It's hard to remember that MMA as a regulated pro-sport is only 20 years old (give or take). In that time we've seen it evolve from black belts to brawlers to wrestlers and now slowly into the all around game we are still seeing change today. One of the things we've also seen shift are career expectations. In the early days there were two types of MMA fighters, in terms of longevity. There were flash-in-the-pans, guys who fought for maybe a year or two; had a small handful of fights before being forced to retire. And there were lifers, guys who would take as many fights as they could for as long as they could until their body just wouldn't allow them to compete. Two of the sports most notable early retirees, Guy Mezger and Bas Rutten, were both forced out of MMA because their bodies could not take the strain of fighting anymore.
For many that dichotomy became the expectation of their career. If you were good, and you loved to fight, you'd be in there until they pried your cold fingers off the cage. If you retired early, that's because you didn't have what it took. Dan Severn, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba all fought for years, even Royce Gracie's intermittent career lasted 14 years. Recently a new rule of thumb has evolved, however, it's called "The Nine Year Rule." Initially posited as a eye-test theory BE reader, and featured historian, Patrick Wyman went into greater detail on how it can generally be applied.
Simply put, a fighter has nine years from the start of their career before they start to decline rapidly. Occasionally fighters beat out the trend, occasionally they never even reach nine years, but as a simple rule of thumb it's gaining traction. That said, this isn't a call for fighters to necessarily hang 'em up. That's not my call to make and it would be presumptuous of me to say it. Instead this is a call for fighters, fans, and promoters to start shifting their expectations. To get further away from the idea that a fighter can find success for as long as he or she wants it. To an extent Dana White has already done this admirably, pushing several of his notable stars to step aside as they pass the pinnacle of their career.
The biggest challenge is when this pinnacle comes and goes for a young fighter, someone who should have a lot left to give just on age alone. UFC 26 saw several such fighters. Joe Lauzon, Manny Gamburyan, Alistair Overeem, and Mauricio Rua are all under 35 (Lauzon is under 30) but have all spent 9+ years in the sport (Lauzon is right at 9, Gamburyan and Overeem are at 14). Does it really make sense to tell these fighters to hang them up? Maybe. For Shogun and Overeem it's obvious that the best moments of their careers have come and gone. They're both former champions with a number of accolades that any other fighter would give their tattoos for. But at 31 and 33 respectively, why stop working? For a fighter like Lauzon, who never reached a title, and who is still shy of 30 the idea seems practically absurd. And yet the idea persists.
For fighters in this position it may not be time to call it a career, but it may be time to look at a sabbatical. A couple years off could still see all of them return at a competitive age and may provide the needed time away from the constant grind of fight competition to get healthy. Of course, it may provide nothing. They may come back the same fighter they left off, but with less time. However, the way these fighters careers are trending right now age isn't the enemy, wear is.
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