There were two reminders this weekend about the harsh realities of the fight game. First, Tony Ferguson was paired with Paddy Pimblett as part of the UFC 296 main card paired in what should be viewed as a stepping stone opportunity for the Liverpudlian. Second, Michelle Waterson-Gomez took an absolute bludgeoning from Marina Rodriguez in this weekened’s UFC Fight Night event. Both fighters are on the wrong side of 35 years old, on significant losing streaks, and leaving me wondering if there’s ever a way to age gracefully in MMA.
How did we get here?
Profesisonal fightes are a rare breed. They must commit to a life of guaranteed harm while maintaining the belief that this is their path to greatness, financial success, or both. Most fighters do not achieve either of these goals, but Tony Ferguson has carved out a strange notoriety for himself. He’s famous for a multitude of things: bizarre training techniques, Creative Ideas For Capitalizing Tweets, an action-packed, career-defining twelve fight win streak, and having his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov fall apart five times.
Acknowledging the end of Ferguson’s championship aspirations, those title fights that never came to fruition may become the defining narrative of his career. It’s easy for me to type from home and call it a day for Ferguson’s title hopes, but that’s hardly how El Cucuy sees it. What does the future hold?
Aging UFC stars, and when to say when
The idea that anyone can opine on whether a fighter should retire is always a subject of debate. Whether a fighter like Tony Ferguson should stick around after his best days are behind him is a more complex question. And whether a fighter should stay in the UFC after their best days are behind them is actually not their choice, but the promotion’s.
In the case of relatively well-compensated but less-popular fighters like Jon Fitch or Yushin Okami, the answer is “take your talents elsewhere.” For someone truly popular the UFC has shown a willingness to continue booking a fighter long past their sell-by date, to a point that is uncomfortable to watch. The precipitous decline of BJ Penn became too much for me and I haven’t seen him fight since the Yair Rodriguez massacre. The most uncomfortable combat sports fights I’ve witnessed was a 2010 Gary Goodridge kickboxing match where the former PRIDE star couldn’t even throw back at his opponent. Once you’ve seen the effects of CTE in the ring it’s hard to shake off.
How to age gracefully in MMA
A desire to compete, to earn money, or to maintain a lifestyle are all resons why a fighter might stick around MMA as they approach middle age. One fighter who seems to have figured out how to thrive in the later stages of their career is Jim Miller. A fan favorite who came close to title contention, has headlined a few cards, and put on countless exciting performances, Miller has managed to thread the needle of remaining active without profoundly jeopardizing his well being by continually facing elite competition. Beyond skill, beyond toughness, there must be a level of self awareness and humility within Miller that evades most fighters.
I’ve always suspected that attaching one’s identity to this profession is a trap that threatens existential dread. Consider this perfect storm scenario: a fan favorite who might garner a few too many eyeballs in a rival promotion, and they aren’t ready to take a step down in competition. Now we’ve got a problem. This could easily have been the case with BJ Penn and it may be happening to Tony Ferguson now.
Karate Hottie’s future is spotty
Michelle Waterson-Gomez endured her fourth straight loss (and sixth of seven) on Saturday night, and the beating she absorbed from Marina Rodriguez was so complete that it inspired a little debate over whether round one merited a 10-7 score.
I became a fan of Waterson-Gomez after her Invicta FC atomweight title win versus Jessica Penne just over ten years ago. She never quite lived up to the hype that accompanied her arrival to the UFC but the Jackson-Wink lifer has put together a respectable career. Her fights with Angela Hill and the first Marina Rodriguez fight are damn good scraps. While Waterson-Gomez remains a ranked strawweight, it’s difficult to envision a matchup that doesn’t look like a stepping stone opportunity for a future title contender. I’ll be keeping an eye on her next steps as we see the first generation of UFC strawweights wrap up their careers.
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