SAN JOSE — Patrick Willis rolled out of bed Wednesday feeling just the way he envisioned he would when he made the stunning decision to retire from the 49ers at age 30.
“I don’t know what it was, but I just felt strong, you know? Like I was strong again,” Willis said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m feeling lean, like a well-oiled machine, but it feels good.”
There are even times when the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker gets the urge to compete again. But that doesn’t last long. To be clear, Willis is never coming back to the NFL.
“That inclination (to play) only comes for a split second,” he said. “And then it’s, ‘Nope, nope, I’m cool.”‘
Instead, Willis gets his juices flowing at mixed martial events like Saturday’s Bellator 172 at SAP Center in San Jose. In advance of the event, the former 49ers star spent a few hours working out with Matt Mitrione (11-5) at San Jose’s AKA gym.
Mitrione, a former NFL defensive lineman turned fighter, faces Fedor Emelianenko (36-4, 1 NC) in the heavyweight main event Saturday.
Willis, 32, looks like he could fight, too — or play linebacker, for that matter. He said he weighs 235 pounds, down just seven from his 49ers days. He also patted his shirt and promised there were six-pack abs underneath.
In a way, this is his retirement decision in action.
When Willis shocked the football world by retiring on March 10, 2015, in part because of a lingering toe injury, he said at his farewell press conference:
“Honestly, I pay attention to guys when they’re finished playing, walking around like they’ve got no hips and they can’t play with their kids. They can barely walk. People see that and they feel sorry, but they don’t realize it’s because he played a few extra years.”
Willis had plenty of bounce in his step Wednesday. He pounded the pads with noted strike coach Henri Hooft, and engaged in spirited discussions with Mitrione during the downtime.
If Willis hurts, it doesn’t show. He said he remains pain-free — even while watching the 49ers struggle. The team is 7-25 amid much turmoil since he retired, but Willis said the downturn simply reminds him of his early seasons. The 49ers went 5-11 in his rookie season and 7-9 in his second year.
“When I came in, we weren’t very good, either. We’d get beat up,” Willis said. “So to see where they are now? It’s like, ‘This is all part of what happens, you guys.”’
Asked about whether Kyle Shanahan might be the answer as the new head coach, Willis said: “I wish those guys all the best. Just fight the good fight.” And he soon made it clear that he was done with 49ers-related questions.
Willis grew up as a fight fan because his uncle was a professional super middleweight boxer. Arthur Willis later fought future world champion James Toney to a split decision.
He became an MMA fan a few years ago and befriended Scott Coker, now the president of Bellator MMA.
Coker, a huge 49ers fan, went to Gunderson High in San Jose.
“He’s impressive,” Coker said of Willis. “He knows all the fighters and can talk about past fights. He’s a fan of the sport, you can tell.”