There some MMA veterans that fight until their mid-40s, others retire in their early 30s. But what is their average career span? To answer this question, I calculated the average career length of the top 15 best retired UFC fighters according to ranker.com. Here’s what the data showed:
What is the average career length of an MMA fighter? The data showed that on average, MMA fighters competed for 12.5 years before retiring, had 35 fights during that time, fought 2.8 times a year and retired at the age of 41 on average.
Those are mendioned fighters:
|Career length (in years)
|Retired at age
|Avg. fights per year
|Mirko Cro Cop
|Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira
Of those fighters, Mirko Crop Cop and Dan Henderson had the longest careers. – 19 years while bas Rutten had the shortest one – 7 years followed by Royce Gracie who competed for 8 years.
It’s important to note that those are some of the greatest fighters who ever competed. There are many half-committed fighters who fight no more than 5 times and call it a day or retire after several consecutive losses. But I’m not sure if we can consider that career, so I’ve included only serious fighters with 20+ fights.
Another important factor is that those are fighters from the early stages of MMA. Some of them started competing in the 90s. Today the world of MMA is much different.
Fighters nowadays are more well-rounded, skilled and better athletes in general. Todays is very hard for an 34 year athlethe from another sport to jump in and become a champion like Randy Coutoure did.
Back then the majority of the athletes already had big accomplishments in other sports – wrestling, kickboxing, BJJ, etc and then joined MMA. The average age when they started their professional MMA career was 26.
Today there are still specialists from other sports (Israel Adesanya, Yoel Romero, Henry Cejudo and others) but the majority of the people start competing in MMA a few years younger than before.
Years Active vs Career Length
There are two ways to calculate the length of a fighter’s career – two just look at the time span between his first and last fight or to sum the years in which he was actually active.
For this article, I used the second way, because I think it’s more correct. For example, Chuck Liddell was active between 1998 and 2010, then came back for his last fight against Tito Ortiz in 2018. The time period between his first and last fight is 20 years but he was consistently fighting in just 13 of those 20 years.
The same goes for Royce Gracie, GSP and others who also take a break from the sport for several years.
If we do some simple math, we’ll find out that on average, the fighters on our list take such breaks for 2.5 years during their career on average.
Most fighters, especially nowadays have at least 3 amateur fights before turning pro. That’s nothing compared to boxing where boxers with 100+ amateur bouts aren’t that rare.
But in MMA, we are far behind boxing when it comes to amateur career, but still, you can add 1-2 more years on average to MMA fighters’ careers if you want to count their amateur bouts.
Career Length vs Fighting
If you look at the data you’ll notice that some fighters heave much more matches per year than others.
For example Bas Rutten, who was active in MMA for just 7 years fought almost 5 times a year, which is unheard of this days, expecially at the higher levels of the sport.
On the other hard we have fighters like Rashad Evans who was active for 15 years but fought less than 2 times per year on average.
To get the ultimate answer who fighters had the longest career we should look, not just at the time span of their career but also in how many fights they have.
A great example of that in this list is Matt Hughes who was active for 13 years and fought 54 times as a professional (4.2 times a year on average).
Champions vs Contenders
Another important thing to keep in mind is that the champions have a much harder time than the contenders. That’s because if you are a champion, you fight for 5, 5-minute rounds while non-champions fight for just 3 rounds (besides when they fight the champion).
Not only the fight but the training camp for a 5 round fight is much more grueling. That’s why we rarely see a champion defending his title more than once a year.
Although almost all of the fighters in our list were champions at some point, some of them had much more championship bouts.
For example, George Saint Pierre defended his title 9 times and had over 15 championship fights throughout his career.
The 9 year rule
There’s a cool study by fightopinion.com that shows that MMA fighters careers start to decline after 9 years in the sport.
They found that number by observing how UFC fighters do against high-level competition each year. During the 4th year, they noticed that fighters do pretty well which means they enter their prime.
And during the 9th fighters had the same success against high-level opponents as when they were rookies.
That’s very interesting because it actually shows that it doesn’t matter how old the fighters were when they started to compete, on average it took them 4 years to enter their primes.
That’s why fighters like Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture were doing so well in their mid to late 30s. And why fighters who started competing very young started to decline before they reach their “physical prime” for sports which is considered to be by many to be between 27 and 32.
That shows that even if an MMA fighter gets into the sport when he’s young, that doesn’t guarantee a longer career than the average. And that’s an argument against starting to fight before 20 because by the time you are 28-29 you’ll start to decline in the sport.
Of course, there are exceptions, for example, fighters like Rory McDonald and GSP who started to compete when they were 16 but the rule applied for the majority of the fighters in the study.
Injuries are another big factor that shortens fighters’ careers. Most occurring injuries in MMA are torn ACL and shoulder and feet injuries and most of them happen in the gym during training camp caused by exhausting training.
Such injuries shorten significantly the careers of fighters like Dominick Cruz, Canin Velasques, and others.
The style of fighter is also a huge factor that determines how long his career is going to be and how often he is going to fight.
Brawlers like Roby Lawler take a lot of damage during his fights which shortens his career for sure. He needs more time to recover after the fight which means he fights less often than fighters who don’t take a lot of damage (Dominant wrestlers, or strikes who pick their opponents apart from a distance).
Also, fighters from the smaller divisions usually fight more often than their heavier fellows. The perfect example for that is the flyweight Demetrious Johnson who can fight 4 times a year without an issue.