In pretty much every sport, from pro football to pro golf, a player follows a typical career arc whereby he peaks in his late 20's or so then begins a slow decline thereafter, sometimes punctuated by a late-career resurgence (becoming the wise, steady veteran), sometimes punctuated by a sudden jump off a cliff. In MMA, however, we've seen several fighters actually get BETTER with age, several fighters actually becoming championship contenders later in their careers by consolidating their game around one or two major strengths. Chael Sonnen went from a journeyman wrestler to championship contender by fearlessly emphasizing his ground and pound. Dan Henderson has gone from above-average fighter to all-time great by structuring his game entirely around landing a one-punch-knockout with his right hand. Nick and Nate Diaz were scrappy fighters with dangerous submissions off their backs, but both have honed their street-boxing intimidation style to the top of probably the two toughest divisions in the sport. There have perhaps been a few examples of this in boxing (George Foreman comes first to mind, though I don't think he was a better fighter when he became champ than in his earlier prime), and you could argue, I suppose, for a guy like Dennis Eckersley in baseball who became more effective after a role change, but it's difficult to think of anybody who has matched the MMA arc where a fighter can plateau for a lengthy period then suddenly put it all together at a later age. For the purposes of this article, I want to look at two current MMA fighters who seem like candidates for this type of late-career jump to championship-level.
Michael Bisping (age 33)-- Not only is Bisping the most likely guy to make this type of jump, I suspect we are already at the opening stages. Bisping fits the profile in that he's a fighter who's always had some solid tools (takedown defense, submission defense, technical striking), but he's struggled to maximize those tools toward an efficient path to victory. In the Miller and Sonnen fights, however, I think we saw the beginnings of a new Bisping who uses his nearly impenetrable defense to fluster opponents before moving in for the kill. Most impressive to me, aside from the way he turned the aggressive Sonnen into a desperate fighter, is the way he used his "asshole" tendencies to bully lesser fighters Jorge Rivera and Jason Miller.
Paul Daley (age 29)-- Many chuckled when Daley recently signed with Bellator, with his erratic behavior, weight-cutting antics, and recent lackluster (almost mystifying) fight performances threatening to define him as a journeyman joke, basically only a couple of steps removed from the Tim Sylvia/Bob Sapp fight circuit. But looking a little deeper, I think Daley could be a few years away from a big ascension. Consider a few things: First, he's had an amazing 43 fights in only 9 years of fighting, a good amount of which were against top fighters (and not just strikers). Second, as we all know, he's always had some of the best punching power in his division, and probably the best left hook of all welterweights. So why do I think he could make a big leap later in his career? Simply look at his losses. People tend to laugh when he rolls for an omoplata against Tyron Woodley, tries to wrestle Kazuo Misaki, or blatantly stalls for a referee standup against Jorge Masvidal. I, however, see this as the development of a potentially great fighter. Cynics are quick to ask: "Why the fuck is PAUL DALEY monkeying around with his joke of a ground game?" Probably because his ground game is getting way better in training! If he continues to develop in this way, it is not hard for me to imagine a 35 year-old Paul Daley with a lethal sprawl and brawl game challenging for a UFC title.
Feel free to suggest other candidates. Remember, this is not the same thing as a fighter who gets better as he gets more experience. I'm talking about fighters who've clearly plateaued for a sustained period before suddenly getting significantly better later. So Clay Guida would fit this profile, but Korean Zombie (who was only 23 when he fought Leonard Garcia) would not.