Life At The Top Of The MMA Ladder

Life At The Top Of The MMA Ladder

Recently, UFC Lightweight Mac Danzig announced his retirement from the Mixed Martial Arts, ending what was a very solid career spanning more than thirty fights and twelve years. In December, the Ultimate Fighter season six winner suffered his third loss in a row, a unanimous decision to Joe Lauzon, and as is often the case in the UFC, fighters are let go after losing three in a row. Mac Danzig is an outstanding fighter who embodies the concept of “not great at one thing, but very solid at everything”; his striking is better than average, he has decent ground fighting skills, and his cardio is more than adequate. At 34 years old, Mac probably had a few more years in the game, but three losses in a row (and just 3-8 in his last 11 fights) tell the story; the MMA game has surpassed Mac Danzig’s skill level.

When the Danzig v Lauzon fight got under way, I (and many MMA fans) watched with mixed feelings, because both Danzig and Lauzon were at one time two solid up-and-comers in the UFC. Yet both fighters entered that fight on two fight losing streaks, and each fighter was just 1-3 in his previous four fights; we knew that the loser of this fight was likely done in the UFC. This fight magnifies just how tough life can be at the top of the MMA ladder.

The Tipping Point

In his best selling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, author Malcolm Gladwell, in referring to business, marketing, social trends, and other common areas of life, attempts to point out critical times, “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”, in which we see significant change in trends, and he then attempts to isolate the small factors that influenced those changes.

There are certain critical times, tipping points, in the Mixed Martial Arts that we have seen over the past twenty years. Taking a macroeconomic view, we can all point to the tipping point caused when the Gracies burst on to the scene with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. And what MMA fan hasn’t seen several tipping points caused by the influx of the American Wrestlers? And how about this current influx of fighters from the Caucuses Mountain region in the former Soviet Union !

But let’s take a closer look at the factors that influence a fighter’s retirement; let’s look at the microeconomics of MMA fighters and tipping point of the retirement process. Age, cumulative injuries, declining skills, the evolution of the sport, and merging promotions are just some of the factors that contribute to a fighter’s retirement. Unfortunately, fighters on every level are often the last ones to recognize this.

Age

As in every walk of life, age is always a significant factor in declining performance, but age is much more significant in regards to an athlete’s decline, and often the decline can be rapid. Age can be a subjective thing, but eventually it catches up to every fighter. Randy Couture fought the best fighters in the world, and even won the UFC Heavyweight Title at age forty three, before retiring at age forty eight. For former UFC Welterweight Champ Matt Hughes, the end came at age thirty seven. Former Bellator Heavyweight Champ Cole Conrad retired undefeated at the age of 28 years young! Mac Danzig’s retirement came this past month, and for Mac it was during his 34th year on this earth. Age is a number, and everyone has a different number.

Cumulative Injuries

Another factor that contributes to a fighters declining skill set is the cumulative effect of injuries, and the MMA game is probably the one sport at the top of the injury ladder. Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champ Forrest Griffin announced his retirement last year. Forrest fought for the final time in July of 2012, a win over Tito Ortiz, at the age of thirty three, but it was the accumulation of injuries over his eleven year span that brought the former champ’s career to a halt. He talked openly about how his recent training camps revolved less around his upcoming opponent and more around what part of his body was not hurting today. Griffin said “Two of my last three fights, I’ve pulled out due to injury. If you think about it, how many fights can you pull out of before you become an unsecure product?”

Nearly every professional fighter that I know has had injuries in practice as well as fights. And how often have we heard a fighter say that every fighter enters the cage with some sort of injury! These injuries pile up and will often contribute to a fighters’ decline if he fights long enough.

Let’s look at how one single injury impacted one top level fighter. From 2002 through April of 2011, Georges St. Pierre built a record of 22-2, including a 16-2 record in the UFC, and established himself as the best Welterweight ever to fight in MMA, until a knee injury sidelined him for a year and a half. GSP returned in November of 2012 and, in one year, faced Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, and Johnny Hendricks. In the three fights after his 18 month sabbatical, GSP absorbed a total 412 strikes (according to Fightmetric, an MMA statistical group) while in his previous 24 fights combined he absorbed 465 strikes. One look at GSP’s face after each of his last three fights (versus his previous 24 fights) can lead us to believe that the Welterweight division in the UFC got significantly better during St. Pierre’s 18 month lay off. After the beating he took in his last fight against Johnny Hendricks, GSP announced his retirement. Though age was not likely a factor (GSP was 29 years old when he injured his knee.), the one traumatic knee injury, the rapid evolution of the game during his absence, and the merging promotions syndrome (All GSP’s final three opponents were acquisitions from WEC and Strikeforce.) all played significant factors.

