Lyoto Machida earned a title shot on Saturday with his near-cartoonish KO of a bullrushing Ryan Bader. Assuming Jon Jones gets past 41-year-old Dan Henderson September 1st, it will be his first ever rematch, but his 4th consecutive title defense against an opponent over the age of 30. The 30-year-old mark is generally a sign of reaching your athletic prime in many sports, including MMA, hence the term "wrong side of 30". In the fight game being in your 30s and having a lot of fights on record generally means decline is inevitable. So it should come as no surprise that the only current UFC champions (including interims) over 30 are Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, two of the greatest and most dominant fighters the sport has ever seen. Simply put, it's incredibly rare for a fighter over 30 to attain a championship or even sustain high-level success, and those who do are almost certainly solidified as legends of MMA like Silva or GSP.
What's happening at middleweight and above is the alarming trend of a lack of exciting young contenders. And I think it is directly correlated with the lack of depth in each division and limited turnover of top 10 talent, even ignoring the dominance of Jones, Silva, and to a lesser extent Junior Dos Santos. After the jump is a breakdown of the average age of the top 10 fighters in all weight classes except the flyweights.
NOTE: All rankings are based on the latest edition of the SB Nation MMA Consensus Rankings, and only UFC fighters are listed and not Strikeforce, Bellator, or any other promotion.
Heavyweight - 33.0 years old
Light Heavyweight - 31.3 years old
Middleweight - 32.3 years old
Welterweight - 29.6 years old
Lightweight - 28.7 years old
Featherweight - 27.3 years old
Bantamweight - 28.7 years old
There are two exceptions at welterweight I've made to better fit the numbers: I included the currently unranked Georges St. Pierre because he still is the champion , and removed Jake Shields as he's moved back to middleweight, and replaced him with the next highest ranked fighter of BJ Penn.
Just to add to the numbers, here are some further observations:
- The only top 10 UFC heavyweight under 30 is champion Junior Dos Santos. Cain Velasquez and Travis Browne are both exactly 30 and the rest of the division is populated with fighters aged between 32 and 38.
- In contrast, featherweight is the youngest division with NINE of their top ten aged 30 or under, with Dennis Siver being the exception.
- Lightweight, regarded as one of the more exciting and "stacked" weight classes, is tied for 2nd youngest and also has just one fighter above the 30 mark (Gray Mayard).
- Middleweight is 2nd oldest and it's not just because Anderson Silva is 37. The youngest top 10 fighters are Chris Weidman and Alan Belcher, both aged 28.
- The under 30 group at LHW: Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson, Phil Davis, and Ryan Bader.
- Welterweight is pretty much dead in the middle and it is well represented with young contenders like Jake Ellenberger (27), former contenders like Josh Koscheck (34), the champion GSP (31), and rising prospect Rory MacDonald (23).
The trend is pretty obvious. Middleweight, light-heavyweight, and heavyweight are old and heavyweight in particular is showing no signs of getting younger even outside the UFC. Daniel Cormier is easily a top heavyweight who will be in the UFC soon but he's 33. Josh Barnett is 34. So that means the next highest ranked non-UFC fighter in his 20s is Bellator's Cole Konrad at 28. For the heavyweight division to trend younger, prospects Stipe Miocic (29), Stefan Struve (24), and even Shane Del Rosario (28) will have to start making serious runs to put themselves into title contention. Right now? Shane Carwin is ranked at #10 despite two fights in the last two years and zero wins since March 2010. That's a staggering lack of depth, which is bad for champion Dos Santos, who has already decisively beaten 4 of the current top 10.
As for light-heavyweight, Ryan Bader is realistically out of title contention for good. He has not improved enough to compete with the upper echelon of the division and has lost in lopsided fashion three times. Mauricio Rua is 30, but he might as well be 55. So that leaves Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson, both deservedly in the top 10 and the latter could find himself in a title shot soon with another win. If the UFC wants to venture for younger talent who can pose a threat to Jon Jones, Gegard Mousasi is a veteran of the sport but he's only 27, and when the UFC inevitably stops being angry at Bellator's Muhammed Lawal, the 31-year-old still has just 10 fights under his belt so he's definitely not battle worn. The 205 lbs division needs to come to a point where Jon Jones is not fighting the same guys repeatedly because they're established, but instead fighting the likes of Gustafsson, Davis, and Mousasi soon.
Middleweight is at a point where the entire division hinges on not just who Anderson Silva fights, but how many more times he wants to fight. When he retires or is no longer champion through defeat, that division is wide open with Chris Weidman as the prevailing favorite to be the next champion. Luke Rockhold, Strikeforce's Middleweight champion is only 27 and would be a fantastic addition to the UFC (if getting Rockhold to the UFC was actually easy) just for his size and wrestling skills alone. Ditto 25-year-old Lorenz Larkin for his exciting style and diverse striking. But after Rockhold and Larkin the number of prospects both in the UFC and outside the UFC are slim pickings. The current top 10 at middleweight is fairly old and any success in a post-Silva era would likely not be sustainable, not to mention the likes of Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort have never beaten top 10 opposition but somehow find themselves in the top 10.
In my opinion, the most excitement from title challengers is coming from 170 lbs and below, all the younger divisions. Big upcoming fights with title implications like Martin Kampmann vs. Johny Hendricks, Josh Koschevk vs. Jake Ellenberger, Donald Cerrone vs. Melvin Guillard, Erick Silva vs. Jon Fitch, and 24-year-old Erik Koch vs. Jose Aldo for the Featherweight title involve several young, promising and talented fighters that can help keep a division entertaining and competitive in the long-term, something that is clearly lacking at middleweight and above.