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When your body no longer wants to be beaten: aging UFC-style

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Mixed martial arts is a relatively young field, which is fun because it’s exciting to see a sport scramble to assemble a rich history. (History is essential to sports, for without it you can’t proclaim anyone the greatest ever and not just the best right now or scream at your children about how fundamentally sound everybody was in your day.) That said, it’s a challenge to show off a rich tradition when discussing a weight class created three weeks ago. This has not proven to be an impediment to the UFC (that’s Ultimate Fighting Championship, for those yet to enter the Octagon), which has mastered the art of the instant icon. One of its greatest triumphs: Randy “Captain America” Couture, who spent much of his professional life as an UFC Hall of Famer and a five-time champion and was always announced as a living legend…yet retired with a career record of 19-11.

(I have no problem with this: as far as I’m concerned, Randy Couture should be remembered forever just for entering the world of combat sports despite having a name that translates as “Horny Fashion.”)

And in general, that’s the way it is with the UFC: things happen fast. A guy like Brock Lesnar could be deemed to have “earned” a UFC title shot with a career UFC record of 1-1. He beat Couture for the belt— cleverly, Couture tended to provide himself many chances to win titles by losing them as quickly as possible – and Brock briefly seemed unbeatable [1], before opponents discovered his one weakness: he didn’t like being punched. (Really, it was that simple.) He’s now scrambling to reclaim his lost glory and prove he’s not a has-been, a tale of redemption only slightly undermined by the fact his official record is 4-2, meaning he’s somehow had a full professional trajectory in about the amount of time you’d expect a fighter to say, “You know, I think if I keep training and improving I may be able to do this as a full-time career. So long then, midnight shift as a Denny’s grill cook!”

That said, mixed martial arts and the UFC specifically have now been around long enough a handful of guys have experienced proper careers in the public eye: they came to prominence relatively early on in their professions, achieved impressive things, then began the downward trajectory all living things experience if they stick around long enough. Except in mixed martial arts, it isn’t really a downward spiral: it’s a straight plummet. Here are a few recent cases among the sport’s icons:

Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell: At one point 20-3, he closed his career by going 1-5, including being knocked out in his final three fights, once by a guy who’d broke his arm and was fighting one-handed.

Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko. At 31-1, he had a decade of being undefeated [2] before entering a 13-month period of being unvictorious, getting knocked out or submitted in his last three fights.

Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva: He was 31-5-1 before entering a run of six losses in eight fights, including four knockouts. (Incidentally, don’t let the nickname creep you out: he’s only called that because he’s known to murder people with an axe.)

Now Matt “Despite or Perhaps Because of Being a Devout Christian, I Still Come Off as a Total Dick” Hughes seems to have entered the same territory, getting knocked out in the first round in two straight fights. And it seems worth asking: is this just the way ends for mixed martial arts stars?

Aging boxing stars tend to take two paths. (I specifically cite stars, both for boxing and MMA, because stars have some control over their careers: the fighter who can’t sell tickets just has to be grateful someone’s still willing to attack him.) There’s the Roy Jones, Jr. track. Once boxing’s pound-for-pound champ, Jones has lost his last three fights by KO, unanimous decision, and KO. It’s particularly striking because he opened his career by going 49-1 (the one loss was the result of a Roy getting disqualified; needless to say he pounded the guy senseless in the rematch), finding boxing so easy he’d play semi-pro basketball before a bout. Remarkably quick, he landed punches at will while being untouchable himself. Now he’s touchable. In his last 12 fights he’s 5-7 and most of those defeats have been beatings – the ones that are uncomfortable to watch, but still hard to resist when you stumble upon them on youtube as if karma’s compelled him to absorb all the damage he so gracefully dodged early in his career.

Then there’s the “Sugar” Shane Mosley path. Mosley has recently gone the distance with the two most celebrated boxers in the world: Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. How’s he do? Terrible. He was utterly dominated…but he reached the final bell. Through a combination of holding and hesitating and generally wasting everyone’s time, he came through the two unwatchable bouts pretty much intact, leading me to say not, “I am worried for that man’s health”, but “I am unable to believe that man is getting paid millions of dollar for this.” Whereas Jones still seems to believe he’s in his prime, Mosley has comes to grips with the fact that the other dude is plain better than he is, so he better be careful. Indeed, he acknowledged as much after the Pacquiao fight when he explained he was reluctant to engage Pac-Man because “I wasn’t going to take those kinds of risks.” (He did resist the urge to cry out, “Seriously, that guy was trying to punch me! Me! Honest!”)

Based on the early returns, the Mosley path is a hard road to travel in mixed martial arts. That makes sense: if you survive the punches the guy can still kick you in the head or just choke you unconscious. MMA does work exactly like boxing in another way though: a star retires only when he wants to leave the stage. And when at the press conference before a bout the fighter, while admitting he’s coming off some weak showings, announces he’s re-dedicated himself to training, it’s easy to think, “Happy days are here again.”

So you plunk down your money and he, after a brief display of improved cardio, gets his ass handed to him once more, with the cruel result that fans, while watching an aging and overmatched fighter, are forced to wonder if they should root for it to reach an early end or hope it really gets ugly, so his brain will finally listen to the message his body’s so desperately trying to send.

The top two fighters in the world right now are Anderson “Spider” Silva and Georges “Rush” St. Pierre. They’re both in their prime, but no one’s prime lasts forever. How will their careers end? Pierre generally takes the least risky approach to opponents (he’s quite content to send a crowd away impressed-yet-bored-senseless); Silva at times seems disinterested in fighting including while he’s actually fighting. It’s hard to imagine either of them sticking around to be on the wrong side of beatdowns, but then again when the Iceman and The Last Emperor and The Axe Murderer were on top of the world, I can’t imagine they envisioned the future and realized it would involve them spending so much time unconscious.