This post is the second in a series based on some large-scale number crunching (Part 1 can be found here; sorry about the delay between posts). I've created a database with the top ten fighters in each weight class based on the USA Today/SBNation Consensus Rankings and added the length of their careers, total number of fights, age at the time of their first fight, and how long it took for them to make their first appearance in a major promotion. Part 1 focused on champions and their development as prospects; Part 2 will first examine the differences in prospect development between weight classes, and then move on to look at which weight classes' top 10 lists will be experiencing some turnover in the near future as current stars age and new stars are born.
One trend clearly stands out: the higher the weight class, the faster a prospect makes it to a major promotion. On average, it only takes a heavyweight 1.325 years to make it to the big time and 1.475 years for a light heavyweight, as compared to 3-4 years for all of the other weight classes. Even more striking is the fact that no fighter currently ranked in the top ten at heavyweight and light heavyweight took longer than 3.5 years to make their major promotional debut; in fact, no heavyweight took longer than 2.75 years.Two major factors are at play here. First, big, athletic guys are hard to find, especially when there are so many other potential outlets available for their talents. Second, heavyweight and light heavyweight have historically been the most prestigious and well-compensated weight classes, creating a situation in which promoters and managers are highly incentivized to quickly identify and sign these prospects.
Fighters with the physical dimensions and athleticism to compete at heavyweight and light heavyweight are in fact a serious rarity. We rarely consider this explicitly, but the average American male stands somewhere between 5'9" and 5'10", while the average Brazilian man is between 5'7 and 5'8"; heavyweights average 6'2.5" and light heavyweights average 6'1.5", so you're already drawing from a relatively limited segment of the population. Additionally, large, athletic individuals tend to have more available opportunities within the overall sports market than shorter, smaller individuals. For those of you who train in a combat sport, look around your gym for anecdotal evidence: how many of your fellow students have the frame and musculature to conceivably fight at HW or LHW? At my gym, there's exactly one guy who could be a heavyweight and one who could possibly be a light heavyweight if he started seriously lifting weights. Simply put, these individuals are already a relative rarity within society as a whole, and MMA is far from the only sport offering opportunities to large, athletic men, which further dilutes the potential talent pool. This means fewer prospects overall fighting at the local and regional levels, so the cream rises to the top very quickly.
Moreover, heavyweight and light heavyweight have historically been the prestige classes in MMA. The UFC Light Heavyweight championship has been held by some of the greatest fighters to ever step in a ring or a cage, from Chuck Liddell to Jon Jones, and the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix(s) hosted perhaps the greatest collection of talent ever assembled to that point. Heavyweights capture the imagination of fans like no other weight class: in a sport where fan excitement is often predicated on brutal finishes, no division offers more exciting knockouts than heavyweight. We're collectively fascinated by large, violent men, and the demographics of the sport reflect that interest. Promoters thus have a vested interest in quickly identifying potential stars, which partially explains their fast rise to a major promotion; given the vastly larger payouts for bigger fighters, managers and the fighters themselves also have less incentive to spend longer periods of time in smaller promotions. Incidentally, this explains both why so many heavyweights seem to have substantial holes in their games and their tendency to rely on a single skill set: most simply never had the chance to develop the full range of skills against low-level competition. Although this is less true for light heavyweights, I'd still argue that LHWs tend to have less well-rounded skills than lightweights or welterweights.
Interlude: Brock Lesnar is not exceptional
Since Lesnar's retirement, much has been made of his uniqueness as a fighter who got into MMA very late in life and quickly rose to the sport's highest levels. Without diminishing Lesnar's accomplishments as a fighter, this is simply not the case; his career was necessarily compressed, and he certainly fought an extremely high level of competition, but overall he fits comfortably within the demographic profile of other top heavyweights. He fought Frank Mir in a major promotion about nine months after making his MMA debut; for comparison, Big Nog was fighting in RINGS within three months, Alistair Overeem made it a week after his debut, and Mir himself was in the UFC six months after his first fight. What Brock Lesnar did wasn't easy, but he is far from unique. This is simply how things work for heavyweights: there aren't that many of them, they tend to start fighting much later in life than their compatriots in other weight classes, and fans want to see them. This creates the perfect set of conditions for someone like Lesnar to make his mark very, very quickly.
Predicting the Future: Which weight classes are due for a turnover?
As much as we'd love for our favorite fighters to continue competing forever, fighting takes an extreme toll. Solid research suggests that fighters begin to decline markedly after nine years of competition; can we extrapolate this to weight classes? Well, that's exactly what we're going to try here, suggesting that several weight classes are due for a major infusion of new talent.
1. Light Heavyweight: This is the weight class about which I'm most confident saying that there will be a major shift within the next year and a half. The current top-10 averages a career length of 8.85 years, but this number is heavily skewed downwards by Jon Jones and Phil Davis (3.75 and 3.25 years, respectively). Otherwise, we have Dan Henderson (14.5 years), Rampage (12 years), Shogun (9.25 years), Forrest Griffin (10.25 years), and Lil' Nog (10.5 years). Aside from Jones and Davis, the only fighters who have a few years left are Rashad Evans and Mousasi, though the latter is rapidly approaching the nine year mark himself. We're currently at the tail end of the Golden Age of Light Heavyweights, which had a lot to do with the popularity of Chuck, Tito, and the prestige of the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix; the fighters who made this time great are fading quickly, so we should enjoy it while it lasts. More worryingly, there are precious few really promising prospects currently ascending the ranks.
2. Middleweight: Anderson Silva isn't getting any younger. If you count his two fights in 1997, he's been fighting for more than fourteen years, while Vitor Belfort has been competing consistently for fifteen. Sonnen and Okami, both longtime stalwarts, are approaching the ten-year mark, and the venerable Nate Marquardt has been competing consistently for twelve years. The real problem, however, is the fact that the rest of the top 10 (aside from Rockhold) consists of fighters who may not have been competing for long, but were relatively old when they started: Maia had his first fight at 28, Munoz at 29, and Bisping was 25. I've argued before that truly promising prospects - the guys who have the talent to win and hold a title for a long period - start fighting when they're no older than 22. We may be cut out for a period of mediocrity before a new wave of prospects hits the UFC's middleweight division.
3. Welterweight: I'm least certain about welterweight. On the one hand, the numbers strongly suggest that a turnover is coming soon; on the other hand, the main candidates for a precipitous decline - Shields (12.25), Fitch (9.5), Condit (9.25), Penn (10.75), Diaz (10.25), and GSP (10 years) - have historically, with the exception of Diaz, absorbed very little damage in their fights, which may extend their careers. It will certainly be very instructive: my previous analysis suggests that the future of MMA rests on the shoulders of fighters who begin around age 20, and the current landscape at WW prefigures the state of affairs that I think will eventually overtake all of MMA. It's certainly possible that the 9-year rule applies less strongly to fighters who start young, as all of those mentioned above did. Unlike MW and LHW, however, there are a number of exciting young fighters ascending the ranks, including Jake Ellenberger, Johny Hendricks, Erick Silva, and the Lima brothers if you want to look outside the UFC.
Lightweight, featherweight, and bantamweight are all set for a while, with very few long-time veterans and a ton of fighters just entering their primes. I'm less sure about heavyweight, since the numbers are comparable to the classes due for a turnover, but things are just weird up in the stratosphere.
I hope you all are enjoying reading these pieces as much as I do researching and writing them. Would you prefer if I did another on prospect development, or would you like to see something based on crunching FightMetric in-fight statistics (Strikes/minute, takedowns, takedown defense, etc.)? Comments and criticisms are, as always, welcome.