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« | Home | »

The 9-Year Rule: A look at career lengths in Mixed Martial Arts

By Zach Arnold | June 19, 2011

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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

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.

Conclusion

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.

If you’d like to check out more of my work, visit my website at fantasyfights.wordpress.com, or follow me on Twitter @dwilliamsmma.

Topics: MMA, Media, UFC, Zach Arnold | 59 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

59 Responses to “The 9-Year Rule: A look at career lengths in Mixed Martial Arts”

  1. Simon Cason says:

    Now this is a real article, not some biased bullshit opinion piece you see on every mma site not named FightOpinion.

    Excellent work. Thanks for posting this here Zach.

    Only wish there were more pieces written like this.

  2. [...] My first piece there focuses on the subject of career lengths in MMA. In particular, I argue that fighters who compete professionally for nine years are at greatly increased risk of suffering a decline or collapse. This link will take you straight there: http://www.fightopinion.com/2011/06/19/9-year-rule-mma-ufc/ [...]

  3. Tommy says:

    Home run….great analysis and good info.

    Some good data that backs up the fact/theory that when calculating athletic primes combat sport athletes play in a different sphere than there stick n’ ball sport counterparts.

    If, MMA every gets a uniformed amateur program going I wonder if these numbers will shift over the next 20 years

  4. great stuff, zach! i love david williams mma!!

  5. Nepal says:

    I’m not sure that you (David Williams) have arrived at anything other than a statistical anomaly. You could make justifications for the majority of guys you talk about. It seems the pool for research is just too small to glean data like this.

    For example, does GSP’s lose to Serra really jive with your analysis or is it just that he didn’t prepare properly/ got caught behind the ear or whatever excuse GSP or anybody else can come up with.

    It’s not like Joe Stevenson was ever a good fighter. He was put into fights he could win because he was seen as an entertaining fighter. Eventually you have to move up and fight better fighters and then the truth comes out. I have no idea how Stephan Bonner would fit into your scheme but he’s an example of a guy that is fighting because the boss likes him. He gets sub par opponents, then low level opponents and keeps his recent record around 50/50 (approx, I’m not checking his fight finder).

    As you said Karo has other issues so how would that factor into your theory.

    I suspect for every guy that fits your theory, there are multiples that don’t.

    I wonder how Horn did in his previous 10 or 15 fights prior to his 7-6 run you reference.

    I also wonder how you conclude Anderson is winding down at 34, I thought he was a year or 2 older than that anyway. He hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down other than his crap showing vs Sonnen. He has looked crap Maia/Cote but that was just clowning.

    • Simon Cason says:

      except Joe Stevenson is losing to fighters he should be beating.

      • Nepal says:

        But why should he be beating them? He has never shown that he can beat top guy in the top 10 to top 20 range. Ever. Maybe you could argue that one of his wins was versus a top 10 guy but now with 20/20 hindsight, we know they were not top 20. Melvin is an exception, he has improved but back then he wasn’t a complete fighter.

        I just checked Jeremy Horn’s fight finder. He went 5 and 1 in his next 6 fights after the 9 year point. Subsequently he went 2 and 5 to arrive at the author’s 7-6 record. After the 7-6, he strung together 6 straight wins. Conveniently David Williams doesn’t mention this as it would futz with his theory.

        As a kid, I followed baseball religiously and loved the statistical nature of it. The HR, runs, RBI, OBP, SLG, OPS, all those stats I loved. But this guy brings up something that is just completely anomalystic and random. All he has done is take people that fit his profile and if they don’t, he just takes a piece of it so they do eg. Jeremy Horn.

        This is complete hogwash.

        • Genko says:

          This is data about 300 fighters, not Jeremy Horn (who was brought up as someone with lots of fights). Trying to debate with his examples means you’re absolutely missing the point.

