By Zach Arnold | June 19, 2011
Article written by David Williams
Mixed martial arts is a very young sport. While the history of the UFC dates back to 1993, established mainstream sports such as baseball and football have existed since the 19th century. Over time, those sports have evolved: the way they’re played today looks very little like the way they were played in the early years of their existence. Part of the evolution of these sports is the development of a mostly set career path. In baseball, for example, an average MLB player can expect to reach the major leagues between the ages of 23 and 25, reach his prime between ages 27 and 31, and decline afterwards, with most players retired or out of the sport by the time they reach their late-30s. Running backs in football are notorious for having short careers: most of them suffer a career collapse sometime around the age of 30.
For MMA, there doesn’t seem to be a specific age range in which fighters enter their prime or suffer a decline. Great fighters such as Wanderlei Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are 34 and 35 years old, respectively, and both appear to be on the last legs of their careers. Randy Couture, on the other hand, didn’t even begin his career until he was 34 years old. A remarkable fact about recent high-profile MMA collapses is that there’s little consistency about what age they occur. While Chuck Liddell’s collapse took place in his late-30s, fighters like Joe Stevenson and Karo Parisyan aren’t even 30 years old yet.
Despite this inconsistency, I’m going to argue that MMA fighters, like baseball and football players, have consistent career paths. I believe that there’s a particular point at which most fighters enter the prime of their career, and a point at which most fighters exit their prime, and either decline or suffer a brutal career collapse. This is based not on the age of the fighter, or even how many times the fighter has competed professionally, but instead on how long a fighter has been competing professionally.
To determine exactly when it is that fighters collapse, I need an objective method to measure how well fighters perform over time. Fortunately, I have a great tool to use to do this with SILVA, my statistical analysis system that estimates how good MMA fighters are. SILVA does this objectively by only looking at the wins and losses of a fighter and his opponents. It takes each of the opponents on a fighter’s record, and assigns each fight a “Victory Score” based on how good the opponent is. This “Victory Score” is what I’ll use to measure the performance of fighters over time.
For this study, I want to look at the collective performance of fighters over time against only the top tier of opponents, or what I define as a “UFC-quality fighter.” The reason I do this is to filter out wins against inferior opponents: if a fighter is in the midst of a collapse, nobody is going to be convinced otherwise by a win against a 4-10 opponent on the regional circuit. With the parameters of the study set, I evaluated the careers of over 300 fighters, most of whom have competed in the UFC, to determine how well they perform according to how long they’ve been competing professionally. Here are the results:
Fighters’ Winning Percentage Against Quality Opponents
- Year 1: 41.6%
- Year 2: 51.9%
- Year 3: 58.8%
- Year 4: 64.0%
- Year 5: 54.4%
- Year 6: 52.8%
- Year 7: 62.1%
- Year 8: 56.4%
- Year 9: 57.6%
- Year 10: 47.3%
- Year 11: 52.1%
- Year 12: 46.7%
- Year 13: 40.0%
The steepest drop takes place after the fighters measured had been competing professionally for 9 years. At that point, the ability of the fighters to compete against quality competition declines to the same level as when they were relative rookies in the sport. It doesn’t mean that the fighters are incapable of winning against good opponents, but their ability to compete at the highest levels of the sport is greatly diminished. This can take root in various ways. Some fighters become much more prone to being knocked out. Some have a slower reaction time. Others start getting injured on a frequent basis. For some, the collapse is psychological: the fighter becomes mentally broken.
Recent high-profile collapses appear to bolster the case of the “9-year rule.” Here are a few examples:
CHUCK LIDDELL: MMA debut – 5/18/98, 9-year mark – 5/18/07
Liddell’s first fight after reaching the 9-year mark was his sudden first-round KO loss to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. After that, Liddell’s only win was against an “older” (by MMA years) fighter in Wanderlei Silva, and he was knocked out in brutal fashion by Rashad Evans, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and Rich Franklin.
