Turning 30: It’s not your body is suddenly falling apart, it’s it can’t recover like it used to (why are UFC fighters so old?)

Posted on January 23, 2017

(Last Updated On: January 23, 2017)

Mid to late 20s is when most athletes peak. There are exceptions like gymnastics (peak is earlier) but for the major sports we watch, football, hockey, basketball, baseball, the 20s are the golden years. That doesn’t mean nobody above 30 will compete in these sports, but they’re usually past their prime and not at the top of the game. The average age to set a world record is 26.

A commonly said phrase after turning 30 and playing sports is “my body is failing me.” “My body is breaking down.”

Now it is true past ~30 we’re all pretty much on this never ending path of degradation. You CAN absolutely still build during this time. A 40 year old, a ninety year old, can build muscle. But aging is a degenerative process, and past the mid 20s -full brain development is something like 25 years old- the body isn’t really developing anything anymore, so onto degradation we go.

Sort of.

We actually naturally build up as we age too. Atherosclerosis and we’re building up plaque in the arteries. Arthritis and we’re building up bone. Alzheimer’s and we’re building up plaque in the brain. Many of us would say we naturally get fatter. Muscles and we’re building up scar tissue. Hey, nobody said it was positive things we were building, but we can’t technically say “My body is breaking down” as we age. Some things are, some things aren’t.

Back to the proverbial 30 year old athlete- what is it about a few years from our peak that suddenly we can’t compete like we used to? A few years before our peak and we were fine, but now a few years after and we may be falling behind.

Below is the leading rusher in the NFL by year, along with their age at the time.

There are tons of guys on that list younger than the (assumed) peak age of 26. Many are 3+ years under. There aren’t anywhere near as many guys 29 years or older though. There are

  • eighteen 23 year olds, eleven 22 year olds, four at 21,

yet only

  • seven at 29, two at 30, one at 31.

These people fall behind quick. But not everybody falls behind that soon.

In November 2016 UFC had the biggest event in their history at Madison Square Garden. Every time I watch UFC I’m taken aback by one thing. Below is the card for UFC 205. Remember, this is the biggest card in their history. Not just because it was MSG, but because they made it the best group of fights they’ve had. (At least it was sold that way going into the fight. I’m sure some UFC diehards will argue a card from back in the day was better.)

  • Alvarez vs McGregor
  • Woodley vs Thompson
  • Weidman vs Romero
  • Tate vs Pennington
  • Jędrzejczyk vs Kowalkiewicz

Notice that one thing? How about now:

  • Alvarez 32 vs McGregor 28
  • Woodley 34 vs Thompson 33
  • Weidman 32 vs Romero 39
  • Tate 30 vs Pennington 28
  • Jędrzejczyk 29 vs Kowalkiewicz 31

Seven out of 10 fighters are 30+! And the other three fighters are past what many other sports would call the prime years.

Anderson Silva stopped being dominant what?, three years ago? He’s 41 years old! Same thing for Georges St. Pierre. He’s 35 years old.

Floyd Mayweather just stopped fighting. He’ll be 40 in a month.

Silva, Pierre and Mayweather damn near didn’t lose a fight in their 30s!

Fighting requires reaction time, ability to take a beating, agility, strength, endurance, similar to our mainstream sports -though no other sport is so vulnerable to a single mistake (all the BASE jumpers are like “pshht, pussies”)- yet these are straight up dinosaurs for other sports. Only one male in UFC 205 wasn’t above 30. Imagine if 80% of players in the Super Bowl were 30 or older. In 2013 there was only one NFL team who had an average age above 27! The average NBA age is 26.8.

“Just a fluke” at 205 you wonder. UFC’s pound for pound rankings as of December 2016:

  • Johnson 30
  • McGregor 28
  • Cruz 31
  • Cormier 37
  • Aldo 30
  • Miocic 34
  • Jedrzejczyk 29
  • Woodley 34
  • Bisping 37
  • Cyborg 31
  • Lawler 34
  • Rockhold 32
  • Nunes 28
  • Nurmagomedov 28
  • Dillashaw 30

11 out of 15, 73%, 30 years old or older. With nobody even in their mid 20s.

Boxing, according to ESPN’s pound for pound rankings as of July 2016.

  • Gonzalez 29
  • Golovkin 34
  • Kovalev 33
  • Crawford 29
  • Ward 32
  • Alvarez 26
  • Lomachenko 28
  • Rigondeaux 36
  • Estrada 26
  • Bradley 33

major difference between fighting and team sports is fighting is much, much less frequent than team sports. A fight is roughly every six months. Maybe a little less for UFC. In season, football is once a week, baseball / basketball / hockey all multiple times per week, for five plus months at a time.

The main difference then is the ability to recover between bouts. Of competition, not training, as there is a gigantic difference between the two. I think anybody who has trained seriously before 30 and afterwards will tell you initially the most noticeable difference is the ability to be ready to go again. You can put up similar numbers here and there, but not as often as you used to. You can see this with how Greg Popovich manages his older players. Back to back games? Eh, maybe we’ll give Tim Duncan the night off. Can Tony Parker still have an all-star like game? Sure. Can he do as often as he used to? No.

Fighting has another body sparing element which is the variety in movement. If you’re a NBA player, you have to run and jump. You might go from a rim attacker to a shooter, but you still have to run and jump. A baseball pitcher might favor accuracy over velocity as they age, but you still have to throw, and there is only so low you can go on the radar gun. A skill position football player can only avoid maximal speed running so much.

Fighting though and you can really change up your style. GSP was the prototype of this. “Oh, you’re good at wrestling? I just won’t wrestle you.” I’ll never forget watching him fight Josh Koschek, a renown wrestler, and seeing him throw the same jab a thousand god damn times.

