Athletic careers are unique to many professions because unlike, say, accounting, they have an expiration date. At some point, the body just stops functioning well enough to compete at a high level. In sports with a high degree of contact, such as MMA, a drop-off in in-ring ability is even more pronounced. The body of a fighter literally takes a beating, and the human body, though remarkable, just wasn’t meant to be a punching bag. However, walking away from an activity that takes so much dedication and has brought one so much fame isn’t easy. Much to the dismay of their fans, there are some legends of MMA who, despite the evidence that their bodies can’t take the abuse anymore, still chose to compete.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira- Some may think I’m jumping the gun on this one, but consider that “Big Nog” was knocked down only twice before coming to the UFC (per Mike Goldberg… take that with a grain of salt), but has gotten knocked down, or even out, in every fight since, barring the Couture match. Though I don’t buy the line about Nogueira getting his butt kicked in every fight before pulling out a miraculous submission, the fact is that he’s hardly been dominant in the striking department, and he’s taken some serious punishment over the years. His decline was extremely noticeable in his match with Cain Velasquez. While he’s never been a bundle of fast-twitch muscle fibers, in that fight, “Minotauro” looked like he was moving under water. A lack of speed and porous striking defense, both on the feet and the ground, is practically a death wish in a weight class where everyone packs a knockout punch. With one of his strongest assets, his chin, no longer reliable, and his striking defense still at sub-par levels, he needs to quit with enough of his brain cells intact to continue teaching and coaching.
Chuck Liddell- The “Ice Man”, in his prime, was one of the scariest fighters on the planet. Possessing heavy strikes and a brick wall of a sprawl, he ran roughshod over the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division until Father Time caught up with him. At the height of his career, Liddell had the ability to see an opening and rocket a strike to his opponent’s chin with pinpoint accuracy. However, age slows reflexes, and Liddell’s striking has never been super-technical to begin with. The holes he left in his hands-low stance only provided windows of opportunity for younger, faster, more technical strikers. In his last six fights, he’s lost five times, four by KO or TKO, over a three-year stretch. While I initially blamed his losses on a style that had become stale and predictable, the fact that he’s suffered so many knockouts in recent history when guys like Pele, Mezger, Belfort, and Overeem couldn’t get the job done in the past only highlights the damage that Chuck’s chin (read: brain) has taken over the years. More disturbing, during his stint on “The Ultimate Fighter,” his speech was noticeably degraded. At times, it seemed that his brain wanted to use a word that his lips just couldn’t form. While I’m no doctor, it looks to me that he’s begun to suffer the affects of dementia pugilistica, or “punch drunkenness”. It can only get worse should he continue to fight.
Jens Pulver- As mentioned, speed and reaction time slows as one ages. This becomes more apparent in the lighter weight classes, when strikes move as fast as killer bees on amphetamines. Unfortunately, aging smaller fighters like Pulver can’t keep up with the speed of the 20-somethings. While most of Pulver’s recent losses have come by way of submission, they’ve also come after a flurry of strikes, which stun him and leave him open for the sub. Pulver, unlike the other fighters on this list, never received a lot of fame or name recognition, or enjoyed a ride at the top of an organization for a long period of time. As such, it’s understandable that he may want to keep fighting for monetary reasons. However, a 3-9 record over the past five years speaks for itself. It’s a sad irony that now that the lighter weight classes are getting the kind of recognition that makes for a profitable career, Jens is too busted up to find any success. The former UFC Lightweight Champion was just beaten by a 4-1 (now 5-1) fighter who has only fought twice since 2007. That speaks volumes about the current state of the man who once handed BJ Penn his first loss.
Kazushi Sakuraba- There was a time when many pundits considered Sakuraba the best pound-for-pound fighter in MMA. That was about a decade ago. Since then, fighting above his ideal weight, along with poor health habits and the natural deterioration that comes with age, has taken its toll on the “IQ Wrestler”. No one can question Sakuraba’s heart; four of his career losses have come because either the ringside doctor or his corner has stopped his matches to preserve his health. But his body just won’t allow him to compete at the highest levels anymore. In his last fight, Ralek Gracie, an MMA neophyte with no outstanding competitive grappling credentials, was able to do to Sakuraba what his more experienced kinsmen like Royce and Renzo were unable to do on their first tries, namely beat him. Sakuraba, legs taped nearly from ankle to hip, looked unsteady on his feet. He unleashed few of his once-respected leg kicks, gave away takedowns like Halloween candy, and never attempted a takedown of his own. At least in this fight he faced a man content to grapple with him. In recent fights, even his victories have shown him taking, to put it politely, a questionable amount of punishment. At this stage of his career, every time a Sakuraba fight is announced, I cringe inside, and hope he won’t end up on a stretcher.
Ken Shamrock- Shamrock, once labeled as “The World’s Most Dangerous Man”, has become a punch line in recent years. Once feared for his power and his grappling ability, Ken took a four-year hiatus from MMA for pro-wrestling, a decision which likely cost him some of his best fighting years. Since returning to MMA in 2000, Shamrock has gone 4-9, with only one win in the past six years. To make maters worse, his recent fights have shown a severely deteriorated “chin”, with all his losses since 2002 coming by way of TKO. The odd thing is that Shamrock may be more technically sound now than he was in his prime, with noticeable improvements in striking and clinch work to add to his formidable knowledge of grappling and his hard-core training methods. If you could replace the body Ken has now with the one from 1995, I suspect he’d be a top-10 fighter. Obviously, that’s not the case. In recent fights, Ken’s version of ground-and-pound defense has consisted of staring blankly at his opponent as they smashed his face. He knees have been shot for years, taking away the takedowns that enabled him to work his fearsome top game. Even worse, some of his training methods are archaic by today’s standards. When he weighed in for his aborted fight with Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, he weighed in at 205lbs… for a heavyweight fight. That’s lighter than the walk-around weight of most top middleweights. At this point, I have to believe that Shamrock is simply trying to cash in on his fame, fifteen years too late, without too much concern over his legacy, record, or health.
These aren’t the only fighters who should think about retiring, or at least cutting back on their level of activity. Had this list been made a year ago, there’s a good chance that Mirko Crocop or Matt Hughes would have been on it. Considering their win-loss ratio compared to others on this list, they get a bye, at least for now. These are only two fighters of many who should rightly be considered past their physical prime and are entering dangerous territory, that being the point where the skills and attributes the sport demands eclipses a fighter’s ability to perform.
Fighters put their bodies through more abuse just in training than most non-athletes will see in their entire life. This is expected of them; it’s their job. But the hazards of deteriorating physical conditions, such as reflexes and the ability to take a punch, mean that at some point in a fighter’s career, allowing them to compete is tantamount to sending an unarmed five-year-old into battle with a samurai. Everyone likes a good comeback story, but a 46-year-old with a decade and a half of in-ring battles isn’t going to suddenly reverse all the damage their body has taken. Expecting them to do so is unrealistic; putting them in a position where less-than-stellar reflexes and conditioning can cost you valuable brain cells is downright cruel. Unless these fighters want to be wearing diapers in their 50’s, they should stop fighting professionally. That’s the only decision that makes sense. Here’s hoping they still have enough cognitive ability to recognize that.