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UFC 225 on Saturday was defined more than anything else by generational battles. In fight after fight, accomplished veterans of the sport took on competitors a decade younger. The result, as is usually the case in MMA, was up-and-coming fighters getting the better of their elders. On a night filled with large age discrepancies, younger fighters went 11-2. Only Holly Holm and Chris de la Rocha turned back the clock, with de la Rocha getting the better of spry 36-year-old Rashad Coulter.
The more veteran fighters lost in different ways. Some didn’t look all that bad. Clay Guida got caught with strikes and then submitted by an opponent who has always been very good at exploiting small openings. Andrei Arlovski was competitive against the hard-hitting Tai Tuivasa. Arlovski’s chin has always been his biggest vulnerability, but he became the first opponent to make it out of the first round with Tuivasa. Yoel Romero, of course, gave Robert Whittaker all he could handle.
Other fighters didn’t look nearly so good. Phil Brooks looked like the amateur that he is. His skills weren’t up to snuff, but being 39 years old did appear to play a role, as well, as his body had the look of an older man and his conditioning was suboptimal. Curtis Blaydes didn’t look like a world beater by any means, but Alistair Overeem struggled to block his takedowns and couldn’t get his own offense going.
More noteworthy than the older fighters who looked bad or fell just short are the fighters who were contenders recently but saw their performances decline significantly. The most dramatic example of this trend is Rashad Evans. He was clearly one of the best light heavyweights in the world a few years ago, but it feels like his body became inhabited by a different fighter practically overnight. He looks the same but fights nothing like he once did. Anthony Smith was the latest example, but it has been consistent throughout his five-fight losing streak.
Time will tell if Ricardo Lamas is on the same path as Evans, but 36-year-old fighters don’t tend to dominate the featherweight division. Lamas was a consistent contender for years and, despite fighting high-level opposition, had never lost two fights in a row until his last two fights. Against Josh Emmett, he was knocked out cold and against Mirsad Bektic he seemed just a step slow with his wrestling and striking. All of this is quite sudden. It was less than a year ago Lamas was stopping Jason Knight with strikes and a year and a half ago he was submitting Charles Oliveira. Declines in MMA can be quick and precipitous.
That leads to the subject of Joseph Benavidez, for years the number two flyweight in the world. Unlike many of these other fighters, Benavidez was favored at UFC 225. He’s only 33, albeit soon to turn 34, and competing in the men’s division where speed and athleticism is at the highest premium. Benavidez has long been an elite fighter and somebody that probably doesn’t get his proper due. Yet, the Benavidez at UFC 225 didn’t look quite the same. He swung at air an awful lot more. He got caught with punches regularly. He had the cardio to keep up a quick pace, but his reflexes seemed lacking against a 24-year-old opponent who a few years ago was several levels below Benavidez.
It may have been just an off night for Benavidez, but it may have been a sign that something has changed for good. MMA isn’t a sport like baseball or basketball where a good number of athletes can undergo slow, dignified declines. Fighters are more like running backs, dominant one year and obsolete the next. Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn are just a few examples of great fighters who went from pound-for-pound elite to losing practically every time out with no intermediate stage.
If UFC 225 was a reminder that nothing is forever and MMA is a young man’s sport, it offers a cautionary note for some of the best fighters in the game today. Take 36-year-old Tyron Woodley, the UFC welterweight champion. Woodley is now four years older than Georges St. Pierre was when he decided to step away from the sport. Woodley has defeated an impressive collection of talent in recent years, but how will he handle Colby Covington’s pressure after a series of fights where he could compete at a more measured pace? We haven’t seen any cracks in Woodley’s armor, but there often aren’t any signs of damage before a sword cuts right through.
Frankie Edgar has proven so tough over the years that it’s hard for many to imagine his career going downhill, but all the signs are there. He has been through so many wars, he’s quite old for his weight class and he was knocked out for the first time against an opponent with less of a reputation for power than many past opponents. He rebounded nicely against Cub Swanson, but the next couple years could be rough ones for “The Answer.” Daniel Cormier is another competitor who hasn’t shown signs of decline, but he’s 39 and has been competing as an athlete for an exceedingly long time.
It isn’t fun to think about great fighters no longer being able to fight at their best. We want to see these great stars at their best so they can continue to compete against intriguing new challengers. Unfortunately, reality is a lot closer to UFC 225. We need to appreciate fighters while they’re at their best because primes are often painfully short and they can end quickly and unexpectedly.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.