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Bellator MMA in recent years has developed an identity as a location for legends approaching the ends of their careers. That approach is on exhibit with the organization’s Madison Square Garden debut on Saturday in New York. While the event features rising stars like Aaron Pico and James Gallagher, as well as prime competitors like Douglas Lima, Michael Chandler and Phil Davis, the main event and co-main event have a different flavor. With three 40-year-olds and one 38-year-old, it isn’t exactly Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock in 2016, but the bouts are clearly more about what these fighters have accomplished in the past than what they’ll do in the years to come.
Putting older competitors into fistfights as they move into their 40s and 50s has understandably provoked criticism. MMA is an inherently dangerous activity, and it’s not something to enter into lightly when one is past his or her physical prime. Critics of the trend are justified in their concern over its consequences. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that things will change. If anything, the trend is more likely to accelerate in the years to come.
The psychology of fans is a large part of why legends fights so often succeed and why they continue to be booked. To begin with, fans want to believe their favorite legends can continue to compete at a high level. We tend to remember the good memories much more than the bad, even when the bad memories are more recent. The highlights of an elite athlete’s career are what make that athlete memorable; anyone can stumble, but only the best can thrive on the highest level.
When fans imagine the return of Wanderlei Silva in a bitter grudge match against Chael Sonnen, they’re not apt to focus on his four-year absence from the sport or middling Ultimate Fighting Championship record. They’re much more likely to think back to his vicious knockouts of Quinton Jackson and hope that magic can be recaptured. It’s the much more engaging mental exercise. Likewise, Sonnen’s recent struggles are apt to take a backseat to his trash talk and peak performances. Fedor Emelianenko’s most recent performance against Fabio Maldonado doesn’t inspire tremendous confidence, but the aura from his reign as the heavyweight king remains. Mediocre fighters fade away, but great fighters linger in the memory.
MMA as an individual sport also lends itself more to older athletes hanging on than team sports. In a team sport, there’s no way to protect an older star. Tom Brady has to face the rush from Myles Garrett just like Troy Aikman had to deal with LaVar Arrington and just like Joe Theismann was confronted with Lawrence Taylor. That omnipresent danger of the young, hungry freak athlete 15 years your junior isn’t present in MMA, where promoters have the ability to protect older fighters from the most dangerous young contenders.
Matching older fighters up with weaker competition doesn’t make it safe for them. They’re still engaged in a fundamentally dangerous activity. However, it does mean that promoters can adjust to compensate for the decline in their skills. As a result, fans are given fights that they can imagine the legend winning and there is thus intrigue. This is particularly true with Bellator President Scott Coker, who is more willing than UFC matchmakers to bring in genuinely weak competition for developing or fading stars.
Individual sports make fans gravitate more towards older athletes for another key reason: Individual failure isn’t tied to the success or failure of the larger team. In a team sport, an older athlete that can’t play well anymore brings down the group. Fans may be loyal to the individual athlete, but if he’s making the team worse, sentimentality only goes so far. By contrast, in an individual sport, it’s sad to see an older athlete perform poorly but it doesn’t create bitterness and resentment. It’s much easier to just hope that fighter will perform better next time when another poor performance won’t bring down your favorite team.
Given natural fan interest in legends fights, it’s hard to expect promoters to collectively agree to hold off on making them for the good of the fighters involved. It gives the next promoter the opportunity to capitalize on a potential niche, and that’s exactly what Coker is doing now. Japanese promoters were even worse in the way they handled Kazushi Sakuraba. Boxing offers up more horrific examples still. That’s not a justification of the practice; it’s simply an explanation of why it is likely to continue.
If the fighters, fans and promoters are unlikely to resist the siren call of top competitors continuing to enter the cage well past their primes, that leaves regulators as the only remaining potential obstacle. Athletic commissions can decide whether to allow any fighter to compete. The problem there is forum shopping. Promoters and fighters know which commissions are more lax and will simply gravitate to those areas. It’s no secret, and it’s happening already. So long as there are a few commissions that will allow basically anyone to fight, it’s exceedingly difficult for individual commissions to affect change. Moreover, sanctioning hinges inherently on discretion and doesn’t lend itself well to universal rules that would take the decision making out of the hands of individuals.
The downsides of older fighters continuing to compete in a combat sport are apparent, but that doesn’t mean they’re going away anytime soon. With more money in the sport over time, the incentives cut in the other direction. The Sonnen-Silva main event at Bellator 180 is in that way less a reminder of the past and more a harbinger of the future.