The Youth Advantage

I’ve already tackled several aspects of the “Tale of the Tape,” but one number that can have a greater effect than all others is perhaps the least discussed: age difference. In a highly competitive sport requiring incredible feats of strength, endurance, agility and flexibility, it should be no surprise that youth brings a physical advantage. But experience and maturity is invaluable in MMA, just as in any other strategic competition, and mental factors can heavily influence a fight outcome before fighters even step in the cage. Which one wins, youth or experience? Let’s settle this issue by diving into the numbers, and the science.

Rookies vs. Veterans

An initial analysis of age and fight outcome data demonstrates that youth is indeed an advantage. When the age difference was at least a year, younger fighters had the edge in the aggregate of all fights, driven primarily by their high rate of TKO and submission wins.

 

But unlike with most of the Tale of the Tape, age is constantly changing, and there’s a pretty disparate range of possible age matchups, even at the premier levels of the sport. Looking at age differentials and win rates reveals a surprisingly clear pattern. Age difference between two fighters becomes increasingly important the larger it gets, and is a greater predictor of outcome than just an individual fighter’s age. Youth wins, clearly.

Age difference and performance in UFC fighters

For an age differential of a decade or more, it can be assumed that the younger fighter is still in their 20’s, while the older fighter is well into their 30’s. This scenario should generally result in a younger fighter that enters the cage in better condition, both from a strength and fitness point of view, as well as in an injury-free (or at least injury-minimized) condition. Both factors would heavily favor the younger fighter, and both are critical to performance in the cage.

Father Time’s Toll

Generally speaking, we tend to see world records set by athletes in their 20’s and early 30’s, and in pure measured performance events like running and swimming, it’s easy to track athletic trends by age. But in MMA, several factors blur the picture. First, in a complicated head to head competition, it’s not any single physical metric that determines the winner. Every fight’s a fight. And what’s more, MMA has not been drawing life-long competitors for very long, so that an older fighter these days may not even be the more experienced one. Fighters who watched Griffin and Bonnar battle for the first Ultimate Fighter contract with their freshmen wrestling team are now among the UFC’s champions. But pioneering Hall of Famers who entered the sport late in life are also still competing at high levels. So the sport itself is undergoing a maturation process. However, despite these complications in assessing a matchup between decades, science has documented a variety of factors that affect athletic performance, and also change with age. And they’re all relevant to performance in the cage.

As we age, a variety of basic functions deteriorate in performance. But let’s be clear, much of this effect is due to inactivity and not just time/age, since most people don’t continue to exercise as they age. But research focusing on lifelong athletes has demonstrated that physiological drivers of athletic performance peak during a man’s late 20’s, then decline slowly with time. Specifically, lean muscle mass, maximal strength, aerobic capacity, reaction time, endurance and cardiovascular function all decline with age. Each of these changes affects the body in subtle, but cumulative ways until an athlete simply realizes that they are not the force they once were. Declining testosterone rates in men are only a factor beyond age 40, and would certainly exacerbate physical performance, but there’s clearly a number of other more fundamental physiological changes that occur quickly once men enter their 30’s.

Insult to Injury

Unfortunately, older fighters are not just facing stronger, faster, fitter opponents, they’re also facing competitors more likely to be in top form. It’s often said no one goes into a fight at 100% due to the extreme rigors of elite-level MMA training. But their ability to recover from recent or pre-existing injuries is much easier with younger bodies. Recovery is likely a factor in virtually every fight, but more routinely being able to train is also a driver of continuous improvement of skills and fitness. Older fighters simply can’t recover from training or from injuries, and spend more time on the bench, and less time maintaining their competitive edge.

The New Breed

UFC Champion Ages as of July 1, 2011

The new generation of fighters that grew up watching and learning MMA, rather than pioneering it, may already be here. These fighters are elevating the sport to new heights because they are training to elite levels while their bodies are still in peak physiological condition. There will always be exceptions to any rule, like Randy Couture entering MMA at 33 and competing late into his 40’s. But arguing by exception is falling prey to a classic logical fallacy. The reality of the underlying trend is supported the much larger historical data set. Father Time doesn’t cut many breaks, and neither does science. So this one is settled.

What Have We Learned?

  • Age matters, and youth is a clear advantage
  • The greater the age gap between fighters, the more likely the younger fighter will win
  • Physically, fighters peak in their late 20’s through early 30’s, and then lose strength, quickness and cardiovascular capacity
  • Older fighters don’t change how they win, but they’re much more likely to lose by strikes
  • Older fighters are more likely to have accumulated injuries, and fight less often

 

Source data was provided by FightMetric, and analysis performed by Reed Kuhn. An abridged version of this article appeared in FIGHT! Magazine 2011 as part of the “Fight Science” feature.

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2 Comments

  1. Jason says:

    Very interesting article, although a bit depressing for me, as I turn 34 in a couple of months.

  2. Tom says:

    Cain is almost 31 years (July 28, 1982)!

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