Unlike most other professions, professional athletes have a much shorter working window. While most major league ball athletes have to retire from competition between 30 and 35, fighters can prolong their careers a little longer.
Most UFC fighters retire between 35 and 40 when their bodies are physically declining and the damage and injuries sustained do not allow them to compete at a high level. However, the retirement date can vary wildly from fighter to fighter, and there are some who hang up the gloves before 30 and those who fight well into their 40-ties.
Just looking at plain numbers is not enough to tell the whole story, so let’s see how, why, and when UFC fighters retire from competition.
Most UFC fighters retire from the professional ranks somewhere between 35 and 40 unless an injury or other unforeseen circumstances force them to do so earlier.
Of course, these are average numbers that capture many fighters. Inside that, there are many variables. A fighter may retire at 25 if he sustains a severe injury, or he can fight until his mid-40s, as has been shown repeatedly in the octagon.
A few important factors that go into the longevity of an MMA fighter are supported both by hard data and observation. First and foremost, this is the age a fighter starts fighting professionally.
The body has a mileage to how much damage it can take, and usually, it’s not age that forces fighters to hang up the gloves but rather damage and injuries.
A typical successful fighting career spans 13–14 years. While most fighters retire between 35 and 40, some need to do so earlier if they started too young or can go for longer if their bodies are still in fighting shape.
The second important factor is that the fighter must not absorb a lot of strikes. Boxing provides an excellent example of this. Most fighters on top at 40 or even after that are defensive masters like Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins.
In MMA, wrestlers and fighters who can dictate where the fight goes usually have longer careers just because they get hit less.
Why Do Some Fighters Retire Late?
The right time to retire is one of the trickiest decisions in a fighter’s career. There are many things to consider, but the two most important are health and money. The latter is the biggest reason fighters continue to fight when they shouldn’t.
A fighter who retires late accumulates losing streaks and suffers knockouts and heavy damage late in his career rather than when he reaches a certain age.
Some fighters reach their peak later in their careers and compete at the highest level at an older age. For example, recent UFC light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz captured the title at 37 and, at 39, is still considered a top contender, not a fighter that has to retire.
At the same time, Jose Aldo, who is 36 and recently retired, has had such a long career that his decision to hang up the gloves was widely accepted as the right one.
The prime reason fighters continue fighting against common sense that they shouldn’t is money. UFC fighter pay has been heavily discussed. While top dogs make a significant amount of money today, this is only true for some on the roster.
When a fighter has dedicated their entire adult life to fighting and is the primary source of income, it’s easy to see why many are reluctant to stop fighting and start finding other ways to earn a living.
Even if a fighter is financially settled, the love for the sport drives some to fight past their prime. Feeling the rush of battle is something many fighters are reluctant to let go of. Then, fighters are fiercely competitive by nature, and the fact that you no longer have it may be tough to swallow.
Unlike many other athletes, fighters can choose the activity level that is best for them later in their careers. While making a name, a fighter may fight up to five times a year.
But as they near the finish line, experienced and big-name fighters may choose to enter the octagon only once or twice a year to take a big paycheck and then have ample time to recover and further delay their retirement.
At What Age Do MMA Fighters Peak
An athlete’s peak is when his physical attributes are at their best, usually between 24 and 28. But with fighters, the physical peak must also be combined with skills and fighting experience to truly consider a fighter in his prime. This is often somewhere between 27 and 35.
This is when the body, especially the male one, has reached full maturity, and the years of training have developed elite-level strength and endurance. At the same time, the speed and recovery times have yet to start to deteriorate.
Mentality is also crucial for MMA fighters and younger fighters. The age around 30 is usually the “golden ground” between too much youthful aggression and impatience and too much caution exercised by most adults.
That said, fighters’ peaks are very personal to each fighter. It depends greatly on genetics, training regimen, out-of-camp regime, and fighting style.
The age at which the fighters first began fighting is perhaps the most important factor. If we can narrow down the peak form of a fighter from the 5th to the 9th year of professional fighting, it depends a lot if he starts fighting at 18 or 28.
For example, Jose Aldo became a professional at age 20 in 2004 and was unbeatable between 2009 and 2014. The same formula can be seen with former heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, who turned pro in 2010 when he was 28 and peaked between 2015 and 2019.
Average Age of UFC Champions
As of December 2022, the average age of UFC champions is 33.5 years. This includes men and women, and the number would have been 34 if we calculated earlier this year when the light heavyweight champion was 42-year-old Glover Teixeira.
If you go back a few years, the average championship age was around 31, so the number is steadily climbing. This number can change if a particularly young or old fighter captures a title. Still, the vast majority of champions in the last decade have been between 28 and 33.
Another trend you can follow is that champions in the lower-weight classes are younger than those in the heavier divisions. In fact, after lightweights, the average age rises, with heavyweights always being the oldest. This can, of course, change in certain periods, but the long-term tendency is this.
Oldest Fighters in The History Of The UFC
Experience and skills in MMA are often more important than sheer physical attributes, which is why there have been many UFC champions above the age of 35.
|MMA Career Length
|Oldest Age in UFC
|1997 – 2011 (24 Years)
|1997 – 2016 (19 Years)
|1996 – (26 Years)
|1997 – 2020 (23 Years)
|1996 – 2010 (24 Years)
|2006 – (16 Years)
|2004 – 2018 (14 Years)
|2010 – 2021 (11 Years)
|2001-2020 (19 Years)
|1999 – (23 Years)
|2001 – 2021 (20 Years)
|2002 – 2020 (18 Years)
|2002 – (20 Years)
|2009 – (13 Years)
|1993 – 2016 (23 Y)
Two of these fine gentlemen (and lady) have been champions after age 40. The first is Glover Teixeira, who captured the light heavyweight UFC title in 2021 at 42, making him the oldest first-time champion in the UFC.
The other is the absolute legend Randy Couture, who holds all the other old man records. The oldest fighter to win a title at 43, the oldest fighter to be a champion at 45, and the oldest to win a UFC bout at 47.
Some UFC fighters retire before they turn 30, while others fight until they are 45. But on average, UFC fighters retire between 35 and 40, which is around their 15th year as professionals. Of course, many different sports stories are entirely out of the norm, but on average, this is the age most fighters choose to hang up the gloves for good.