Injuries? Right now a lot of MMA eyes are on Anderson Silva. Anderson was king of the Middleweight division for seven years. From April of 2006 through mid 2012, The Spider ran off 17 consecutive wins, 16 of them in the UFC. Nearly all of Anderson ’s wins were against the best fighters in the world, and he so dominated the rest of his peers that it was widely accepted that he was the best fighter in any weight class. In July of 2013, Anderson, who had built a 33-4 record and had not lost in seven years, was KO’d by American Wrestler Chris Weidman, who came into that fight with just a 9-0 record. In their next fight, just five months later, Anderson ’s leg was snapped in a gruesome manner, giving him his second loss in a row. Some fans said that Weidman got lucky in each of those two fights, each of which ended with a second round KO/TKO. But Chris Weidman dominated Anderson in the first round of each of those two fights. It is arguable that Anderson Silva never even won a minute of either of the two fights.

If Anderson Silva returns to the cage, he will likely be forty, or very close to it. He will have been out of the cage for close to a year and a half. His skill set will have declined and he will need a few tune-up fights before he fights for a title; it may be three years before he earns a shot at Chris Weidman (if Chris is even still the champ). Anderson will be 41 or 42 by then. Meanwhile, Chris Weidman’s skills, and the rest of the Middleweight division’s skills, will have grown significantly. Chris Weidman will have 18 or more fights, which is twice the experience that he had when he first KO’d Anderson . Realistically, it is not very likely that Anderson Silva will ever return to UFC Championship level status.

Rapid Evolution of the Sport

Often times it is not age, injury, or even the declining skill set that spells the beginning of the end for a fighter; sometimes the end for a fighter can happen because the MMA game evolves so significantly and so rapidly that a fighters’ skills, while showing little or no decline, become obsolete. Let’s take the case of former UFC Welterweight Champ Matt Hughes; he accumulated a 41-4 record before losing his UFC title to Georges St . Pierre in 2006 when he was just 33 years old. But over the next five years he managed just a 4-5 record to finish his career at 45-9. Matt Hughes never really showed a decline in his skills. He built his 41-4 record over an eight year time frame largely using his college wrestling skills. But by 2006, 2007, and beyond, the MMA game was evolving so rapidly that wrestling was no longer a skill, in and of itself, that would allow a fighter to stay at the top in the UFC. While Matt Hughes was not a “one trick pony”, he was generally a world class wrestler with limited striking. Matt Hughes was simply a victim of the rapid evolution of the game.

Josh Grispi began his professional MMA career at the age of seventeen. Fighting out of South Shore Sport Fighting in Rockland , MA , Josh the Fluke banged out a 10-1 record while still just a teenager. The WEC came knocking and Josh answered the call with successive first round submission wins over Mark Hominick and Micah Miller, and young Josh Grispi had not yet seen his twentieth birthday. Next came another pair of first round submission wins over Jens Pulver and LC Davis. At just 21 years young, The Fluke was set to face Jose Aldo for the newly formed UFC Featherweight Title, as the WEC and UFC had recently been merged. Jose Aldo came up injured and Dustin Poirier filled the slot, handing Josh Grispi his first loss in more than four years. In doing so, Poirier exposed two significant flaws in Grispi’s game; limited striking and below average cardio. Grispi then suffered successive losses to George Roop, Rani Yahya, and Andy Ogle. The teenage sensation that began his career at 14-1 had just lost his last four fights, falling to 14-5, and was cut from the UFC roster.

Neither age, injury, declining skill set, nor merging promotion syndrome were to blame for the demise of the once promising Josh Grispi. Josh fell victim to his own limited skills set in the wake of an evolving sport. The skills that earned him a 14-1 record were no longer sufficient to sustain him at a world class level. Far from a one trick pony, Josh was just deficient in a few areas that the rest of the best were able to exploit. Still just 25 years old, Grispi has not fought in more than a year.

