Just Getting Started: The Most Successful 40+ Fighters In MMA History
MMA is unique in so many different ways that it’s almost cliché to bring the subject up at this point. However, one of the interesting dynamics we’ve been able to watch as the sport has evolved over the past 20 years (and in part because of its youth) is the success of athletes who would be considered incredibly aged in other sports. We’ve heard Joe Rogan gush for years about Randy Couture singlehandedly changing the age perceptions in combat sports, and despite the former multi-division champion’s vast success in his fifth decade, this is nothing more than typical Rogan hyperbole. Many MMA fighters have fought past their 40th birthday, and although the trend is slowing as fighters get started in the sport earlier and earlier (thus accumulating more and more injuries), there are still a surprising number of athletes to choose from when looking at those who have performed best after the big 4-0.
There have been a myriad of legends in MMA who have come out of retirement for one more fight after turning 40. Pat Miletich, Bas Rutten and Rickson Gracie all scored victories in their sole bouts after 40 (Gracie’s win over Masakatsu Funaki being the most impressive, and Rutten’s over ‘Warpath’ the least) which all came after prolonged layoffs. Royce Gracie also scored a “win” over Kazushi Sakuraba, but anyone willing to take steroids to fight Sakuraba at that point in his career is pure, unmitigated evil and I refuse to acknowledge that as a true victory.
We’ve also seen some cases where one of the members of the 40+ club takes fights that are appropriate for their abilities at the time and finds moderate success. Don Frye sports a commendable 5-3-1 record after 40, but holds no serious wins. Oleg Taktarov has gone 2-0 against the likes of Mark Kerr and John Marsh. Kazushi Sakuraba was 2-0 in his forties prior to DREAM getting the bright idea that he could still be competitive against legitimate fighters. Marco Ruas scored a relatively impressive victory over Jason Lambert back in 2001 at the age of 40 (assuming Wikipedia has his age correct, and with Ruas who knows about that). Maurice Smith has defeated Ruas and Rick Roufus since turning 40, while dropping a bout with Hidehiko Yoshida. Yoshida himself has gone 1-1 in his forties with a win over Satoshi Ishii and a loss to Kazuhiro Nakamura. All of these fighters managed to compete fairly well after 40, but not at the highest levels of the sport.
On the other side of the coin are the fighters who have stuck around far too long, or continued fighting well above the level they should be at. Whether it be for money or an inability to shake the fighting itch, we often don’t know, but these fighters’ careers haven’t been as kind to them after 40. In Chuck Liddell’s final bout Rich Franklin treated him to a knockout loss. The aforementioned Mark Kerr was obliterated by Mo Lawal in less time than it took me to spell obliterated. Tank Abbott has gone 2-4, Ken Shamrock has put up a 3-7 mark, and Gary Goodridge trumps them all by sporting a 2-9 record since turning 40.
The final group, before we get to those who I deem the best of the best over 40 is a group that is still able to beat the type of fighters you’d find on your local KOTC show, or even the types of regional cards you’d see on HDNet, but can’t quite cut it against the guys at the top level. Here we see fighters like Antonio McKee, who sports a 2-1 40+ record, and earned himself a shot in the UFC, but subsequently blew that shot against Jacob Volkman, who is hardly main card material in the UFC. Jeff Monson (2-1) and Matt Lindland (1-2) are also prime examples. Monson can beat up on some poor heavyweights, but looks inept when he steps in there against the likes of a Daniel Cormier. Lindland can still beat the Kevin Caseys of the world, but in classic Lindland fashion gets KO’d viciously against the likes of Robbie Lawler, and put to sleep by top 25 Middleweights like Mamed Khalidov. Finally, the last fighter before we get into the true success stories is Murilo Bustamante, who was extremely close to joining the elite of this list, as his run in the PRIDE Welterweight Grand Prix came at the age of 39, but alas he remains in this group with a 2-2 record after 40, but still some solid wins over Dong Sik Yoon and Ryuta Sakurai.
Finally, down to those who have truly proven themselves able to compete like no oth… few others, after reaching the age of 40:
5) Vladimir Matyushenko is a recent addition to the 40+ crowd, but his knockout over Jason Brilz in April showed that despite reaching the milestone age, he still possesses the skills that have helped him win 13 of his past 15, including 4 of 5 in his most recent UFC run. With a few more wins, ‘The Janitor’ could end up back in the discussion of the sport’s top 10 Light Heavyweights, a great feat at any age.
4) When talking about well-aged fighters in MMA, the first stop for me is always Dan Severn. ‘The Beast’ likely has more fights past his 40th birthday than every other Mixed Martial Artist… combined. Since turning 40 on June 8th, 1998, Severn has competed in 95 MMA bouts, compiling a record of 75-15-5. While his competition has been meagre, the sheer volume of fights (and wins) he’s compiled makes him absolutely one of the most successful fighters over 40 in MMA history.
3) Bear with me here. Yes, I realize that Mark Coleman doesn’t even have a .500 record after turning 40 ( he’s 3-4), but unlike some of the names mentioned earlier who have tried to stay competitive at an elite level with disastrous results, Coleman has managed to acquit himself well, aside from the Couture fight. After turning 40, his losses have come against Mirko CroCop (#2 Heavyweight at the time), Fedor Emelianenko (#1 Heavyweight at the time), Mauricio Rua (went on to become UFC Light Heavyweight champion 16 months later), and Randy Couture which was the only fight he truly showed his age. Even if you throw Coleman’s “win” over ‘Shogun’ out due to the circumstances, his accomplishments after 40 are still impressive. And he’ll always have that win over UFC lifer Stephan Bonnar.
2) My biggest debate was whether I would finish writing this article prior to the Fedor/Henderson Strikeforce card or after. I decided on prior, which is why Dan Henderson takes the second spot. As of this writing, Henderson is 2-0 in his forties, but if his two wins aren’t the two best consecutive wins of anyone on this list, then I don’t know what to tell you. ‘Babalu’ Sobral was a solid top 15 Light Heavyweight at the time Dan defeated him, and ‘Feijao’ was and is top 10 in the division. The fact that Dan defeated each of them impressively on his way to capturing the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Title is astounding. Adding a win over Fedor to that resume would easily move him into the #1 spot on this list, but even without it Henderson’s short tenure in his forties has been the most impressive single year an MMA fighter of this age bracket has ever put up.
1) After you read Henderson’s name at #2, you immediately knew who was taking top billing. Randy Couture’s record in his forties is 8-6, but as is so often mentioned with Couture, just going by the numbers isn’t the best way to evaluate the man’s success. Couture captured the undisputed UFC Light Heavyweight title three months after turning 40 and regained the belt shortly after turning 41. What really sets him apart from the other title holder on this list (Henderson), is that nearly four years after he won his first title after 40, he moved up to Heavyweight and captured another title. I will almost always maintain that Heavyweight is a weaker division than Light Heavyweight (hence the comment about Henderson’s consecutive wins being better), but the fact is that as an undersized Heavyweight, Couture went up against the best the UFC had to offer in the division at the time and beat them. Towards the end of his career his performances declined, and intelligently the UFC booked him accordingly, but during the first half of his 40’s Randy Couture was as good a fighter as we’ve ever seen at his age in MMA. His combination of longevity and success after his 40th birthday earns him the top spot for the time being, and if he isn’t surpassed by Henderson, Couture may remain atop lists like these forever.
It’s hard to imagine that we’ll continue seeing fighters compete at high levels into their forties when the sport is shifting to a younger and younger demographic, but even if nobody emerges in the future who can match the accomplishments of the men listed above, we’ll always have them to inspire the old man in all of us.