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How MMA Can Better Utilize Aging Fighters

By on February 28, 2010

ken shamrockOut of Ken Shamrock’s last five UFC performances (his only such appearances after 1996), four were losses.  Three of those came to Tito Ortiz, and another to Rich Franklin, who was just about to win the UFC Middleweight Championship.  During this time, the UFC repeatedly capitalized on Shamrock’s reputation as a legend in the sport.  The commentators during his fights would play up how “dangerous” he was, even against fighters many years his junior.

Despite all of this, UFC fans got only one moment in that entire span to celebrate Ken Shamrock, to turn back the clock a little bit.  That was UFC 48, when Shamrock faced Kimo, a fellow veteran from the early days of the sport.  Then, Shamrock was able to knock out his supposed rival with a knee, then strut around the octagon like the Shamrock of old, while the fans went crazy.  It was like 1994 all over again, and it was hard not to smile at the time.

Now, why didn’t this happen more often?  Why did Shamrock get put in the cage time and time again with fighters that he had no real chance of beating?  After all, only the least educated of fans would be tricked into believing that the Ken Shamrock of 2005 had a legitimate shot at beating Rich Franklin.  By the time Shamrock faced Ortiz the last two times, his credibility with even nostalgic fans was all but gone, and the wins did absolutely nothing for Ortiz as a result.  Unfortunately, this kind of match-making is more the rule than the exception when it comes to fighters who have moved past their respective primes.

I have long thought that, while some of the aspects of mixed martial arts that can be compared to professional wrestling (like pre-fight interviews, entrance music and gaudy title belts) work quite well, some of the other elements are not so positive.  One such element is the way that the sport in general and the UFC in particular has utilized fighters that were once top-level and have since moved past their prime due to age or any other factor.

What is my comparison, exactly?  Well, without getting too far into the wrestling business, when a younger wrestler that hasn’t caught on with the fans as much as the company would like needs to do so, one good way to have this happen is to have him feud with an established superstar.  When an older wrestler that perhaps is not as relevant as before, but still has a good reputation with fans loses to a younger one, some of that credibility (funny term for use in a talk about a scripted “sport”, I know) transfers to the winner.

The UFC has long used many of the booking techniques that professional wrestling is famous for, including the “passing of the torch” fight between the fighter who is high in the rankings but not legendary yet in the eyes of casual fans and the fighter who is seen as a legend, but hasn’t fought at their highest level for years.  The examples are numerous.  Pretty much Shamrock vs. everyone over the last years of his UFC tenure.  Ken’s brother Frank’s fights in Strikeforce have not always been much better, as Strikeforce wants to maintain the illusion that Frank is still a relevant fighter in the sport, even though he doesn’t perform well against high-level talent.  Japan’s promotions are certainly no exception, as the treatment of Kazushi Sakuraba (who should never be featured in fights against young, talented opponents at this point) proves.

Also, to a lesser extent, Frank Trigg and Mark Coleman were brought back in order to be fed to younger and at this point, better versions of themselves.  (Coleman, if you recall, was supposed to face Brock Lesnar originally in his UFC return)  No one was wondering what would happen with Trigg vs. Josh Koscheck.  However, Trigg vs. Matt Serra made for a fun fight.  See the difference?

Now, I’m not going to say that the UFC or MMA in general should have some sort of “senior” division (though, honestly, I would love it).  I know that it’s not realistic.  However, I really don’t see the point in the UFC either not using fighters who have gotten past their prime at all, or using them incorrectly if they do sign them.  For instance, the only time that Coleman was used in the right way was when he faced Randy Couture, even though Couture is exempt to most of this discussion, since he is the rare specimen over 40 years old that is still relevant as a top ten fighter.

Still, seeing fighters like Ken Shamrock, Coleman, Royce Gracie (who was lucratively, but also pointlessly brought back to lose to Matt Hughes at UFC 60), Gilbert Yvel, Frank Shamrock and now Chuck Liddell being put up against fighters who were in (or are in) the title picture of their respective divisions is silly.  Not only that, but it misses out on a great opportunity.

Does the UFC really think that a Gracie-Shamrock rematch at a catch weight, even now, wouldn’t arouse interest?  How come no one has put together the Shamrock-Tank Abbott fight that was endlessly hinted at?  Who wouldn’t want to see Don Frye take on Shamrock again?  Why is Frank Shamrock fighting Nick Diaz when he should be facing Bas Rutten one last time?  For that matter, I understand the Liddell-Tito Ortiz angle, but if Dana White and company really think Liddell’s days of relevancy are over, can we get Liddell-Cro Cop?

The list of fighters who the sport was built on and who are not what they once were, but still in shape and wanting to compete is not a short one.  Why not pit them against one another?  Let’s not pretend that this sport is purely about the rankings.  This is a sport that featured Butterbean against Genki Sudo, for God’s sake.  I long accepted that freak show fights have at least some appeal, and promoters need to learn that nostalgia does, as well.  Why ruin any appeal that a fighter fans think of as a legend has by putting him up against today’s best, rather than just using “legend vs. legend” fights that could be more competitive?

Sure, a guy like Liddell may not accept being featured this way in the long run.  For many, such as current middleweight Anderson Silva, you can sense that they would rather not fight than fight at a level lower than what they’ve always performed at.  However, for every fighter who wants to go out on top, there are several Ken Shamrocks and (yikes) Dan Severns who love competing and want to continue to do so.  Instead of forcing them out the door, why not put together some fun matchups that allow these guys to chance to compete and the fans an extra chance or two to see them in action?

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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