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It has been a busy time in the world of combat sports. A week after Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz tried to revive their dead rivalry, Tyson Fury came back from the grave in the 12th round of his heavyweight title fight against Deontay Wilder, setting a new world record for resurrection turnaround time. While Wilder-Fury is rightly being hailed as a classic, the Liddell-Ortiz trilogy fight was much-maligned -- and for good reason. It was a ridiculous premise in the first place; it was only competitive by technical definition; and it was aesthetically gross. There were also negative sides to it.
The resounding conclusion of the farcical fracas seemed to be that age is more than just a number. Combat sports cannibalize the old, offering them as blood sacrifices to the gods of promotion and nostalgia, often in order to build faux hype for up-and-coming attractions. It was no surprise then that UFC President Dana White’s stern condemnation of the Liddell-Ortiz fight left MMA fans scratching their heads when a bout between Israel Adesanya and Anderson Silva was announced. Adesanya is an undefeated, 29-year-old kickboxing phenom; Silva is an aging G.O.A.T. who has one dubious win in six years. Don’t even get me started on the booking of another B.J. Penn fight.
At a point, it starts to become irresponsible to continue allowing older fighters to compete. Perhaps the only redeeming factor of the Liddell-Ortiz fight was that both men were old. The long-term and often delayed consequences of combat are serious, and those risks only compound after 40 years of living, especially when a significant portion of that time has been spent accruing brain trauma fighting professionally.
Life is never so simple, however. As is the case in most things, exceptions abound, and even though they are indeed exceptions, it’s only right to acknowledge them. Luckily, the last few weeks have given us plenty to acknowledge.
Alistair Overeem, who is 38 and has been fighting professionally for nearly 20 years in MMA and kickboxing, notched a remarkable win over the previously undefeated Sergei Pavlovich at UFC Fight Night 141 in China. Pavlovich is a highly touted prospect with little name value, so it was a risky fight for the former Strikeforce and Dream champion, particularly since he was coming off of two consecutive knockout losses. Yet Overeem still looked sharp and technical.
Then there was Joseph Benavidez on Friday at “The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale”. Benavidez remains one of the unheralded greats in the sport, and despite being 34 with 12 years of professional experience, he looked as good as ever against Alex Perez, who is eight years younger and was on an eight-fight winning streak.
A day later at UFC Fight Night 142, Mauricio Rua and Junior dos Santos turned back the clock. “Shogun” battled back from early adversity to score an emphatic knockout over Tyson Pedro, who is a decade younger. Dos Santos did the same, dropping the first round to the tough, ever-improving Tai Tuivasa before getting the stoppage in the next round.
It’s worth pointing out that, yes, all of these men are different ages. Fighting at 34 is not exactly comparable to fighting at 38. However, raw age isn’t the only metric that should be used to assess where a fighter is at in his or her career. Being old is not the same as being aged; the length of a professional career and the amount of damage taken are just as important. Dos Santos and Benavidez are the same age, but “Cigano” has been knocked out three times and Benavidez only once. Plus, dos Santos’ decision loss to Cain Velasquez likely shortened his career more than any of his knockout losses. Fighting style and weight class matter, too. Overeem and “Shogun” have both been in numerous wars and are also only a year apart, but Overeem has been knocked out 13 times compared to Rua’s four knockout losses.
The other side of the aging coin are things that statistics can’t capture: experience and craft. All four of the aforementioned fighters have almost certainly seen better days in terms of their athleticism, reflexes and ability to take a punch, but they have much more refined tools than their younger counterparts. Even if they have a larger collection of concussions and more tread on their tires, they have a much deeper reservoir of tricks that younger, fresher fighters simply do not. Experience is something you don’t know you didn’t have until you get it.
Does this mean that athletic commissions should line up to book Liddell-Ortiz 4? Probably not. Younger fighters still tend to beat older ones. Overeem, Rua and dos Santos are all former champions, and Benavidez almost certainly would have been had Demetrious Johnson not been around, so the exceptions seem to apply only to the highest level of fighters. It’s worth remembering, however, that old dogs can still learn new tricks, and even if they can’t, they don’t always need them in order to win.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.