I won’t pin this all on Joe Rogan, it’s been floating around for a while now, but it’s certainly a common theme on Rogan’s lips. “Jon Jones is the future of MMA.” You could easily replace Jon Jones with Rory MacDonald, Phil Davis, or any of a handful of other fighters who might be considered “physical specimens.” It’s an interesting commentary, even if it’s been used often enough to become cliché, because it lives on the borders of truth.
There is a trend, which has really been ongoing since this sports inception, of better athletes entering the sport at younger and younger ages. And because of this trend it has become a popular talking point that we are merely at the beginning of MMA evolution. That we have yet to see the truly great athletes, with incredible martial backgrounds step into the octagon (or ring if you want to be ubiquitous about it). For a while, I even bought it. “Yeah, I thought, just imagine the incredible athletes of the future competing in hand to hand combat. Awesome!” And then I thought about it, and then I became skeptical, and now, I’m here, writing this.
I don’t think we’ll ever see a much stronger field of athletic talent in the UFC than there is right now. This may be excepting the heavyweight division which has yet to really pull big athletes from countries that don’t have sports where being big is an incredible advantage (i.e. football, rugby), but boxing’s been around for 150 years in its present form, and it’s heavyweight division is none too deep.
One of the big reasons for my skepticism, is a look at what makes some of this sports better athletes so successful, and often it’s a combination of skills, traits, and physicality that would leave them ill-suited for other major professional sports. Jones is a prime example of MMA’s funky body archetype, not because there are a wealth of similar athlete’s in MMA, but because he typifies a body type and athleticism that seems more translatable than it is. For his great height, Jones would actually be pretty short for a basketball player (where his skill would seem most fitting), he would be a big point guard, but a pretty small 2 guard, the sort of player that pro NBA teams tend to shy away from unless they have an exceptional skill set. And he, by his namesake “bones” was never really able to put on enough weight to play football, especially at DE, where once again, his height and reach would make him the best fit. Beyond that there aren’t many top American pro sports that his physicality would present any kind of actual advantage.
Rory MacDonald may be the real statistical skew, as he is reasonably tall, at 6’, and reasonably big and athletic enough to translate to something else, but coming out of Canada, there aren’t a lot of big money pro sports, other than hockey. And that sort of decision making is what we’ve already seen out of MMA and boxing, athletes from countries without many big money pro sports turning to MMA and boxing for a career. But, for them the road is rough and treacherous, success comes provided they can navigate the regional circuit successfully, they enjoy getting hit, and that they hold one last physical gift, a chin.
This brings me to my second point as to why athletic development in MMA may be plateauing. You actually have to like fighting, or at least not mind it, to compete, and you have to be able to get hit without being knocked out. Rampage is a notable exception here as he’s gone on record saying he doesn’t really like to fight. But he can take a punch, so he’s made it work.
In other sports there have been many notable athletes who didn’t necessarily love the game they played. Barry Sanders, springs immediately to mind. But for them, the ability to study, show up, and bring their pure talent to the competition was enough to make them good, if not sometimes even great. MMA does not offer many of these outlets. If you have great athletic skill, but can’t take a punch, your career will never progress beyond a certain level. Ryan Bader, and Brendan Schaub are prime examples of good solid athletic talents who have seen their careers plateau because of an inability to take damage. Even Brock Lesnar, who had his moment in the sun, had a lot of trouble in his short career because he tended to panic and turtle up whenever he got hit hard (also weird when you consider that he seemed to have a pretty good chin and never actually got knocked out).
Finally, lastly, and possibly least, there’s the often touted multifaceted nature of MMA, most specifically there’s jiu-jitsu. Unlike wrestling and striking jiu-jitsu is almost a neutralization of athletic advantage. The ability for fighters like Shinya Aoki and Masakazu Imanari to inflict real fight ending damage to their opponents, without a wealth of natural athletic ability (other than both being very flexible) is a great neutralizer. Vitor Belfort showed this with his armbar of Jon Jones, that without using his blazing fast twitch speed he could (almost) neutralize Jones entirely.
All told, MMA is a perilous and complicated sport, the paths to victory are many, and the road to success is arduous. It’s hard to see either of those things changing enough that top talents will look to MMA as their first option for a successful career. And because of this it’s hard to imagine a future that looks remarkable different than what’s already here. Skills may change, preparation may change, but the athlete’s probably won’t.