In most sports our heroes are instantaneous, prodigious youngsters, teenagers who set the world alight and inspire wonder as to how they will change the game, setting standards and expectations that they will surely never reach.
Think of a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney with that curling finish against Arsenal, now ostracised for his poor performances leading England, proving the football pitch is no country for old men.
Contrastingly, the UFC octagon is no country for young men. The champions of each weight division have reached the pinnacle after years of trial, error and punishment. Of the eight divisions, every champion aside from Ireland’s Conor McGregor and the mercurial Demetrious Johnson are over the age of 30.
Johnson, in fact, turns 30 next month. One of the young, bright hopes, Jon Jones, continues his remarkable feat of being the only man to defeat Jon Jones. His removal from the UFC 200 card due to failing a USADA-administrated drug test saw him replaced by the legendary Anderson Silva (41).
To dilute the youth further, by taking the top three ranked challengers of each weight division, we only see an additional four fighters out of 24 who will be under 30 by the end of this year.
The most recent example of a long-time competitor “fulfilling his destiny” was when Briton Michael Bisping claimed the middleweight belt in his first shot at the title, at the ripe age of 37, and if the rumour mill is to be believed his first defence will see him come up against 45-year-old Dan Henderson.
As a side note, the youngest of the top challengers is the highly talented 24-year-old Max Holloway, #3 in McGregor’s featherweight division. The Hawaiian should give McGregor fans plenty to think about beyond his presumed first defence against Jose Aldo.
UFC 201 and 202 cards are not demonstrating opportunities for the youth to rise up either. Looking across the divisions, the most likely champion under 30 to come next would be Khabib Nurmagomedov. In the wide open lightweight division, where nobody seems to be able to defend the belt, he may well be first to challenge Eddie Alvarez, after he deposed Rafael dos Anjos over the weekend.
Nurmagomedov, in fact, was ranked #1 contender to Dos Anjos, but after injuries, and more recently Ramadan prevented him from fighting, ex-Bellator champion Alvarez was allowed jump the queue.
While in football and rugby, once an athlete’s clock ticks passed 30, the obituaries are being written, dogged by claims that their best years are behind them. Why, in arguably the most brutal sport of all, do these fighters hit their peak later?
The brutal nature of the sport itself may select for the best athletes, those who are not biologically capable of reaching the highest level are quickly weeded out by chronic injury. The sort of competitors who can recover quickest are exactly those that are designed for such longevity.
The sport is highly complex, there are numerous ways to defeat an opponent, and each of these must be mastered to reach the top as you will have to overcome a large variety of grapplers, strikers and wrestlers to get there. This was demonstrated best by Demetrious Johnson – in the wake of his impressive defeat of Henry Cejudo, he immediately talked of plans to get his blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This requires dedication yes, but time above all else. It must surely take years to train a mind of survival responses when a huge fist with tiny, 4oz gloves connects.
Finally, unlike clubs in football and rugby, it doesn’t pay the UFC to invest in young fighters who haven’t won numerous titles in all sorts of disciplines and MMA promotions, they want a fighter who has pedigree and can put on a show now. Interest surrounding a fighter can be built within weeks of a big event.
For UFC commentators, every other fighter is “among the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet”. The meritocracy of earning a title shot revolves more around the people who are willing to pay to see you more than anything, and a fighter who has been around a while is more likely to have that cult following.
Discussing the prospect of Jon Jones’ B-sample testing positive and facing a two-year ban from the sport, MMA Fighting commented that it will steal the prime years of the greatest fighter to ever enter the octagon. However, looking at the best of those in the promotion right now, there may be hope for him yet.
Finally, in the context of Irish fans’ hopes, the likes of McGregor and Joseph Duffy may well be in their infancy. The late 20s are tender and formative, Irish MMA fans have plenty more to look forward to.
Daniel Boland, Pundit Arena