Former two division UFC Champ BJ Penn retired after taking brutal beatings from Rory MacDonald and Nick Diaz. BJ retired more than a year ago after winning just one fight in his final six (1-4-1). While it is not likely that age was a factor (BJ was 31 years old when the slide started.), it is obvious that the skill set that vaulted him to UFC Welterweight and Lightweight Champion status is simply not enough to compete with today’s elite Lightweight and Welterweight MMA fighters. BJ is looking to make a comeback at Featherweight…

Declining Skills

While former UFC Heavyweight Champ Tim Sylvia will never be accused of being overly athletic, I really believe that the big guy from Maine got 100% out of his limited physical abilities. Big Tim was the UFC Heavyweight Champ when the UFC was at its’ weakest point, but that’s not a knock on Tim; he did what he had to do at the time, and that made him the champ. Tim had wins over Ricco Rodriguez, Andrei Arlovski, Jeff Monson, and Ben Rothwell, to name a few. But with his limited athleticism, Tim was exposed as no longer a top level fighter when the sport began to evolve in 2007 and 2008. But I believe that one huge contributing factor was Tim’s declining skill set. Because Tim survived at the top largely because he is 6’9” and 265lbs, when he slowed just a little bit in his athleticism, he became really slow, and the rest of the Heavyweight division was able to figure him out. Tim was always sort of a “one trick pony”, and when what little quickness he had went away, his size and reach no longer served him the same way.

Tim Sylvia, who at one point was 23-2, is still banging things out on small and medium sized shows. Since leaving the UFC, Tim has gone 6-6-1. He is currently riding a three fight losing streak, but he is scheduled to fight in Poland on March 22.

Former UFC Lightweight Champ Jens Pulver established himself as one of the top divisional fighter in the world at 21-6. But then Jens hit the skids to the tune of 1-7 when he returned to the UFC and WEC. He then began fighting for smaller promotions at both Featherweight and Bantamweight. Since his departure from the big shows, Jens has gone 5-6. Once again, the skills of today’s top level MMA fighters are so superior to Jens’ skills that he not only can’t compete on the big show level, he is just an average fighter on the local and regional shows.

When discussing declining skills in the MMA game, Marcus Davis just comes to mind. The Irish Hand Grenade was once the gate keeper to the UFC’s Welterweight division when he was riding an eleven fight win streak through early 2008. Marcus had become a fan favorite, especially in Ireland . Marcus’ career peaked in 2007 and 2008 as he was collecting KO and Submission bonus money. His come-from-behind win via submission over Paul Taylor in 2007 not only earned him a Submission of the Night bonus, it also vaulted him to a new level of MMA popularity world wide.

But in June of 2008, a decision loss to Mike Swick exposed a huge weakness in Marcus’ game; Marcus has trouble against strikers who are tall and/or use the long jab to set up striking combinations. From June of 2009 through January of 2011, the former professional boxer was beaten four more times in five fights by UFC fighters who used their height and reach to out strike Marcus. Marcus no longer showed his ability to kick to the body, shoot the double, or work in the clinch. He had become a stationary target.

Marcus was let go from the UFC in 2011. He has spent the past three years bouncing around the local circuits; he was recently submitted in the opening round of the Bellator Lightweight Tournament. He is currently on a two fight losing streak, dropping one by TKO and the other by submission. While there are likely several factors that point to Marcus’ decline, his loss of skills seems to be obvious.

Merging Promotion Syndrome

Merging promotions has also spelled doom for some fighters’ careers. From 1999 through 2006, Rich Franklin carved out a 22-1 record, earning himself the UFC Middleweight Title and bragging rights as the best 185 pounder in the world. That was, of course, until Anderson Silva burst on to the scene and KO’d Franklin in the most brutal three minutes of MMAction that Americans had seen in quite some time. One year and six days later, the two met again and the result was the same, and just as scary!!! How could it be that a UFC Champ like Rich Franklin could be so dominant, yet lose twice in devastating fashion to Anderson Silva? Where was Silva hiding?
In 2006, the UFC partners purchased Pride Fighting, an MMA organization operating in Japan . There were many Brazilians, Americans, and Japanese fighting in that organization, and now these fighters became part of the UFC’s stable of fighters. ( Anderson was fighting in Pride, Cage Rage, and a few other shows.) So while many American UFC fans were not all that familiar with Pride Fighting, insiders knew that Pride Fighting held some of the world’s top fighters.