The multitude of disciplines is beneficial for the body. Much harder to get wear and tear type injuries when you can consistently change how things are getting worn and torn.

In our previous NFL rushers list the most prevalent age is actually 23. Three years shorter than our true physical peak.  Yet in wide receivers the most prevalent age is 26.

Comparing the lists,


From 21 to 25, running backs always have more people at each age. From 26 to 32, besides 28, receivers have more people at each age. That’s incredibly consistent.


1) don’t get hit as much as running backs

2) can more easily change their style. Can’t run past / jump over people on go routes anymore? Go into the slot and work zone coverage more. (Larry Fitzgerald is in the midst of this.)

Subsequently receivers don’t rely on recovering between games like running backs do, where age ends up mattering much more for running backs. Kids heal broken bones faster than adults do. (Weeks faster.) The more intense the damage, the higher the frequency of suffering that damage; the more youth matters.

Meanwhile, there is one obvious advantage to age. Experience. My assumption is with something like fighting experience can trump whatever e.g. lesser reaction time an older fighter may have. Up to a point of course.

That said, mental acuity does start falling off too. Ask anybody who has tried to seriously learn something pre 30 vs post 30 and again -provided alcohol intake isn’t heaviliy skewed towards the younger years- you’ll likely hear something about how it’s harder post 30. It’s well known as we age people become much harder to persuade. Their mind gets set in its ways. We’re less receptive to new music, new food, new ways of doing things, it’s why older people vote differently than younger. To learn something new requires a malleable mind, and that lessens with age.

-> This is where there is a serious debate about, regardless if even possible, whether we should attempt to achieve immortality. Would we have made the same progress if the old never went out for the new? Unless achieving immortality can also prevent close mindedness from occurring!

More directly, chess players also have a peak age. Around 31.

Then why are so many notable MMA and boxers fighting well past even 31? We have to question the level of competition. Think about a rec league. A 35 year old might be fine getting in there with a good deal of 20 somethings, because the competition isn’t that great. If you’ve played a good deal of pick up basketball, you’ve likely seen the 50 year old beating 20 somethings. His cageyness can make up for that much physical difference, at that level. 

His mind isn’t going to make up for his body in the NBA though. The physical difference is too overpowering.

The fact is MMA is still a small, not very lucrative sport. That’s financially and status wise. Tell people you’re a professional baseball player and the “that’s awesome” to “I need to hide my children from this person” ratio isn’t even a concern. Tell people you’re a cage fighter and you’re hoping for one to one. The reason UFC was just in New York City for the first time in 20 years is because New York just uplifted its state ban on it. Many still consider it barbaric.

-> An understory was New York required the UFC to pay for a brain injury insurance policy for every fighter. It’s murky as to what other sports cover, as places like the NFL are in the midst of lawsuits debating this, but never mind that. What about high schools or colleges needing to pay for this?? The UFC / boxing has to pay this fee per event. Contact sports have a lot of forthcoming governmental issues.

Furthermore, boxing began its decline decades ago. For christ’s sake we’ve all been watching a guy who is the most boring notable boxer of all time due to the limited options. You ever watch a Mayweather fight in a bar? It’s virtually pure silence for 12 rounds. Guy couldn’t entertain a farm animal. While there are examples of money being made, on average the money isn’t there like other sports. As / if it increases, the talent will come.

MMA is also often a second career. Many come in from other sports, so they aren’t really starting MMA until into their 20s. McGregor was in an apprenticeship to become a plumber, Rousey was a judo olympian, Cormier an olympic wrestler. I’m not sure what it takes it get really skilled at MMA, but I’m sure it’s years. Regardless of background, there are many disciplines you’re going to have no experience with. So while a 30 year old MMA fighter may only be ~seven years into their career, most NBA / NFL / MLB players are decades into their sport at that point. When fighting the 23 year olds, those are brand new fighters. Experience is so skewed towards the older fighter it makes up for the physical decline.

  • Say we have two MMA fighters. 30 years old and 25 years old. Training started at 23.
  • Say we have two NBA players. Same ages, but training started at 10.

The difference between seven years experience and two is much more relevant than the difference between 20 years and 15.

This is a plausible explanation for why someone like Bones Jones came on the scene so early relative to most MMA fighters. By 23, when he won the championship, he was already nearly four years into MMA.

So it’s unlikely MMA fighters are considerably better fighters in their 30s than their 20s, or than they could have been in their 20s provided they started the sport earlier. What’s more likely is their mind can make up for their body against the 20 somethings. Experience trumps physical ability, for now. As / if competition increases -more people get into the sport- this will likely decline. There will always be some who break the rule, and we’d expect more in fighting than e.g. basketball due to the frequency argument, similar to how we expect quarterbacks to last longer than running backs, where peak age may be a couple years later, but it’s unlikely 70% of big cards will continue with 30 somethings. Considering chess peaks at 31, all out sprinting at 26, we’d expect somewhere between these ages, with perhaps a breadth of ages more similar to quarterbacks than running backs / receivers

Most prevalent age for quarterback passing leaders is 28, but there is a bigger spread (total seasons are 100 due to including AFL)-

  • zero at 21,
  • four at 22,
  • five at 23,
  • eight at 24,
  • nine at 25,
  • ten at 26,
  • nine at 27,
  • thirteen at 28,
  • five at 29,
  • seven at 30,
  • three at 31,
  • four at 32,
  • nine at 33,
  • five at 34,
  • four at 35,
  • two at 36,
  • two at 37,
  • one at 38

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