How do you define a career like Cub Swanson's?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 12: Cub Swanson has his hands wrapped prior to his fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 12, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Cub Swanson doesn't need to defend his legacy. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) (Mike Roach via Getty Images)

George W. Bush was president. Joe Rogan was the “Fear Factor” host. YouTube didn’t exist and neither did any UFC division below 170 pounds. Such was the world in which Cub Swanson made his MMA debut.

So imagine still being here, fighting in the UFC a full 20 years later, and some guy who made his UFC debut in the empty Apex days of peak pandemic tries to come for your legacy. You probably heard about this already. Joaquin Buckley, a UFC welterweight with fewer total fights than Swanson has wins, used the robust power of the modern-day internet to pick a fight with Swanson after the latter expressed skepticism that Buckley could, as he claimed, knock out Georges St-Pierre in his prime.

Swanson didn’t think that his would be in any way a controversial statement. He’s never been the type of fighter to go around beefing with people on the internet — especially not people outside his own weight class. But as someone who shared a training room with St-Pierre at times and got to see the former two-division UFC champ at work, he also felt like a reality check was in order.

“I’ve trained side-by-side with GSP,” Swanson told Yahoo Sports this week. “I’ve seen him getting ready for fights. I’ve been in the room when people actually tried to beat him — guys who were much better fighters, in my opinion — and I saw how that went. So for some guy to say he could do it, it just sounded stupid to me.”

Buckley’s response to this was to produce an entire video attacking Swanson’s career and legacy. He claimed Swanson had never been ranked in the UFC. (Swanson was actually ranked at featherweight right from the launch of the UFC rankings and stayed ranked for another six years.) He criticized Swanson for never “even smell[ing]” a UFC title. (Debatable, though Swanson was among the top contenders at various points in both his UFC and WEC careers.)

The part that’s true is that Swanson never won or fought for a title.

“Not once in my entire career,” Swanson himself is quick to point out. “I never fought for a title at any level.”

But is that the only way we know to judge a career in this sport? Is it purely title shots and title victories, both of which are always subject to some mixture of timing and luck and opportunities not entirely within one’s own grasp?

As will happen after two decades in any job, Swanson’s perspective on his own career has shifted over time. It’s not just the fights he won that make him proud now.

“I never turned down a fight in the UFC,” he said. “I fought everyone they asked me to fight. They would literally tell me sometimes, ‘We think this guy is going to fight for a title, will you fight him?’ I always said yes. And beyond that, I don’t think my career should be knocked down, because look at my performances.”

Between his days in the WEC and UFC, Swanson received 10 Fight of the Night bonuses. That doesn’t include his other performance bonuses, such as Knockout of the Night for a 2012 win over future UFC lightweight champ Charles Oliveira, or the many Fight of the Year lists he was featured on for his 2016 win over Doo-ho Choi.

But that night against “The Korean Superboy” is special for other reasons, too. It’s also the night Swanson found out he was going to be a father. Now he can’t think about that fight without remembering how, somewhere around 4 a.m., when his teammates and coaches had finally cleared out and the celebrations had died down, his wife told him that she was pregnant.

“That was just a special night all the way around,” Swanson said. “I’ll always remember that.”

For the people who live it, this is what a career in fight sports actually looks like. It’s not just the wins and losses or the titles they did or didn’t lay claim to. It’s all the other stuff about who you are as a person and an athlete that people remember.

Julie Kedzie, Swanson’s former teammate at Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, will never forget the day he took her to the hospital and waited with her after a particularly frustrating injury in training. While she stewed in anger and anxiety, he sat by her side and offered his calm, reassuring perspective as, even then, a veteran of the sport.

“I doubt he even remembers that, but it cemented in me that he was someone I could trust in the gym and in the sport,” Kedzie said. “He was and has been, in every interaction I had with him, insanely kind and considerate and funny, without ever being a creeper or making me feel less than as a female fighter. It was one of those moments where I realized how great a person Cub was.”

Another teammate, Isaac Vallie-Flagg, called Swanson “a great fighter and a better man.” Beyond the performances in the cage were all the little moments in the gym that no one but your teammates see. In those instances, Vallie-Flagg said, “He always just carried himself in a manner that I could constantly look up to.”

Those are the kinds of things you can’t always expect fans to know or factor into a legacy conversation. But all of Swanson’s years in the sport, that has to mean something, right? Or at least it would if MMA weren’t such a what-have-you-done-lately kind of sport. Among the criticisms one could level against us here is that we’re not always great at remembering our own history. For the old-timers — and Swanson counts himself among them — this can be frustrating.

“I've always kind of stayed quiet and try to let my work speak for itself,” Swanson said. “But I feel like a real OG in the game at this point. I've always respected the sport. I’ve always appreciated the people that came before me.

"When I first started, I watched the 'Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action' videos. I watched 'The Smashing Machine.' I watched everything that I could get my eyes on, and I felt bad that I didn't know enough about the early UFCs or Pride (Fighting Championships). So I educated myself on the history of MMA, and now these younger guys don't seem to know much about the history. It kind of upsets me sometimes. I feel like you should know and respect the people that paved the way for you.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 12: (R-L) Cub Swanson punches Hakeem Dawodu of Canada in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 12, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Al Powers/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Cub Swanson showed Hakeem Dawodu why he should be respected with a unanimous decision win in August 2023. (Photo by Al Powers/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) (Al Powers via Getty Images)

At 40, Swanson is close to the end of his career. He knows it. These days he focuses more of his time and energy on the UFC Gym in Costa Mesa, California, that he co-owns with former UFC champ Michael Bisping. He coaches an active fight team out of the gym and co-owns a management group — Bloodline Combat Sports Agency — both of which help him share the knowledge he’s gained from a lifetime spent in four-ounce gloves.

His upcoming fight against Andre Fili at UFC 303 on June 29 is as much about that as it is any career goal he might still be trying to achieve.

“My fighters that I coach, it’s important to me to be able to switch roles with them and get them to use some of the stuff I taught them,” Swanson said. “Each fight and each opponent is a problem to solve. I’m basically giving them the homework to tell them, how should I approach this fight? How should I train? I’m tired today, so should I rest or push through? It’s not enough for me to just tell them this stuff. They need to see how to apply it themselves, so they have that knowledge for their own careers.”

And one day? Maybe those fighters will make it to the UFC. Maybe they’ll have long careers of their own, like Swanson did. If they’re extremely lucky and resilient and capable of continually learning and growing, maybe they’ll even last in this sport and at this level as long as he has. Maybe. A precious few have.

But if they get there and one day someone asks who taught them how to do all this? Chances are that they won’t answer, "Oh, just some guy who never won a UFC title." A career and a legacy like Swanson’s, in the end it all adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.