Do MMA Fighters Stick Around Too Long?

Dustin FilloyFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2013

June 15, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; light heavyweight  Dan Henderson during the fight against Rashad Evans (not pictured) during UFC 161 at the MTS Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

It may seem like a generalization, but some MMA fighters just don't know when to say when.

Watching a punch-drunk or over-the-hill former MMA stalwart get walloped by an inferior talent doesn't represent an aesthetically pleasing event.

Fans recently had to witness one of these unpleasant scenarios unfold when Jacob Noe pummeled former UFC title challenger and Strikeforce champ Renato Sobral at Bellator 96.

The 37-year-old Sobral, who had dropped three of five fights heading into the match, took plenty of punishment before the bout's referee stepped in to save him.

If a silver lining existed in this case, then perhaps beatings like the one Sobral took will help to validate the decisions of Forrest Griffin and Shane Carwin, two former stars who recently retired from competition.

Griffin and Carwin each reached the pinnacle of MMA and momentarily wore UFC gold in recent years. However, the intelligence that helped them reach the top ultimately drove both Griffin and Carwin into retirement.

The 34-year-old Griffin and the 38-year-old Carwin both struggled for years with a multitude of injuries before recently deciding that they'd had enough. Griffin was already dealing with a banged-up shoulder when he tore his MCL before UFC 155. Carwin, who last fought in June 2011, has six bulging and three ruptured discs in his back.  

Both seemingly content with their decisions, Griffin and Carwin rationalized their choices with little regret.

"After the Stann/Wanderlei fight I had that talk to yourself, 'Can you really put one of those or two more of those out there," Griffin said to MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani recently. "And I was like, I didn't know if I could. And if you don't know, the answer's no. Kind of like my mom used to say about women, 'If you gotta ask, it's a no.'"

"What was tough for me was sports are what I've done since age six, so I struggled with that for a little bit," Carwin said in a May interview with Sports Illustrated's Loretta Hunt. "[But at the same time,] I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders because it has been a struggle these last two, three, four years being in pain all of the time."

But just as fighters like Griffin and Carwin undoubtedly hit walls in MMA, legends like Dan Henderson and Vitor Belfort perpetually seem to find ways to stay relevant and healthy.

Granted, Henderson and Belfort have both dabbled with testosterone replacement therapy recently. But TRT alone hasn't preserved the careersparticularly the chinsof these two legends.

The soon-to-be-43-year-old "Hendo" turned pro in 1997 and signifies the UFC's oldest fighter. He's dropped two straight decisions, but before that, Henderson won four in a row. Only a last-second knee injury prevented him from challenging Jon Jones for the light heavyweight strap at UFC 151.

Although he's over six years younger than Hendo, Belfort began his MMA career a year before the two-time Olympian (Greco-Roman wrestling). At 36 years old, "The Phenom" has surprisingly won four of five fights in the UFC. His only loss in that span came against Jones, whom The Phenom nearly finished with a first-round armbar in a title fight at UFC 152.

So if Henderson and Belfort are essentially proof that fighters wear down at radically different rates, then how does a mixed martial artist gauge when it's time to quit?  

UFC Hall of Famer and former light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell could be considered an expert on the subject. Liddell notched seven straight wins in the UFC, including five in title fights, between 2004 and 2006. "The Iceman" then dropped five of six fights, four of which came via knockout, to end his career.

Notorious for his propensity to absorb vicious strikes, Liddell got brutally knocked out by Rashad Evans, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Rich Franklin in his last three outings.

But while Liddell drew criticism for his tendency to party, the Californian showed up in tip-top shape for his final hurrah against Franklin at UFC 115. In that fight, Liddell broke Franklin's arm with a thunderous kick in the bout's opening round. Later in the round, however, Franklin used a brutal combination to render Liddell temporarily unconscious, effectively sending him into retirement.

On last week's episode of Inside MMA, Liddell elaborated on his rationale for leaving MMA: 

That's one of the reasons I retired. If you stuck around the way I was fighting I would have had to start playing it safe. I went out on my shield and that's the way I liked it. I fought that way my whole career and I didn't want to bore people for my last three of four fights.

Aside from obvious variances in biology, the difference in the lifestyles of soon-to-be retirees and active fighters seems night and day. Griffin, Carwin and Liddell each lost their desire to become champ long before retiring. While they're older and just as experienced, Henderson and Belfort still possess that hunger.

In other words, fighters who continue to compete past their prime must abide by a few elementary rules in order to avoid ending their careers like Liddell or Sobral.

1. Never accept a fight unless you're wholeheartedly committed to training for it.

2. Never compete with serious lingering injuries or a glass jaw.

3. Age 50 should be the cutoff, at least for top-tier fighters. If Randy Couture couldn't make it to 50, no one can.