When should a fighter call it a day?  It’s a question that has no definitive answer.   There is no official retirement age, no set of guidelines in place, and so each competitor must arrive at their own decision when they feel the time is right.

For some it will become apparent after a losing streak.  Some may give in to the pleas of family and friends after receiving one too many knockouts and others will only finally call it a day as the aches, pains and injuries of a lifetime of combat take their toll.

Of course most mixed martial artists are born fighters with an in-built desire to compete that is not easily switched off.  It’s in their nature to battle on against the odds, and so many continue to fight long after the writing is on the wall.

In the first of a two part article we look at some of the most dominant champions and former champions of the UFC’s old guard and assess who still has something to offer, and who would be wise to hang up their gloves and enjoy their retirement.

Randy Couture (16-10) – Age: 46  – 3 Time Heavyweight Champion / 2 Time light heavyweight Champion

Randy Couture
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The Quintessential veteran competitor, Randy Couture has redefined the age at which MMA fighters are considered able to compete at the highest level.

Couture didn’t start his MMA career until the age of 34, emerging as the winner of UFC 13’s heavyweight tournament in only his second fight.  He lost the heavyweight title last year at the age of 45, and won ‘Fight Of The Night’ for his last performance against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in September.

Despite losing in his last two outings, Couture still appears to be in remarkable physical condition for his age, and his three round war with Nogueira proved he still has the stamina and skills to compete against the best in the business.  How long his body can hold out no one can say for sure.  It is, he acknowledges himself,  a case of taking it one fight at a time.

Couture recently signed a new 6 fight deal spread over 28 months – he will be 48 if he sees it through until the end.

Verdict: If his time in the octagon has taught us anything, it’s that it’s never wise to count out ‘The Natural’. As one of the sports star names Couture is likely to continue to face the top names the UFC has to offer and, if reverts back to the skills that have brought him the most success in the past, namely his wrestling and dirty boxing skills, he can still pose a threat to whoever he faces.

Mark Coleman (16-9) – Age: 44  – 1st Heavyweight Champion / 2 time Heavyweight Tournament Champion (UFC 10,  UFC 11)

Mark Coleman
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The godfather of ground and pound Mark Coleman is the second oldest fighter currently on the UFC’s books.    Whilst his physique is still impressive at 44 years of age, time and injuries have clearly taken a toll on one of the UFC’s early stars.

His two fights in the octagon since returning after a 10 year absence have certainly shown courage but there is no disguising the slowed movement and lack of stamina that have become features of the former champions game.  There is also an uncomfortable air of desperation when he fights that no doubt stems from the knowledge that one more loss on his record could spell the end of his career.

The news that he has torn his ACL again, forcing him to cancel his upcoming fight with Tito Ortiz is a major set back for the former olympic wrestler who has been prone to injury in the past and again casts doubt over his long term future in the UFC.

Verdict:  A champion back in the days when the sport was far less lucrative, Coleman is clearly hoping to reap the rewards as the sport now flourishes.   Time is against him however and though his heart and determination can’t be questioned, Coleman’s career appears to be on borrowed time.  His victory at UFC 100 may prove to be a fitting last hurrah for a fighter who will have a permanent place in the UFC record books.

Chuck Liddell  (21-7) – Age: 39 – 5 time Light Heavyweight champion

Chuck Liddell
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As we discussed last week in an article about the UFC’s greatest ever knockout specialists, Chuck Liddell knows more than a thing or two about sending his opponents to sleep.  Unfortunately for the former Light Heavyweight champ in his recent fights he’s become better known for taking a nap on the canvas himself.

Like Randy Couture, Liddell has been with the UFC since the early fights of his mixed martial arts career and has become one of the most successful fighters in the history of the sport.  Not everyone is fortunate enough to have Couture’s age-defying genetics however, and Liddell’s reputation for partying as hard as he fights was inevitably going to take it’s toll.

As ‘The Iceman’s’ reactions have slowed, so have his number of winning trips to the octagon.  In his past five fights he holds only one victory (against another ageing warrior, Wanderlei Silva) having won 15 out of his previous 17 UFC fights.

In his defense those losses have come at the hands of  quality opposition such as Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Rashad Evans and Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua.  Despite this it is evident to most fans  that Liddell is not the fighter he once was, and even long time friend Dana White has witnessed the decline first hand has used his influence to put pressure on the star to hang up his gloves after his last fight.

Liddell himself has indicated that he may not be ready to retire just yet, and after an extended hiatus that includes a  stint on ‘Dancing With The Stars’ it seems likely that he will return to the octagon.

