With the news of Chuck Liddell’s retirement, I've been thinking: why not roll out a Master’s division in the UFC?
How many guys over forty are still competing or have fought within the last three or four years? Liddell, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Kimo Leopoldo, Bas Rutten, Mark Coleman, Don Frye, Renzo Gracie, Royce Gracie and Pat Miletich all come to mind.
While their recent fights are of interest because of their name recognition, you almost have to watch as if you’re peering away from an ensuing head-on collision involving a speeding fire truck and a rickshaw in fear of someone receiving grave injuries.
Imagine if the Mark Coleman/Brock Lesnar fight went off as originally planned a couple years ago? Coleman likely would have been seriously injured.
It’s important to note the significance between being injured and hurt. Everyone hurts after a fight, even if they dominate in Georges St-Pierre-like fashion. Bumps, bruises, cuts, sprains and the like amount to "being hurt."
Injuries are debilitating—knockouts, concussions, fractures, joint separations and ligament and tendon tears—as they cause cessation of functionality of the inflicted area. It’s not entirely unlikely that Lesnar would have quickly disabled Coleman via a barrage of brief yet heavily damaging blows.
An entertaining and interesting way to get Coleman back in the Octagon is to pair him with Randy Couture, like we saw at UFC 109 in February 2010. While “The Natural” continues to defy father time at 47 years of age and remains competitive with men fifteen years his junior (Brandon Vera, Lesnar and Big Nog), he’s unlikely to maim a fighter in the proposed Master’s division.
While I give this scenario a less than one percent chance of unfolding, it could be done. The UFC has less of a need for big named fights on the televised portion of a pay-per-view broadcast with the WEC’s inclusion going forward, but wouldn't a Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie rematch be of interest from an albeit freak show standpoint?
Skeptics of this idea will quickly point out that both men are irrelevant and that Shamrock has been at best competitive and more often embarrassed in each fight since his first matchup with Tito Ortiz way back at UFC 40 in 2002.
But given the parallel decline that Gracie has experienced, these two create a compelling matchup. Imagine a reincarnation of Shamrock/Don Frye verbal jabs from their Pride fight. The prefight entertainment value and trip down memory lane alone gives this theory some cache.
Another barrier is securing approval from a sanctioning body, but given the relative frequency in which these guys are still fighting, it seems plausible. Feeding one of these fighters to Anderson Silva equates to capital punishment, but Dan Severn vs. Don Frye is what it is: two aging (or old), former elite fighters slugging it out and entertaining long-time fight fans.
Another hang-up is potential safety issues. This could be addressed with the inclusion of—gasp—headgear and modified rule changes. Kicks and knees to the head and face could be stricken if headgear wasn’t mandated, without taking too much from a fighter’s arsenal (except Bas Rutten’s). Rounds could be shortened from five minutes to three.
With upcoming cards expected to be extremely stacked given the WEC fights rolling in, Master’s fights could be limited to one per card, or every other, with each fighter making appearances every twelve to sixteen months or so.
The roster of fighters would be lean so weight classes would likely have to expand. This could be accomplished by tweaking the middleweight division from 165 to 190 pounds, while stretching light heavyweight from 191 to 220 pounds, and heavyweight ranging from 221 to 265 pounds.
Weight cutting is an issue as fighters age so broader weight classes would limit the dehydration and potential cardiac problems that come with sweating off twenty pounds in twenty-four hours.
Another point is this: what do fighters like Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz have to look forward to? Both are in their late thirties and can’t compete with elite level fighters. With a Master’s division to look forward to at forty, they could take the foot off the gas and prepare for the next evolution in their respective careers.
Watching a fighter stick around because he needs the money is sad. Watching someone do it with an eroding skill set is worse. Some guys truly love to fight and Liddell was recently quoted in Kevin Iole’s Yahoo piece saying that while he was competitive in the gym, he just couldn’t put it together in the Octagon anymore.
That’s a tall task when he’s facing the Shogun Hua's and Rashad Evans's of the world, coupled with a weakening chin that comes with getting on in years. Pair Liddell up against Rutten or Kimo Leopoldo? I get giddy thinking about it.
Liddell would re-stake his claim as the big fish—granted in a small pond—and it gives guys that are truly meant to fight and want to remain competitive a viable landscape in which to do so.
A Master’s division accomplishes that and all things considered, this idea doesn’t seem so far fetched.