          Anyway, were Horn’s “6 straight wins” against UFC caliber opposition? Can fighter rankings really change in hindsight? And why would one posit something hasn’t happened “ever” only to immediately show that it has? Not that this stuff matters; you should be focusing on my first paragraph.

          Take the small sample for what it is and stop acting like there’s something misleading about this article.

        • Nepal says:

          Genko,

          I’m not exactly sure what you’re arguing here. I am saying his study is hogwash, that is all, it’s fair of me to say so, particularily if I say why I belive it to be so.

          I’m not trying to debate Jeremy Horm specifically. I am just trying to show that the author is disingeneous in his data gathering. In the case of Horn having a 7-6 record after the 9 year mark, that is correct. He doesn’t mention that Horn went 5-1 in his 6 fights after the 9 year mark. Why doesn’t he mention that? Because it wouldn’t fit his article’s premis perhaps???

          He went 6-0 after his 7-6 run against lower quality competition. This just illustrates the silliness of his premis. Those fights were against lower tiered guys. He then went 1-2 with his loses to slightly higher tiered guys. That supposedly is factored in but I wonder how? It’s just silly to arrive at this 9 year time frame and then use convenient stats (like Horn’s in this example) and try to carte blanche it across a new sport like MMA.

          Again, this has nothing to do with Horn really, he was just used to show how the author contrived to make his theory fit.

          The article is interesting in that it bring up thoughts about longevity in the sport. Make you wonder how long GSP might maintain his dominance (he looked crap against Sheilds even before the eye thing), is his body breaking down? Might he be on the downside?. However the statistical attempt that is being made is an attempt to define something that just appears to be inaccurate. It appears to be random and I think the author’s own stats prove it.

        • Drewster says:

          Nepal,

          I’m a statistician and I see where you are coming from but the only way to prove your point is to RE-DO the entire study. Pointing out Horn doesn’t fit the theory doesn’t invalidate the other 299 data sets.

    • Carlos says:

      Zach, if you can provide me the age of each fighter at time of the “loss” I would like to try a matematical approach (Growth distribution, indicates “improvement” or “decline” versus time), if you would be interested, send me the data. It would be just interesting to see the “changes”. Cheers, Carlos

      Ed. — Send David an e-mail through his site at http://fantasyfights.wordpress.com and he will answer. Thanks.

    • Matrat2000 says:

      Couldn’t agree more. As much as I agree with certain points raised in this article the analysis is simply not objective enough.

      Ed. – What suggests do you have for improving the article in terms of data analysis?

  6. Light23 says:

    Anderson Silva’s PRIDE debut was 9 years ago in June. *bets on Okami* ;)

  7. jim genia says:

    fantastic article. whether the theory is right or wrong, it’s well-thought out and concise.

  8. 68.48.250.199 says:

    Can you tell us what the N= was for each band in the data? I worry that there just aren’t that many guys that make it to year 9 in the first place. We’re already talking about a small sample size to start with (I don’t know that 300 fighters is statistically significant), but by year 9, we could be in outlier territory.

  9. Michaelthebox says:

    I’m not sure there is anything to take away from this. The sample size appears to be small enough that you’re getting large deviations from expectations (is there any reason to explain the sizable dip in years 5 and 6, followed by a jump in year 7?).

    The overall data does suggest a decline starting around year 9, but if its a steady decline rather than a plummet, it doesn’t strike me as very interesting: years 9, 10, and 11 represent a fighter entering his mid 30s for a great number of fighters, at which point we would expect to see a fall. Given how many fighters entered the sport later in their career, it could also represent fighters entering their late 30s, at which point we would DEFINITELY expect to see a decline.

  10. 45 Huddle says:

    1) I have always believed that fighters only have so many “big” fights in them.

    2) I always laugh when a person says: “This fighter is only 24 years old. What a future he has ahead of him.”. It typically never pans out like that. They are more likely to turn into a Robbie Lawler then a GSP.