Verdict: With slowed reactions and a weakened chin Liddell’s days at the top level would appear to be all but over, though his knockout power is still a threat.  Whilst retirement would be a wise choice for his future health, it is unlikely that this natural born fighter will be ready to call time on his career just yet and a money spinning showdown with Kimbo Slice may emerge sometime in 2010 – and that’s a fight Liddell can win.

Anderson Silva (25-4) – Age: 35 – 6 Time Middleweight Champion

Anderson Silva
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There is no question that Anderson Silva is one of the pound for pound greats in Mixed Martial Arts.  his record in the UFC is second-to-none having won all 10 of his fights to date in the organization.  Not only that but at times he appears to make experienced, battle-hardened fighters look like white belted youngsters being humbled on their first day at the dojo.  As well as being a dangerous striker Silva also has excellent movement and defensive skill which has ensured that he has emerged largely unscathed from his battles in the octagon thus far which only benefits the longevity of his career.

At this stage the biggest threat to Anderson Silva’s continued success is himself.  Last year he announced his desire to retire saying I already gave my all. I don’t need to prove anything for anyone and within one year I’ll put my gloves aside.”

Though other fighters in his weight class may have breathed a sigh of relief at his comment, the news was met with wide-spread disappointment that the sport may be deprived of one of it’s greatest talents seemingly still in the prime of his career.

All may not be lost however as a new quote from the fighter last week suggests that he is now having second thoughts about retiring, and having recently expressed interest in again stepping up to light heavyweight and even heavyweight, the chances of seeing Silva compete at the highest level beyond the remaining three fights on his contract look increasingly promising.

Verdict: Silva is a perfect example of the phrase “improving with age”. There are many challenges still out their for him and retirement at this stage would be a waste of one of the sports greatest talents.  Of all the fighters on this list, Silva is unquestionably the most likely to find continued success should he choose to fight on.

Matt Hughes (44-7) – Age:35 – 8 Time Welterweight Champion

Matt Hughes
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The UFC’s most dominant champion of all time, Matt Hughes successfully defended the Welterweight belt seven times.  He has also went six wins without defeat on two separate occasions inside the octagon.

In recent times that winning form has been harder to come by.  He has lost three of his last five fights,  a black mark on Hughes otherwise impressive resume.   His last two wins against Chris Lytle back in 2007 at UFC 68, and most recently against Matt Serra at UFC 98, were also noticeably less dominant than we had come to expect from the future hall-of-famer.

Alongside a dip in form, doubts over Hughes own desire to compete at the highest level have also been raised.  After his second defeat to GSP at the end of 2007 he hinted at a possible retirement.  That never materialized however and citing an apparent desire to continue fighting after claiming victory over Matt Serra, Hughes has now signed a new multi-fight deal with the UFC.

Despite this the welterweight divisions young guns clearly smell blood now though and a succession of fighters including Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck and most recently Paul Daley have all called out the former champion in recent times.

Verdict: Once an unstoppable force in the welterweight division, Hughes  would now appear to be best suited as a gatekeeper for the divisions up and coming stars.  It is unlikely to be a role that will satisfy such a decorated fighter for long and it would not be unexpected if he calls time on his career before his current contract ends.

Tito Ortiz (16-6-1) – Age: 34 – 6 Time light Heavyweight Champion

Tito Ortiz
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Another dominant champion in his heyday Tito Ortiz last three appearances in the octagon amount to two defeats and a draw.  

Ortiz however points to the caliber of his last two opponents (Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans, the last two holders of the light heavweight belt), and the fact he took them both to a decision as proof that he can still compete with the best the UFC has to offer.  He also cites a long term back problem which he has since had surgery on, as a hindrance in his past fights that will no longer impede him.

It is however worth noting that during his run as the light heavyweight champion his challengers included less than stellar opposition such as Yuki Kondo (1-2 in the UFC) , Elvis Sinosic (1-6 in the octagon) and Ken Shamrock (0-4 in his last 4 fights for the promotion).

At the same time his losses in the UFC to other champions like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida suggest that Ortiz may struggle to regain his grip on the light heavyweight belt at this stage in his career.

Verdict: Ortiz’ long-term future will remain somewhat of a mystery until he gets back into the cage when questions about the success of his back operation and what affect ring rust will play after 18 months out of the game can be answered.  If he is 100% healthy then there should be big fights in his future, but having come up short in the past against the very best in the division another title reign at this stage seems unlikely.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our guide when we’ll move on from the dominant champions to assess the future prospects of some other former champions,  title contenders and legends of the sport who are entering the twilight of their careers.

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