Athletes have a shelf life.
Many gymnasts retire in their teens. Professional baseball players generally reach the majors between ages 23 and 25, peak between 27 and 31, and are usually out of the sport by their late 30s. 1500 meter runners peak at 25, with the age going up for longer distances, and down for shorter ones.
MMA as an organized sport is still a teenager, so it does not have the advantage of generations of athletic performance to discern patterns from. However, David Williams has studied the record to date, and come to an interesting conclusion.
For MMA, there doesn’t seem to be a specific age range in which fighters enter their prime or suffer a decline. Great fighters such as Wanderlei Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are 34 and 35 years old, respectively, and both appear to be on the last legs of their careers. Randy Couture, on the other hand, didn’t even begin his career until he was 34 years old. A remarkable fact about recent high-profile MMA collapses is that there’s little consistency about what age they occur. While Chuck Liddell’s collapse took place in his late-30s, fighters like Joe Stevenson and Karo Parisyan aren’t even 30 years old yet.
Despite this inconsistency, I’m going to argue that MMA fighters have consistent career paths. I believe that there’s a particular point at which most fighters enter the prime of their career, and a point at which most fighters exit their prime, and either decline or suffer a brutal career collapse. This is based not on the age of the fighter, or even how many times the fighter has competed professionally, but instead on how long a fighter has been competing professionally.
For this study, I want to look at the collective performance of fighters over time against only the top tier of opponents, or what I define as a “UFC-quality fighter.” The reason I do this is to filter out wins against inferior opponents: if a fighter is in the midst of a collapse, nobody is going to be convinced otherwise by a win against a 4-10 opponent on the regional circuit. With the parameters of the study set, I evaluated the careers of over 300 fighters, most of whom have competed in the UFC, to determine how well they perform according to how long they’ve been competing professionally.
The steepest drop takes place after the fighters measured had been competing professionally for 9 years. At that point, the ability of the fighters to compete against quality competition declines to the same level as when they were relative rookies in the sport. It doesn’t mean that the fighters are incapable of winning against good opponents, but their ability to compete at the highest levels of the sport is greatly diminished. This can take root in various ways. Some fighters become much more prone to being knocked out. Some have a slower reaction time. Others start getting injured on a frequent basis. For some, the collapse is psychological: the fighter becomes mentally broken.
Recent high-profile collapses appear to bolster the case of the “9-year rule.” Here are a few examples:
Chuck Liddell: MMA debut – 5/18/98, 9-year mark – 5/18/07
Fedor Emelianenko: MMA debut – 5/21/00, 9-year mark – 5/21/09
TAKANORI GOMI: MMA debut – 11/27/98, 9-year mark – 11/27/07
JENS PULVER: MMA debut – 4/24/99, 9-year mark – 4/24/08
WANDERLEI SILVA: MMA debut – 11/1/96, 9-year mark – 11/1/05
Further, the 9-year rule seems to apply regardless of the age of the fighter or how many times he’s competed professionally. Ortiz and Arlovski only had fought 17 and 18 times, respectively, when they reached the 9-year mark of their careers, but they’ve both suffered recent collapses. Meanwhile, to go to the other extreme, Jeremy Horn had competed 91 times when he reached the 9-year mark of his career. Horn went 7-6 in his following 13 fights.
The rule seems to defy age as well. The effects of the 9-year rule on Randy Couture are debatable, because he went 5-3 afterwards with the famous win over Tim Sylvia, but given that two of those wins were against James Toney and Mark Coleman, I would argue that the rule applies to him as well. Meanwhile, the rule appears to have affected the careers of two fighters currently in their 20s: Joe Stevenson and Karo Parisyan were each just 25 years old when the 9-year rule took effect. Stevenson is 3-5 since then, and Parisyan is 1-3, with the latter having become known for suffering from severe panic attacks before his fights.
I predict that a lot of highly-ranked fighters are going to lose fights that people don’t expect them to in the near future. Anderson Silva has been fighting for 11 years now – the beating he endured at the hands of Sonnen was no fluke; there’s a real possibility that he loses to Yushin Okami in a “shock” upset. Georges St. Pierre reached the 9-year mark in January, and subjectively, he looked less impressive against Jake Shields than he had in a while. Other top-ranked fighters who have been competing for 9 years include Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn, Forrest Griffin, Frank Mir, and Alistair Overeem.
There are exceptions to the rule. Most notable is Henderson, a fighter who debuted in 1997 and is 5-1 in his last six fights. His loss was to Jake Shields, who has now been competing for almost 12 years, and is doing just fine. Vitor Belfort has been competing for almost 15 years now, but his loss to Anderson Silva broke a five-fight winning streak (although his recent injuries may be a sign that his career doesn’t have much time left). Quinton “Rampage” Jackson may have barely gotten by Keith Jardine and Lyoto Machida, but he’s still 4-1 since reaching the 9-year mark of his career. Still, these fighters are exceptions, and any of them could collapse at any moment.
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