    3) One factor missing from this article that basically completely invalidates it is….. The evolution of the sport. The fighters mentioned really just didn’t evolve with the sport enough to be relevent. Yamamoto Gomi is still in the same shape he was in Pride. He just can’t adapt to the better striking in the sport in 2011.

    I do think the author makes some interesting points. And on the premise I do agree. But the level of talent in the sport needs to stabilize for a decade before true data can be used. And I don’t see the apex happening for another 10 years, which means we are 20 years away from really having concrete data to prove this theory.

    But again, I like the discussion the author brings up.

    • Nepal says:

      Statistically speaking, of course there are more Lawler’s than GSP’s. There simply are not that many people that rise to GSP’s level. However it’s reasonable to talk about young guys like Rory McD or Michael MacD or Charles Ovileira that have a bright future ahead of them. Are all 3 going to be the next GSP or A. Silva, of course not but it’s reasonalbe to say “this guy could be”.

      And you’re right, the author doesn’t take into account the changing nature of this young sport. Gomi is a good example and I realize you meant Takanori.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        You are right. I don’t think I made my point very clear so I’ll try and say it better….

        I think the general attitude around a 23 year old prospect is that they have more time to develop and therefore will get even better AND have a longer top tier career.

        I think that’s wrong. Once a fighter is 2 to 3 years into his career, no matter what the age, they already have well established strengths and weaknesses. They can improve on them, but their style is basically set. So being 2 years into a career at 23 vs. 28 years old won’t really change that fact.

        The other point is that a fighter really only has so much damage they can put their bodies through. So if a fighter starts young, it just means he won’t be able to fight as late in life. That’s the point the author is basically making.

        So this notion that there is some sort of edge for fighters who start earlier I believe is wrong.

        There was even an article about a year ago talking about how basketball players who came out of high school were exhibiting the same sort of injuries that other players were, just earlier in their careers. Once again, there is only so much you can do to the human body.

        Hopefully I explained it better this time.

  11. Jonathan Snowden says:

    Which fighters were part of the study? Who determined which opponents were “quality?” How did you make that determination? Are there other factors that play a part? Total minutes fought?

    As a piece of entertainment, this is super. But I’m not sure what it is telling me?

  12. Zack says:

    Who is Yammamoto Gomi?

  13. mr. roadblock says:

    It’s an interesting article. Great job on putting it together.

    The analysis though is similar to what you get with climate change reports. I think the author wanted to find a ‘use by date’ for fighters.

    The examples given of fighters taking a downturn are all fighters who suffered a brutal KO late into their careers. After that they weren’t the same. I think what this proves more a fighter can withstand the accumulation of head trauma during fights and training over years but at a certain point (ie. after fighting and training for 5+ years constantly) when a fighter suffers a brutal KO something changes.

    If you hang around fight gyms you’ll hear lots of guys talking about so-and-so getting ‘chinny’. Or the theory that once you are KO’d where you go out cold it becomes easy to KO that guy again and again. You’ll see a guy training with headgear on and take a stiff shot to the chin then half hour later his eyes are dialted and glassed over.

    It’s the brain failing these guys more than the body.

    Yes new guys are coming into MMA that are evolving the game like Jon Jones. But Liddell and Silva got their butts kicked mostly by their peers.

    Randy Couture’s climb back up the ranks after the Chuck KO’s was the result of him being smart. He knew Sylvia could barely walk and got in there with him. Then he fought Gonzaga. He hasn’t done very well since that in fights against guys who can punch. When you hit him flush now he goes out.

    To me the question is this. Is there a build up period to when a guy gets a brutal KO that changes his life? Meaning if a guy gets clobbered in his 3rd fight and takes 6 months off will the brain heal? Or is he going to be chinny? Or can the brain adapt and get back to strength but then if you get the bad KO at some point after year 5 or 6 does that start the drop off?

