Opinion: The UFC’s Old Epidemic

By Eric Stinton Nov 13, 2017

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Even for a sport as reliably strange as ours, the past week was a particularly bizarre one. Between the bookends of two excellent fight cards in UFC 217 and UFC Fight Night 120, a month’s worth of weird went down. Yet aside from Conor McGregor’s shenanigans at Bellator 187, a common theme permeated the goings on of the last seven days: the repercussions of getting old in the fight game, or, as I like to call it, MMAging.

Bad portmanteau aside, there’s a difference between getting old in regular life and getting old as a professional fighter. It’s not so much a defined age -- though it often is that, too -- as it is an accumulation of fight-related erosion. There are fighters like Mark Hunt, who, at age 43, is immediately acknowledged as old. Then there are fighters like Dominick Cruz.

“The Dominator” is only 32, but he’s an old 32. He has been fighting professionally for nearly 13 years and has done so at the highest levels for a decade. Despite using a style that specifically eschews taking shots from opponents, he suffers from another side effect of the fight game: injuries. He added to his storied run of getting sidelined in the gym by suffering a broken arm in training camp, causing him to drop out of his scheduled UFC 219 bout against Jimmie Rivera. Cruz is probably the greatest bantamweight of all-time and still a relevant force in the division, but his window at the top appears to be narrowing.

The injury bug also struck Frankie Edgar, who pulled out of his UFC 218 title shot against Max Holloway with an undisclosed injury. His career timeline is similar to Cruz’s: pro debut in 2005, Zuffa debut in 2007. They even became champions in the same year. Despite being four years older than Cruz, Edgar has remained relatively injury-free; the only major setback prior to this one was when he suffered a pair of broken ribs before his scheduled title defense at UFC 130 back in 2011. “The Answer” has not shown any signs of slowing down -- he did hand young blood Yair Rodriguez a ferocious whooping just six months ago -- but at 36 and with the featherweight talent on its way up, his time is ticking, as well. It’s probably worth mentioning that Jose Aldo, the greatest featherweight ever, in addition to being the oldest 31-year-old ever, will replace Edgar.

Anderson Silva, the 42-year-old former middleweight king was pulled from his upcoming fight, too, but not because his aging body cracked in the gym. He won’t be making his Chinese debut because he apparently took a detour to Thailand for “dick pills” again, or at least that’s what we can assume until the next excuse is specified. “The Spider” failed an out-of-competition drug test from Oct. 26, and while it’s not definitive proof that he was on the juice again, it’s hard not to suspect it. I don’t blame him, though. The rigors of MMA are such that it’s borderline inhumane to not let athletes use PEDs, especially at Silva’s age. The silver lining here is that the United States Anti-Doping Agency likely saved him from yet another ignominious loss. In a ridiculous twist, another former middleweight champ, the recently deposed Michael Bisping, will stand in Silva’s stead to face Kelvin Gastelum. Three weeks after getting dropped and taking 41 significant strikes to the dome, the 38-year-old will be back in action against a heavy-hitting contender who has knocked out two of his last three opponents.

Even UFC 217, a spectacular event and the feel-good card of the year, was not immune to the creeping tide of old. T.J. Dillashaw’s win against Team Alpha Male’s Cody Garbrandt is now tempting Urijah Faber, 38, to swing his weight into an(other) undeserved title shot in a fight that no one in their right mind would want to watch. The flipside of that dynamic is that newly crowned middleweight champion George St. Pierre, 36, has not exactly inspired confidence that he will defend his title against the best middleweight on the planet right now, 26 year-old interim champ Robert Whittaker. For good reason: “Rush” may be the most accomplished fighter of all-time, but a dance with “Bobby Knuckles” would not end well for him.

Yet for all these manifestations of the curse of aging, none was more poignant than the fight between Diego Sanchez and Matt Brown at UFC Fight Night “Poirier vs. Pettis” on Saturday in Norfolk, Virginia. While it was Brown who talked of retirement leading up to the event, Sanchez should be the one talking about it now. The first-ever winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” spent the first 11 years of his UFC career with an impenetrably iron chin but now has suffered three vicious first-round knockouts in the last 14 months. After the fight, Sanchez assured crowds that he still had fight in him, to little jubilation. That statement is true, which is exactly why it’s problematic. As for Brown, despite his spectacular and probably illegal finishing move, he should still consider moving on to the next phase of his career. Sanchez was a particularly favorable matchup, which can distract from the fact that Brown had gone 1-4 in the last two years and that his previous two fights were crushing knockout losses. Sanchez and Brown are 35 and 36 years old, respectively, with a combined 51 UFC fights between them. If they can bow out before taking any more brain damage, why wouldn’t they?

It brings me no joy to suggest retirement for either of them. Sanchez and Brown have been two of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s most dependably entertaining action fighters for a while now, and their presence will be sorely missed whenever they decide to hang it up for good. Neither of them has anything left to prove, however, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that they won’t be making any more title runs. More than anything, their fight proves that the only thing harder than retiring on a loss is retiring on a win.

There’s no denying the warrior spirit of all of these old-timers. It’s what we’ve come to admire about many of them, and MMA rewards that persona more than any other sport. Still, at some point, the warrior mentality becomes just that -- a mentality, completely divorced from the physical realities of fighting. Eventually, it’s best to let legacy stay in the past and build a new one in the coach’s corner, in the commentary booth or on the couch.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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