30. What a strange age. For most of us, it's just when we really start our professional careers. Most people graduate from college somewhere between the age of 23-25, try out a few crappy entry level jobs, maybe travel a little bit and before they finally start to look for a company to settle down and build a career with. A career which can last 20 or more years.
On the other hand, 30 is the age when professional athletes usually peak. The constant training, traveling and competing eventually catches up with even the greatest of athletes and their bodies begin to fail them around the age of 30. It's like this way in all sports. In the NFL, almost all players start to breakdown as the age of 30 gets closer, especially running backs. NBA players usually have some of their best years between 28-32 before the game starts to pass them by. In the Major Leagues, 30 is the age when you start to see players having trouble catching up with a fastball.
Starting at the age of 21, the majority of professional athletes have about an 8-10 year window (if not less) to make as much money as they can before the physical demands of their respective sport catches up with their bodies and they begin to breakdown. We saw it with LaDainian Tomlinson (31 years old) a couple of years ago in football when he started to regress after breaking the single season touchdown record and we are currently seeing it now with Kevin Garnett (34 years old) whose knees are basically held together by duck tape. These examples could go on and on. It is truly amazing when we see freaks of nature like Brett Farve and Nolan Ryan who can still perform at a high level past the age of 40, but those two are aberrations that don't happen too often. For the bulk of pro athletes, turning 30 signifies the beginning of the end.
This is why I found it funny on Saturday night after UFC 118 when the "BJ is overrated" columns started to pop up on MMA websites and blogs after he lost to Frankie Edgar for a second time in a row. It's not that Penn is overrated, it is at the age of 31, Penn has peaked and is now on the downside of his career. Read why after the jump...
Up until recently, most MMA fighters didn't start their careers until they were in their late 20s/early 30s. Randy Couture didn't have his first pro MMA fight until he was 34. Chuck Liddell made his MMA debut at the young age of 29. These two were able to fight until their late 30s (Couture's still fighting in his 40s) because they weren't fighting professional in their 20s. Their bodies didn't have the wear from 10 extra years of being a professional fighter.
The trend of MMA fighters starting in their late 20s/early 30s has already started to change. Gone will be the days when the elite fighters in MMA are closer to 40 than 30. You can directly attribute this to the evolution of the sport. The new crop of up and coming superstars are now going to start training as young as elementary school instead of between the ages of 25-30. This is going to cause future generations of fighters to put a fair amount of wear and tear on their bodies at a young age which in turn will lower the number of years they will be able to fight at an elite level professionally. Simply put, as future fighters start to begin their training at a younger age than their predecessors, the shelf life of an elite MMA fighter is going to start to mirror the shelf life of athletes from other professional sports, especially those of professional football players whose bodies are subject to the same, if not more, constant abuse.
This brings me to BJ Penn. Penn took his first professional MMA fight at the age of 22 and has averaged more than two fights a year since then. The majority of those fights during time pan have been against the cream of the crop of the MMA world (GSP twice, Pulver twice, Hughes twice, Machida etc). Mix in the fact that Penn hasn't done the best job of taking care of his body over the years and you have a recipe for a fighter beginning to break down. The main criticism of Penn over the past two fights with Frankie Edgar is that he looked sluggish and didn't have the speed to handle Edgar's. Translation, Penn looked old and can't catch up to the fastball anymore. Could the Penn that fought Din Thomas, Caol Uno and Takanori Gomi in the early 2000's handle Edgar's speed? Most likely, but that was a Penn in his mid-20s without the abuse of fighting the Hughes's and GSP's of the world yet. The Penn of today and his waning skills just couldn't handle a Frankie Edgar who is just hitting his peak at the age of 28.
The good thing for Penn is that he may be the most talented MMA fighter of all-time. This is going to allow him to stay relevant, maybe even make another title run, before he retires. You have to remember, Penn was so good that his ‘average' is still better than most fighter's ‘best', but we probably won't see another dominate run from him like we did as a Lightweight from 2002-2009.
Penn's recent fall from grace is just the beginning of the trend that is probably going to start happening on MMA over the next few years. The current crop of superstars and champions are going to start to 1) lose more frequently to their younger counterparts and 2) retire. We have already seen Jose Aldo (23 years old) take the place of Urijah Faber (31) and Mike Brown (34) as the king of the WEC Featherweight division (both fighters couldn't handle Aldo's speed. Sound familiar?). UFC Light Heavyweight Jon Jones (23) has already disposed of some of the elder statesmen of the UFC's 205 pound division and has almost reached the top of the ladder. Cain Velasquez (28) and Junior dos Santos (25) have basically already cleaned out the UFC Heavyweight division and are now looking to make a claim as the best fighter in the division. What does this prove? The old is getting older while the young is getting better.
For those of you that want to claim Penn has been overrated for this past few years are wrong. He's not overrated, he just past his peak. Even though some legendary fighters may be viewed as immortal, they are still human and time catches up to them just like everyone else.