    By year 5 of training a man has taken 5,000 plus shots to the head in training and fights. Is it like a pitcher’s elbow in baseball where the tendon keeps fraying over years then pops one day or the a knee ligament that keeps stretching from abuse then goes or the lung of a smoker that gradually gets worse until emphysema sets in.

    • Chuck says:

      Great points, but on the head trauma thing……a lot of it is genetics too. There are some guys, because of their genetic makeup, can take more shots to the noggin than others. That also goes for ligament damage and other injuries.

      You can take a look at some boxers too. Say, for example, Bernard Hopkins. He was 23 years old when he made his pro debut, but he lost said fight and took two years off. So his career truly started at the age of 25 (not as dramatic as Mike Russow, but you get my point). Now he’s 46 and one of the best fighters on the planet. And he’s never been stopped ever, not even close to it. So starting late might be a good thing for some guys.

      But the older you get the slower, less athletic, less acrobatic, less flexible, etc. you get. So sometimes it is an imperative that a fighter starts young (between 18-22 or so). The main things you can retain, if not improve on, when you get older are wisdom, technique, and strength and overall power. Most older guys I talked to said they were at their physically strongest in their mid-ish thirties. So of those three, one is a non-tangible and up for debate (wisdom), one is something you learn over time and is regardless of age (technique), so only one is an actual physical attribute (strength).

    • Nepal says:

      There is definitely something to this “chinny” thing. It just doesn’t get talked about very much in the MMA media. If you look at the NHL, when a guy gets a concussion, he’s out for a while until the post-concussion effects go away. He’s tested and monitored extensively. You could say the same for MMA but the difference is, the NHL media and the concussed player will be very open about how they are, are they still dizzy, how often they have headaches. You never hear an MMA fighter say anything like that. They are always “yeah, I’m 100%, it was just a flash knock out” (like it wansn’t serious). The MMA media rarely follow up on this, mostly it’s brushed under the carpet.

      Guys that get concussions in hockey often retire after 2 or 3 and guys that get one very very often get 2nd and 3rd and sometimes more concussions.

      The NFL is now talking concussions much more seriously. When you look at a guy like Arlovski getting put to sleep by Rogers, Fedor and Kharitonov, you just know he’s creating a long term problem for himself. There is zero discussion from Arlovski or from Wanderlai for that matter on headaches, dizziness etc.

      So the author raises a valid (if not obvious) point that after a certain period of time guys get beyond their best-before dates. The abuse of fighting and training does add up. Is the time 9 years? I have no idea, I doubt it, it appears to vary by person, some period of time between 5 and 12 years.

  14. aaron says:

    honestly, one of the most informative pieces relating to mma i’ve seen in a while. great job man

  15. Decado says:

    The thing that stands out most to me is the year you choose to focus on – year 9/10 has a 10% change.

    There is the exact same change between years 4/5 and 5/6.

    You have a tiny sample size, results which are consistent with standard statistical deviation (unless you can provide an explanation for the same change at years 4/5 and 5/6).

    You also don’t provide the list of fighters you used, the exact category for determining “UFC caliber” and you make no mention of the final sample size as of year 9/10, nor of the average age at year 9/10 – likely because those ages would have given a much more reasonable explanation (e.g those fighters were on average much older than the other years, and would thus, on average, have diminished physical abilities).

    Cute article, but very clearly biased and totally lacking on any sort of objective statistical basis.

  16. matthew says:

    I thought it was a good article and I agree that the sample size is small but MMA as we know it today has not really been out long enough to get a good sample size. With popularity of the sport growing give it anohter 5 years or so and see what the statistic looks like then.

  17. FarndyDarndy says:

    Lidell, Fedor, Gomi, Pulver, Vanderlei…

    So you’re point is, that after a fighter has some sucess, then they will become attached to and manipulated for their popularity REGARDLESS of their original talents.

    Which within… “9 years” according to your theory, leads to a degradation of the original talents that had intitially attracted their exploiters.

    Thats probably true!
    (It is!)

    9 years is very lucky IMO.

