rarely do or have the ability to do,” Cummings said. “Either they don’t have the skill-set to hang around, or they get cut before they really decide whether they’re done or not and then get back to fighting in regional shows or other good shows, even like Bellator and PFL, and they continue to fight. Or they’re doing well and want to keep going until they’re not doing well anymore.”

Cummings said he never wanted to have to fight for money. He’s owned his gym, Ignite Jiu-Jitsu and MMA Academy, for nine years now. He has his own fight promotion in Synergy Fighting Championship. He achieved his goal of setting up his future while he was still competing.

While he loves fighting, he knew his dance with Herman should be his last.

“It’s one of those things where I know I can never recreate that moment ever again. I know I’ll never get that moment that I had ever again. And now, the decision is, do I have to have that moment to retire? Not necessarily, but I also know I’m halfway out the door already. So it’s like, it just made sense. I really wasn’t sure. I’m still unsure. But it was a perfect storm of so many different things that happened, and it was a perfect situation. I know I’ll never get that again. If I’m able to hang it up and retire off that moment, that experience, that performance, just all those things. If they go back and look at my last performance, I am 100% proud and happy and good with all of that, I guess.”

Cummings’s last dance was made even more impressive by his recovery from back surgery, which caused him to be sidelined since August 2020. Coaching and training is still his lifestyle, even if he is done competing.

“I don’t ever want to be forced to stop doing this stuff,” he said. “When I had my back injury, I wasn’t even worried about training.”

He was more worried about being able to get out of bed, get dressed and be a playful father.

“Once I started healing a bit and I was at least able to get in the gym and coach a little bit, I was happy again knowing I was not going to completely lose that in my life. All the extra is a bonus. The fact I was able to get back and compete and be me again at that level. I truly didn’t know if I’d be able to get there. I’m definitely happy the body held up and I managed to get through all the training. I knew I could fight. I knew I could get there and make it happen. I might be half broken the next day, but I was really surprised at how well my body felt during the weeks of training to build up to the fight. That’s where I was really nervous.”

The 38-year-old wraps up his career with a 25-7 professional MMA record and a 10-4 run in the UFC.

Cummings’ past foes include Tim Kennedy, Santiago Ponzinibbio, Ryan Jimmo, Gunnar Nelson, Yan Cabral, Trevin Giles, Omari Akhmedov, Alessio Di Chirico, Dominique Steele, and Alexander Yakovlev.

He has victories in three different weight classes: welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight.

Of his 32 pro bouts, Cummings said his swan song was his favorite. It had many strings attached: The injury comeback, his retirement, fighting in front of his home crowd, and putting on a show for his family.

“Obviously, if I had to pick a favorite fight that stands out, it was obviously this last one. There were too many intangibles to it that meant more than just a fight, and for that, it’s unmatched.”

All his fights hold special meaning, but his runner-ups include his win over Nathan Coy in Kansas City in 2017, his UFC debut D’Arce choke win over Benny Alloway in 2013, and his decision loss to Ponzinibbio in 2016.

“Even though I ended up losing it, I had a lot of fun with the [Santiago] Ponzinibbio fight of the two of us going back and forth and knocking the dog shit out of each other,” Cummings said. “I’ve had a few of those. Even though coming out on the losing side of that, that’s one that really stood out as having a lot of fun.”

What Cummings was most proud of in his career, however, is not just one fight.

“For me, I’ve never changed. I’m the person that I was when I first walked into the gym, and I’m still that person. I’m just proud that even though my dreams came true and everything, I got to reach the highest level, I got to meet so many people and have relationships, it never changed me. I’m still just as happy and passionate about this sport as the first day I did it. I still love this stuff. I’m happy on that side of things. I got to be true to myself my whole career. I wouldn’t create some character or be some random person that I’m not.”

Cummings also cherishes the traveling and relationships with people he met along the way.

“All of that has been pretty mindblowing to me. I didn’t expect this sport to take me where it did, and those are some of my happiest moments, too.”

Cummings, a couple of weeks after his retirement, is still trying to wrap his head around his decision.

“Am I really retired? Am I really done? Am I really OK with never doing the thing I absolutely love to do ever again? Thinking about all that stuff.”

His body is still a bit beat up and sore with small injuries suffered during the Herman fight, which hasn’t left him too much time to think about being retired. He jumped straight back into the gym, and he ran a Synergy Fighting Championship event soon after his own fight.

“Not much is going to change outside of the fact it’s just not going to be me training and getting ready for the fight. I’m going to continue to build jiu-jitsu and MMA here in Kansas City. I’ll try to be here as another coach to help out anybody trying to make it to the next level. I’m going to be constantly doing that. Sharing the passion that I got, and keep sharing that with others and building.”

Cummings will continue to build his jiu-jitsu program and train law enforcement in hand-to-hand combat, as well as flesh out the Synergy brand.

“We’re going to look for a bigger streaming deal and continue to build that, which is going to build the fighters, which is going to the region’s scene,” he said.

Above all? Family time.

“My family has supported me for so long that now it’s time for me to give them a little more of my time. Be a little more present with my family and give them everything they deserve since they’ve went on this journey with me. I’ve gotta give the fam some love.”

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Michael is a big MMA fan who enjoys interviewing the sport's athletes, writing about the sport, and just discussing it. He earned his Master's in Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and his B.A. in Journalism at Stony Brook University. He also enjoys hockey, football and baseball. Feel free to hit him up if you want to discuss MMA, or any other sport!

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