FEDOR EMELIANENKO: MMA debut – 5/21/00, 9-year mark – 5/21/09
Emelianenko’s first fight after nine years was the Strikeforce match against Brett Rogers, in which Emelianenko was put in more danger than usual. After that, Emelianenko, whose only previous loss was a doctor stoppage due to a cut against Tsuyoshi Kosaka, shockingly lost two fights in a row, to Fabricio Werdum and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.
TAKANORI GOMI: MMA debut – 11/27/98, 9-year mark – 11/27/07
For Gomi, the fight previous to reaching the 9-year mark was the now infamous war against Nick Diaz that the Nevada State Athletic Commission ruled a No Contest. Since then, Gomi is 5-4 and never really got anything going in his recent losses to Clay Guida and Kenny Florian.
JENS PULVER: MMA debut – 4/24/99, 9-year mark – 4/24/08
This is arguably the hardest collapse to watch. Pulver reached the 9-year point of his career prior to his first WEC fight against Urijah Faber. Beginning with that fight, Pulver is 2-7, with five losses in the first round, only managing wins against 7-21 Mike Lindquist and 13-12 Wade Choate.
WANDERLEI SILVA: MMA debut – 11/1/96, 9-year mark – 11/1/05
Silva’s first two fights after the nine-year mark were wins: a split decision win against Ricardo Arona and a stoppage of Kazuyuki Fujita. After that, Silva is 2-5, having been knocked out cold three times, and only winning cleanly against Keith Jardine.
There are plenty of other examples, including Tito Ortiz, Andrei Arlovski, Rich Franklin, Mike Brown, and even Ken Shamrock. For many of the sport’s formerly best fighters, the 9-year mark is when things started going downhill fast.
Further, the 9-year rule seems to apply regardless of the age of the fighter or how many times he’s competed professionally. Ortiz and Arlovski only had fought 17 and 18 times, respectively, when they reached the 9-year mark of their careers, but they’ve both suffered recent collapses. Meanwhile, to go to the other extreme, Jeremy Horn had competed 91 times when he reached the 9-year mark of his career. Horn went 7-6 in his following 13 fights, including losses to Matt Lindland, Jorge Santiago, and Dean Lister.
The rule seems to defy age as well. The effects of the 9-year rule on Randy Couture are debatable, because he went 5-3 afterwards with the famous win over Tim Sylvia, but given that two of those wins were against James Toney and Mark Coleman, I would argue that the rule applies to him as well. Meanwhile, the rule appears to have affected the careers of two fighters currently in their 20s: Joe Stevenson and Karo Parisyan were each just 25 years old when the 9-year rule took effect. Stevenson is 3-5 since then, and Parisyan is 1-3, with the latter having become known for suffering from severe panic attacks before his fights.
My hypothesis about why so many fighters seem to collapse after 9 years in professional MMA has to do with training. Most fighters, regardless of whether or not they’re fighting often, are in the practice room on a daily basis, getting beaten up by their sparring partners. If fighters aren’t training, it’s often because they’re injured as a result of the high amount of stress they put on themselves. There’s only so much stress a fighter can endure before he becomes either mentally or physically broken.
The darker side of this issue is that it’s likely that many fighters will resort to breaking the rules in an attempt to prolong their careers. Parisyan, for example, tested positive for painkillers following his UFC 94 fight against Dong Hyun Kim. Dan Henderson, a longtime veteran of the sport, is known to have taken testosterone replacement therapy (which has been approved by the Nevada State Athletic Commission). MMA veterans like Chael Sonnen and Josh Barnett have tested positive for steroid abuse. With the relatively low drug testing standards of athletic commissions being what they are, it’s to be expected that fighters will jeopardize their long-term health by abusing drugs in order to try to squeeze a few more years out of their MMA careers.
