Combat sports are always a difficult place to get old. Fighters who have spent more than a decade believing firmly that they’re among the world’s best, capable of beating anyone on the right night, are an understandably difficult group to convince once those days have come to an end.
However, in most parts of the fighting world, there are at least some semi-decent contingency plans to let once-elite talents down gracefully. If managed correctly, after all, the later stage of an athlete’s time in competition can be their highest earning, and most marketable point. 2015 played host to the ‘Fight of the Century’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, both firmly past the best form of their careers, and raked in 4.6 million PPV buys as a result. Oscar De La Hoya banked most of his career highest PPV paydays in the last half dozen fights of his boxing career.
And that’s hardly a phenomenon limited to fistic endeavors. Even among stick and ball sports, athletes who reach a certain level of fame and prolonged performance often end their careers on some of their biggest single season contracts. They may not be as fast or strong or productive as they once were, but for many star performers, their notoriety only tends to grow with time. By the time Brett Favre ended his career with the Vikings or David Beckham landed with the LA Galaxy, these men were certified celebrities.
The potential for the same to be true in MMA is clear. Fighters like Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz suddenly clicking as sensational PPV draws came after both men had put in more than a decade of consistent high level combat, much of it in front of UFC fans. They weren’t so much instant successes, as they were the products of constant elite performance and media exposure over years and years and years.
Taking advantage of that late career opportunity inside the Octagon, however, is brutally difficult. The UFC has been very accurately described as something of a content mill attached to a diamond mining operation. Shaking as many fighters through the sieve of live TV as possible to find rare standout stars, but also just to fill up a lot of space that can be used to sell advertising spots.
For those who, along the way, have survived the screening process and shown themselves to be above average talents, there’s very little in the way of respite to be found. The chances to take on a litany of also aging yesteryear opponents in a carefully constructed dance of hype are few and far between. Instead the UFC system is one that constantly sifts upwards. Achieve a certain level of notoriety and every walk to the cage will become a test of that new, increased potential to be repeated until it can no longer be passed. Fighters like Masvidal and Diaz and even McGregor have negotiated these waters by becoming incredibly choosy about who they fight, and when.
Champions like Henry Cejudo, Ronda Rousey, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Georges St-Pierre, have found another obvious option: get what glory there is to take, and then go. Don’t try to live out your twilight years as an elite UFC talent. It may mean more money, but it will also mean a never-ending stretch of brutal matchups until the very last vestiges of star power are spent, or until the UFC decides the return on investment is no longer high enough for a fighter who has a very clear idea of what they should be worth after investing much of their life into a struggle for glory.
Enter, then, Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem. As TSN’s Aaron Bronsteter recently pointed out, over the last decade JDS has been in more than a third of the UFC’s heavyweight title fights. Over their careers, the two men have combined to headline a full 21 UFC cards. While neither man may have become a true solo PPV draw, they were both, clearly notable fixtures in the promotion’s roster. People the world’s largest MMA promotion were happy to bank on over and over.
But, for JDS, the last year and a half has seen him hit a Chuck Liddell-like run of 4-straight TKO/KO losses. For the first time since 2010, the Brazilian found himself fighting outside the main or co-main event in his last two bouts. The trajectory lined up for his future was clearly that of a man falling out of the mix for elite heavyweights. Any interest the UFC would have had in maintaining his contract, would likely be as a proving point for new prospects, or an early prelims highlight for fans who might otherwise skip the first few bouts of a UFC card. An inglorious position for someone who once held UFC gold.
For Overeem, the slide has been less dramatic. But, for a man who pocketed $800k in his last recorded fight purse (against Fabricio Werdum in 2017), it’s not hard to see why the UFC wouldn’t require nearly so much drama to let the ‘Demolition Man’ walk away. After all, one of the biggest driving factors in keeping late career salaries so high in other sports is that there’s such a high demand for the opportunity to market aging stars.
Outside the UFC, the returns on that kind of opportunity for the likes of Overeem and JDS (even as famous as both men are) just aren’t nearly as extreme. As RIZIN president Nobuyuki Sakakibara put it when asked about the potential of bringing the Dutchman back to Japan, “[Overeem] would obviously need to understand the current Japanese market and his value” if RIZIN were to make him an offer.
“He should do us an old friend’s favor and fight for the amount he made his debut in like old times,” Sakaibara added, jokingly.
Perhaps Bellator will be willing to splash out something like what Overeem is getting right now, just to reunite him with Showtime where he first gained prominence with US fans. But with the Elevation Fight Team talent running up fast on 41-years-old, I’m sure the UFC wouldn’t at all mind watching Coker & Co. dig deep to bring him on board.
In the meantime, the UFC has the likes of Ciryl Gane, Tom Aspinall, Alexander Romanov, and Chris Daukaus to put through the works and see which of these men can shake out to be a top tier talent, a process they’ll stay square in the middle of until they are either too worn out, too expensive, or too sick of the whole operation to stick around.