    (Have you enjoyed our wonderful sport for 9 years yet?)

    But thats what we all fight for in a sellers market.

    “Exploit you – or exploit me, until the wheels come off.”

    And if one of us is lucky, there might be anything left.

    At least thats how it works at the malt shop.

    Yes, I agree.

    You’ve got a good point there.

  18. Chuck Boris says:

    You forgot to mention Jeff Monson. He’s been competing for almost 14 years now, and he’s 8-2 in his last 10 fights, and most of his opponents were fighters with a good record.

    Just thought to mention that. And Jeff is 40 now, and he’s still kicking ass.

    Nice article.

  19. [...] sport of MMA is still in its infancy as Fight Opinion writer Zach Arnolds points out prior to laying out the statistics for his thesis on mixed martial [...]

  20. [...] First, I want to thank everybody who’s promoted or discussed my work on the Nine-Year Rule for Fight Opinion. The response has been overwhelming and I greatly appreciate [...]

  21. [...] It might be a statistical anomaly. It might just be common sense. Either way, Zach Arnold’s “9-Year Rule” theory — that fighters consistently lose their spark nine years into their careers — became one of the popular discussion points of the week. What do you think? [Fight Opinion] [...]

  22. Drewster says:

    To Jonathon — Good questions, it’d be nice to get a more thorough ‘journal piece’; this article is good but not as detailed as it deserves to be.

  23. Glenn says:

    I agree with the 9 year rule / theory. I also believe that if a person follows seasons of training and fighting then they will prolong their careers. Almost all sports have seasons. With the increase in the numbers of fighters it would be nice to see each weight division have a season. The season would be a series of long term tournaments with contenders and champions. The seasons could over lap so it would not appear that there is a group of fighters that are resting and healing for a couple months before they get back to the gym for pre-season training.

    Bantamweight – January through June
    Featherweight – February through July
    Lightweight – March through August
    Welterweight – April through September
    Middleweight – May through October
    Light Heavyweight – June Through November
    Heavyweight – July through December

    Just a few thoughts for the perfect world.

  24. J. Jacques says:

    Awesome write up. Id be interested to see how the results change after a big knockout or consecutive knockout losses (i.e. Arlovski). Whether its mental or physiological those type of fighters never seem to come back as tough as before.

  25. Jack Emerson says:

    - Well, first of all I’d like to congrat you for your Article.

    - But, as a huge fan of MMA and of course of Wanderley Silva, I disagree with you about the unhappy part related to the end of this phenomenal fighter.

    - If you guys can remember, Wanderley just destroyed Michael Bisping, one of Dana’s favourite.

    - So, lets make a deal. Lets wait until next UFC to include or not his name in this list. I expect he is going to fight like he used to do in Pride, and one more time he is going to give us one memorable ko under Chris Leben.

    - War Wand! The brazilian soldier!

    See you after the fight.

  26. Romeo says:

    Pretty interesting point with regards to GSP. His prime may actually be behind him and even though he’s evolved as a martial artist, he’s not finishing fights like he used to.

  27. Freakdog says:

    Good Stuff, but I disagree with you on GSP, imo he is still in his prime, you have to take into account DAMAGE, GSP hasn’t taken much damage in his fights and his body is holding up.
    I think he still has a good 5 years in him as long as he doesn’t get knocked out or someone comes around that can out wrestle him.
    His less than stellar performances is not due to the fact that he skills are diminishing, it’s more due to the fact that he is just playing a ultra conservatives style of fighting. Which in the long run is extending his career.

  28. John Boam says:

    Great research! But the response to it is a bit shocking. The method is sound and so are the conclusions drawn. Whether the data is fully valid (owing to limited sample size maybe…) is only a feature of how much actually exists of a relevant quality to work with. The author has done a splendid job of turning the rather limited available data into valuable information. Particularly stupid are those that criticized the work on points explicitly addressed in the text.