I predict that a lot of highly-ranked fighters are going to lose fights that people don’t expect them to in the near future. Anderson Silva has been fighting for 11 years now – the beating he endured at the hands of Sonnen was no fluke; there’s a real possibility that he loses to Yushin Okami in a “shock” upset. Georges St. Pierre reached the 9-year mark in January, and subjectively, he looked less impressive against Jake Shields than he had in a while. Other top-ranked fighters who have been competing for 9 years include Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn, Forrest Griffin, Frank Mir, and Alistair Overeem.
There are exceptions to the rule. Most notable is Henderson, a fighter who debuted in 1997 and is 5-1 in his last six fights. His loss was to Jake Shields, who has now been competing for almost 12 years, and is doing just fine. Vitor Belfort has been competing for almost 15 years now, but his loss to Anderson Silva broke a five-fight winning streak (although his recent injuries may be a sign that his career doesn’t have much time left). Quinton “Rampage” Jackson may have barely gotten by Keith Jardine and Lyoto Machida, but he’s still 4-1 since reaching the 9-year mark of his career. Still, these fighters are exceptions, and any of them could collapse at any moment.
Here are some other conclusions I’ve made resulting from this study:
A fighter’s prime begins in Year 3 and ends in Year 9
The data suggests that after just two years of professional fighting, most fighters are ready to compete at the upper levels of MMA. Fighters in their third year are victorious against UFC-quality opposition 59.1% of the time, the third-best percentage of any single year, and an improvement from 51.9% in the second year, and just 41.6% in the first year. This level of success is mostly sustained until the ninth year, after which there’s a plunge, from 57.6% in the ninth year to 47.3% in the tenth year.
Fighters should not be thrown into the fire early in their career
This one is already common sense, but the data bolsters this way of thinking, suggesting that fighters need a developmental period of about two years before they’re ready to be successful against top competition. Having Michihiro Omigawa debut against Aaron Riley, or Bu Kyung Jung debut against Shinya Aoki and Mitsuhiro Ishida, does nothing but hurt their respective careers.
Fighters’ performance tends to dip in the fifth and sixth year of their careers
I have no explanation for why this is, but some of the biggest and highest-profile upsets in MMA history occurred during this period in the losing fighters’ careers. This includes Georges St. Pierre’s loss to Matt Serra, Anderson Silva’s loss to Ryo Chonan, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira’s loss to Sokoudjou.
Randy Couture is still amazing
It would be drawing the wrong conclusion to suggest that Randy Couture’s success at an advanced age was due to the 9-year rule. The way I look at Couture is this: he was a top fighter in MMA into his forties, but if he had been able to begin his career at the age of 24 instead of 34, he could’ve been a dominant force in the sport, as opposed to winning two out of every three against quality competition.
Fighters should not begin a professional MMA career before age 20
The collapses of Stevenson and Parisyan should serve as a cautionary tale: starting an MMA career early is no guarantee of a long career. Many like to refer to fighters such as Rory MacDonald and Stefan Struve as young fighters who have lots of upside and room for development. I would suggest that MacDonald and Struve are in their prime right now, and that they, and fighters like Gegard Mousasi, have less time left than anybody thinks.
Use discretion when applying the 9-year rule
Mike Russow is credited with making his MMA debut in April 1998 against Nate Schroeder. He didn’t fight again until 2006. For the purposes of this study, Russow is considered to be a 5-year veteran of MMA, not a 13-year veteran.
At the main event of UFC 124 in Montreal, as Georges St. Pierre was making his entrance into the arena, Joe Rogan stated: “…here’s a really interesting point about Georges. He’s not even in his prime yet. He’s only 29 years old.” I have no doubt that there were many viewers nodding in agreement with Rogan, remembering legends like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. But my research suggests that not only has St. Pierre entered his prime, his prime may actually be behind him. Sure, it’s possible that St. Pierre could end up like Dan Henderson, and defy the 9-year rule, but history says that it’s much more likely that we’ve seen the best that St. Pierre has to offer. The 9-year rule is not a death sentence; it is possible for a minority of fighters to maintain success after that point. But for the majority of mixed martial arts fighters, the 9-year mark represents the point at which their decline begins, and they enter the twilight years of their careers.