MMA Opinion: Is There No Middle Ground in MMA?

Paul vs Woodley
cdn.vox-cdn.com MMA Fighting / Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
Chael Sonnen for all his verbal antics made an astute observation years ago in saying it is a near impossible thing to expect what is expected of Mixed Martial Arts combatants. Aside from the psychological turmoil of having to get into a cage – and yes it is a locked cage no matter what regulators want to call it – practically naked wearing only what amounts to underwear, a cup, mouthpiece, and tiny little gloves, there is a fistfight at the end of that walk. That in itself is ridiculous if given even a little thought. But what Uncle Chael meant was the actual act of fighting for fifteen or twenty five minutes. In a discussion of how long the rounds are (five minutes) and asking about the old days when there were no rounds in MMA, he essentially said we are expecting too much from fighters.

That is all in the realm of the competition itself. Now it has to be asked, if that is already a near inhuman proposition for someone in the peak of strength and fitness, what happens when fighters get older? There have been a rash of aging out fighters who are faced with this question of late. What happens when this insane ask is asked of men and women who are much older than other fighters who are in their prime? The life-cycle of an MMA fighter is brutal and short. There is such a short window to fight anyway, but then that makes the 'prime' of that window even shorter. It is one of the more intriguing aspects of MMA to watch when a fighter goes from mountaintops to valleys. It is varied in its display. Some are instantaneous. A single fight can be the one that even the casual fan sees as the probable last one. Or it can be a very shallow and slight slope. Those long slides with interruptions of brilliance. Think of names like Overeem or Arlovski. Always seeming to cling to that potential for glory.

While matchmaking is often adequate to pit the right fighters at the right times against the right opponents, some (even fighters themselves) have posited that maybe there ought to be a legends league. Which is the kind way of saying something like what is labeled the Senior Tour. No one expects those older golfers in the Senior PGA Tour to do what the up-and-coming hungry tigers do. There is a place for those too old to perform at the sport's prime level.

Said before, matchmaking is often adequate in getting things right and having athletes at similar levels, whether on the upswing of their career or the down, competing together. Terms like "gatekeeper" or the less flattering "stepping stone" get used a lot. But it is also true sometimes – and it is granted this is speculation (albeit fair) – that these fighters who are showing their mileage can seem to be thrown to said tigers in what appears to be a feeding. The proud fighter would never want to be seen as the sacrificial lamb in those scenarios and certainly can be made to feel 'less than' if there is even the hint of admission of the best days being in the rearview.

So, why isn't there a middle ground? Recently Matt Brown and Carlos Condit had a beautiful fight with each other. It was and is everything we hope for in a fight between two legends. Without question, the two men were slower and not in the welterweight prime or championship picture. But they still looked like themselves with grit and ferocity. They gave a fantastic account of who they were as fighters. Neither looked to be on any slope, but just being who they were at the time. What would it hurt the MMA community to just call this what it is and give place to these men and women? To let them compete with respect against others near the same place on their career's map? Tyron Woodley was seen as a wash out in going into his boxing match with social media sensation Jake Paul though he performed admirably. It is a shame he couldn't have stayed welcome and had fights with Brown or Condit, either one. He could have had more of those flashes of brilliance and there could have been no pressure – self-inflicted or otherwise – to have to get the belt.

Could MMA use a middle ground where fighters can be who they are? No nineteen-year old college player in basketball has to be measured by the top of the NBA. No high school tennis player has to test their skills in the US Open. If we can have level playing fields and their respective expectations in many other sports, why not in MMA? Instead of has-beens, why not are-beings?

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