Some Country for Old Men: The Contrasting Fortunes of MMA’s Elder Statesman

Aggressive-Mirko-Cro-Cop“Cro-Cop got Cro-Cop’d!!!” I remember the words staring back at me from a forum thread as clearly today as when they first burned themselves into my retinas; April 21st, 2007. I had skipped the UFC’s first foray into the UK since 2004 when – just 24 hours earlier – I’d learned that Bob Sapp had withdrawn from the main event of Cage Rage (scheduled for the same night) and been replaced by 90’s MMA icon David ‘Tank’ Abbott. I’d seen Mirko fight before and knew that I probably would again. With Abbott, I wasn’t so sure. After watching Tank level famed UK kickboxer Gary Turner, only to gas before his opponent hit the deck and eventually capitulate to strikes, I’d missed the last train home. Holed up in a cheap London hotel, I’d struggled for 20 minutes to get to an MMA forum on my phone (smartphones with WiFi were not yet a ‘thing’) to pick up the UFC results. That’s when I saw it: Cro-Cop had been Cro-Cop’d. A twist of fate It was MMA’s cruellest twist of fate. You don’t armbar Rickson Gracie, or choke Royce. You don’t submit Sakuraba with a Kimura, or have a better moustache than Don Frye. You certainly don’t leave Mirko Cro-Cop – a man synonymous with the bone-jarringly violent, beautiful head-kick knockouts – laying in a twisted heap of blood and contorted limbs with his own trademark strike. At the other end of the UK, an exhausted Abbott was peeling himself off the mat and gratefully supping on a cold beer that had been thrust into his still-gloved hand. Allegedly, it wasn’t his first of the evening. Abbott had long joked about stepping off the barstool and into the cage; it added to the ‘pit fighter’ mystique the UFC had built around him in 1996 and that he’d been able to parlay into fights long after his expiration date as an ‘athlete’. On that occasion, it was no joke. Abbott was already into his forties that night, nearly a full decade older than the 32-year-old Croatian. Still, with a wealth of battles in the Pride and K-1 rings adding battle damage laden miles to the clock, was Abbott a bleak look into what the future held for Cro-Cop? Is that where he’d be in 10 years’ time; flying halfway across the globe on a days’ notice for a meager payday? Renascence Men? Almost eight years to the day from his bitterest defeat, Cro-Cop proved that there is more to life after 40 than losing to local favourites for whatever money your name can still command. Sadly, that’s an elusive truth for many of MMA’s originals and some active veterans of today. Even amongst the sport’s pantheon of all-time greats, few can say they have competed at the highest level at Cro-Cop’s age and even fewer can claim success. In fact, only nine men have ever won a UFC fight with four decades behind them. Between them they racked up twenty wins, but nine of those belonged to the greatest elder statesman of them all. Randy Couture’s career path reads like the script of a bad Sci-Fi movie where you awake in a world where everything is opposite. Good is bad, up is down and a prize fighter gets more famous and earns more money the older he gets. Couture is of course a rare exception to the rule. Farther Time is less of a friend to fighters than runners, gymnasts or soccer players and there is more on the line for the former than pride and humility. Couture survived and prospered by picking his battles, as well as being one of MMA’s most masterful tacticians. Then there is Dan Severn. Severn – like Couture – was a late starter, mostly because there was no such thing as mixed martial arts when he was thirty, let alone twenty. ‘The Beast’ was an old-timey grappler, once quoted as saying he wanted to win the UFC title without throwing a punch. He was no rough-and-tumble brawler like Abbott, nor a Mark Kerr-esque wrecking machine. When the game evolved – and it did, rapidly – Severn explored options outside of the UFC, returning only for a sole (short) appearance against Pedro Rizzo in 2000. Despite leaving the top flight, Severn was far from done with MMA. Although he was stopped by strikes twice in 2005, the former Olympic alternate would fight 32 more matches (winning 29) before suffering the same fate. While he did fight a number of notable (or at least recognisable) names on his worldly travels, Severn’s post-UFC ledger was made up of journeymen, first-timers and regional level ticket sellers. These were no athletes; their speed, reflexes and cardio ceased to be a factor with Severn’s 260lbs and 40 years on the wrestling mats holding them down. The punishment Dan Severn took over the years was negligible, and his fights were often accompanied by speaking engagements and seminars. The Beast was able to get paid and feed a desire to compete; not for glory or world titles, just because he liked it and that’s how he’d always made a living. Even then, Severn ended his career getting knocked out in two of his last three fights, finally going out on his own terms with a win nearly two years ago at 54 years old. Not everyone is so lucky. For every Severn who finds a safe way to stick around, or every Cro-Cop, Couture and Henderson who can enjoy a renascence and mix with the best north of 40, there are more and more daredevils and death-wishers fighting on beyond the point of common sense. Ken Shamrock will fight Kimbo Slice this year. Phil Baroni is trying to talk his way into a bout with Pat Schilling as we speak. In this new, TRT-free landscape, another generation of fighters are starting the potentially perilous journey from thirty-five to forty and not all of them will come out unscathed. Many will attempt it, and some will enjoy success. Whether they end their careers like Tank Abbott or Mirko Cro-Cop will boil down to how they pick their battles. There’s a fine line between going out on your shield, and going out on a stretcher. By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48    

Written by Brad Wharton

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