  29. [...] Competitive mixed martial arts hasn’t been around long enough to come up with any definitive theories on length of career, but David Williams at Fight Opinion did a nice job recently of chronicling the career of the some of the biggest stars in the history of the sport. He points out that with few exceptions, no matter when you start your career, the nine-year mark is about when you see a downturn. [...]

  30. Jason says:

    Very interesting idea. This article was well written and very convincing.

  31. [...] from 1997 to his record. The paranoid side of me thinks it’s to try to make my piece on the Nine-Year Rule look bad, as it would appear to put the nine-year mark for Silva at June 25th, 2006. After that [...]

  32. [...] to take a broader view about prospect development. It’s interesting to see some people cite my study on career lengths in MMA and use that to argue that Davis isn’t experienced enough to be facing top competition. The [...]

  33. [...] covered every MMA scandal, some moreso in detail than others. And, yet, it appears that the 9-year rule article written by David Williams is probably the most successful article ever published on the site. I have plenty of people who [...]

  34. Denny says:

    There needs to be more analysis about the significant drop from years 4-5 but overall very interesting

  35. [...] Williams on why Fedor will beat Dan Henderson and how Henderson, who has defied MMA’s ‘9 year rule’, is about to lose the hard [...]

  36. [...] out David William’s article on this topic at The 9-Year Rule: A look at career lengths in Mixed Martial Arts Posted in Mixed Martial Arts Tagged MMA, older grapplers ← Previous Next [...]

  37. jeremy says:

    nice article overall. Ive been using a similar theory to aid in my fight predictions for some time. I created an equation that takes into account grappling (offensive/defensive), striking (offensive/defensive), preparation (mental and physical), natural abilities(age, height, reach, quickness, resilience, toughness, and power), and experience (against quality opponents). I find that on the rare occasion when my predictions are incorrect (barring a fluke win ala Ortiz v Bader) this 9 year rule is oft times the culprit. I believe it has more to do with the mind set of the fighter than the actual wear and tear on their bodies. A fighter who was reached his genuine 9th year of competition is oft times no longer the same person who loved fighting when they began there career. They compete as a profession and not for a desire to go beyond their skill-set as they once did. They will either apply their skills and win, or lose in a predictable fashion. Wanderlei and Couture are often sighted as exceptions though by my logic they are both simply professionals who employ their skill-sets as an aggresive power punches and dirty boxer respectively. In fights where their skills could not be applied well the outcome became apparent quickly.

  38. Kamal Knight says:

    Excellant keen study. I wanted your opinion though on me. I am ex-military( USAF/para-rescue) trained martial arts from 8 yrs old. My disciplines are Kenpo, Tae kwon do, Hapkido, and some amateur boxing (street leveel and military). i want to begin a career in MMA at the age of 36 going to be 37 on thanksgiving. what is the upside or downfall to that regarding me? i figured out at my age and capacity to compete and train , i would have about 9 years to compete and then it would be my decline. What are your thoughts regarding this; about me. what do you think?

  39. Toby Holland says:

    I am so impressed by this article and theory. I have described it to many of my friends and fellow fans and will now share the article on Facebook (I read it several years ago, shortly after it was first published).

    I am also a fellow MMA blogger/writer and truly appreciate your writing!

  40. [...] she usually out-strike her opponents.  It can’t be that Baszler is past her prime and the MMA 9 Year Rule may be in effect. Nor any other reasonable explanation. There would be no rude one-liner fun in [...]

  41. [...] athuganir hafa sýnt að bardagamenn byrja yfirleitt að dala 9 árum eftir fyrsta bardaga (http://www.fightopinion.com/2011/06/19/9-year-rule-mma-ufc/) og því ætti þessi hnignun ekki að koma á [...]

  42. [...] like to see people training until they are old. According this fascinating study on MMA careers, the average MMA career lasts a mere nine years. And until they get to the big leagues, these guys are fighting small fights with the same amount [...]

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