In between his two losses to Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin had solid wins against two tough UFC opponents Jason MacDonald and Yushin Okami. After his second loss to Silva, Franklin put together two more significant wins against Matt Hamill and Travis Lutter before losing to another Pride acquisition Dan Henderson. Thus, is it apparent that Rich Franklin’s skills were still significant enough to beat some of the top UFC prospects but not quite enough to beat the two former Pride fighters.
It is easy to see the impact of merging promotions in this situation. From 1999 to 2006, Franklin built his record to 22-1 and became the UFC Champ. But from 2006 until he retired in 2012, Rich Franklin managed just a 7-6 record. A closer look shows that, of Franklin ’s six losses during that time, five of them came against fighters that were acquired from other promotions like Pride and Strikeforce; (Anderson Silva twice, Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort, and Cung Le). Rich Franklin fell victim to the merging promotions syndrome.

Chuck “The Ice Man” Lidell fought for twelve years. From 1998 through 2006, The Ice Man built a record of 20-3, earned the title of UFC Light Heavyweight Champ, and he was widely considered the best 205er in the world. His one dimensional style of knocking guys out served him quite well, as he ran off seven wins (all by KO/TKO) en route to becoming the UFC Champ! But from 2007 until his retirement in 2010, Chuck won just one of his final six fights! How does a 20-3 fighter suddenly become a 1-5 fighter!? Chuck’s slide began about the same time that Rich Franklin’s did, just after the UFC merged the Pride fighters into its’ stable. Chuck was thirty seven when Pride acquisition Rampage Jackson KO’d him for the UFC Belt. Then came losses to Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans, Rich Franklin (all UFC bred), and Mauricio Rua (Pride acquisition).

While Chuck never really seemed to have suffered from cumulative injuries, age likely played a part in his rapid decline. (He was 37 when the slide began.) The evolution of the sport was in high gear as well. Merging promotions syndrome surely was a very noticeable factor. Also, Chuck’s skill set (stand-up KO artist) painted him as a one trick pony; while the rest of the MMA world was evolving into the hybrid fighter, Chuck was not. Chuck retired in 2010 after suffering a 1-5 slide, losing four of those fights by KO/TKO.

Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champ Tito Ortiz was 15-4 in October of 2006. Since that time, he has gone 1-7-1, largely due to the full gamut; age, declining skills, evolution of his opponent’s skills, cumulative injuries, merging promotions, etc. Now with Bellator, he recently pulled out of a fight (due to injuries) against Rampage Jackson.

Athletes in the combat sports don’t have some of the options offered to athletes in similar situations in other sports. An aging Football quarterback may be moved into a back-up role and act as a mentor to a young rising star during his final years in the NFL. Back-up roles are created for key players in the twilight of their career in the NBA. Major League Baseball players often times switch positions, even assume the role of the DH (designated hitter), or move to relief pitcher status as their skills begin to decline in their latter years. PGA players (golf) even have the “Senior Tour” for older players who no longer have the skills to hang with the young guns, but are still respected on the tour.

Athletes in the MMA game really don’t have too many options to stay competitive when their skill set is no longer able to sustain them at their previous level. An aging fighter can leave the UFC or Bellator and go back to fighting on the smaller local shows, as fighters like Marcus Davis, Drew Fickett, Dan Severn, and Jens Pulver all have done. This may be a hard pill to swallow for a former top level fighter, and the money on the local shows just cannot replace the money that the same fighter earned at the big dance.

The UFC does have their own “Senior Circuit”, where former world champions (none of whom are likely to be in title contention again) all fight one another. This is how Rich Franklin, Chuck Liddel, Tito Ortiz, and Forrest Griffin wound down their careers. Currently, Dan Henderson, Mauricio Rua, Wanderlei Silva, and Chael Sonnen are all following a similar pattern.

It’s always nice to see a fighter retire and leave at the top of his game. UFC Welterweight Chris Lytle announced before his fight in 2011 with Dan Hardy that this would be his final fight. Chris never looked better, submitting Hardy in the third round! Former Bellator Heavyweight Champ Cole Conrad retired undefeated at the age of twenty eight. Former UFC Welterweight Champ Georges St. Pierre retired (with a record of 25-2) after winning a very controversial split decision over Johnny Hendricks.

Mac Danzig joined the ranks of “former UFC fighters” just a few weeks ago. The Ultimate Fighter Season 6 winner will now look to transition into his next phase of life. Some fighters have found homes with in the MMA game on a promotional level, like Kenny Florian and Matt Hughes. Others have used their MMA pedigree to launch careers with in and outside of the game. I would like to wish Mac Danzig all the best as he opens the next chapter in his life…

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