The perfect combination of technical skills and experience are often referenced as the formula of champions. Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre are quintessential examples of fighters who fit into the mold, but the younger generation that is taking over the sport may change that theory forever. Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, and Dominick Cruz are perfect examples of fighters who have broken the mold, and they've become champions who have the potential to dominate the top of their respective divisions for a long time. The scary thought is that all three have yet to reach their athletic primes, and time will allow them to absorb the nuances of the sport and become even better in the future.
We've talked in great lengths about how mixed martial arts has been around long enough to see two generations compete inside the Octagon. The general thought among analysts has been that the newer generation of fighters will be far more skilled and ready to excel at the highest levels, mostly due to their early exposure to MMA and the recognition that starting early and delving into various martial art forms leads to more complete fighters in the early years of their careers. The jury is still out whether these young guns of the Octagon will find monumental success, but Jon Jones has already proved that it is possible.
Twenty-four year old Swede Alexander Gustafsson and twenty-two year old British Columbia-native Rory MacDonald are the latest talking points in the discussion that the youth of this sport is excelling at a greater rate. While some fans would suggest that youth has a downside in terms of lessened experience, both men are gaining the experience they need for the future by battling the better competition that the UFC has to offer over the standard regional event competition.
The most impressive attribute that both fighters have grasped is the aptitude to recognize the flaws that were exposed in their losing performances. Gustafsson was defeated by NCAA Division I wrestling champion Phil Davis inside the first round of action at UFC 112 back in April of last year, which led to an immediate partnership between Gustafsson and Davis. Gustafsson has since improved his takedown defense with Davis' help, utilizing it against Matt Hamill on Saturday night at UFC 133 before uncorking a left hand that ultimately led to Hamill's demise in the second round.
MacDonald succumbed to strikes from Carlos Condit at UFC 115 in a wild 'Fight of the Night' affair that had the potential to vault MacDonald into the upper tier of the division at only 20 years of age. Unfortunately, his fading gas tank and Condit's iron will to survive turned the tide in emphatic fashion in the third round, causing a stoppage with only seven seconds remaining in the fight.
MacDonald bounced back impressively however, crushing Nate Diaz at UFC 129 after a lengthy eleven month layoff due to injury. MacDonald earned two 10-8 scores for the final frame of action, lending credence to the notion that MacDonald had made the necessary improvements to surpass his previous obstacles. He returned Saturday night against Mike Pyle, obliterating the Xtreme Couture veteran in only three minutes and fifty-four seconds.
I suppose the interesting question to ask is whether this will be an ongoing trend for mixed martial arts in general. Are there enough of these phenom fighters, some of which can't even legally drink in the United States, to flood an entire UFC division? Will we begin to see an era in which early twenty-somethings dominate the landscape of the sport?
There is an obvious evolution occurring in the highest and lowest levels of the sport. Younger, more well-rounded fighters are entering the sport on a daily basis at a much higher rate. We don't need to look much further than the lower rungs of the UFC's own divisions to find plenty of evidence. The UFC has a number of younger prospects in the fold: Ronny Markes (23), Paul Sass (22), Charles Oliveira (21), Dustin Poirier (22), Erik Koch (22), and Michael McDonald (20) to name a few. Eighteen year old Brad McDonald, brother of UFC fighter Michael McDonald, improved to 7-1 this past Friday at Tachi Palace Fights. Eight fights at age 18 seems crazy right now, but rest assured that it will likely become commonplace in the years to come.
In preparing to begin scouting the next edition of BloodyElbow.com's Scouting Report, it's become apparent that the predictions that the sport would evolve into a younger man's game aren't incorrect. Experienced, older NCAA champions and fighters who have vaunted backgrounds in specific disciplines will always have a place to succeed in the highest rungs of the UFC, but the fact of the matter is that the younger generation will continue to flood the landscape of this sport. The payoff, for fans, is that we will be treated to a golden age of great match-ups and exciting action for years to come, especially if the money continues to flow for these fighters. Rory MacDonald and Alexander Gustafsson are simply the latest evidence to support a theory that has quickly become a reality.