It's no picnic in any sport, but aging in MMA is particularly tough. There are no reserve roles in MMA, no bench spots or designated-hitter assignments to ease into. And exits don't always, or even frequently, occur with anything resembling grace.
In other words, MMA longevity is not always cause for celebration in and of itself. No, you need a special kind of person to not only do it but make it look good in the process.
But there is a silver lining for the graying fighter population, and that's the fact that experience is a huge plus in MMA. The main event of this Saturday's UFC Fight Night 149, going down from St. Petersburg, Russia, features two of the wiliest, most grizzled veterans in the sport today: 38-year-old striker Alistair Overeem (44-17-0, 1 NC) and 41-year-old grappler Aleksei Oleinik (57-11-1).
They are heavyweights, and they are cantankerous. A basic math equation shows us that their combined fight total is 131 professional bouts (and done while maintaining a 77 percent win percentage, no less).
Add in the fact that they're friends and that makes it all the better. It's oddly easy to picture them sitting on a porch somewhere passing a Mason jar back and forth between them.
But that's for another, more leisurely day. On Saturday, Overeem is a -250 favorite (bet in the contest, according to OddsShark. Oleinik has the age advantage, but the Dutch kickboxing champion has more UFC experience (9-6 in the Octagon compared with 6-2 for Oleinik). Half of The Reem's 44 wins have come by knockout, but with seasoning and the natural process of supplanting physical talents for mental.
In his earlier days, going back to Pride, it has not been hard to see Overeem and supreme arrogance rowing together in the same dingy. Overeem is an unquestionably world-class kickboxer, but sometimes he seemed to rely a little too much on his own power. That can notch you some wins, but it doesn't do much to keep your chin from getting any better. Overeem kept his hands low and swung for the fences, relying on big punches, bigger kicks and a liberal dose of grown-man work in the clinch. Not a lot of regard for defense or the next day or, really, anything.
All six of his UFC losses came by knockout, so it's historically been a two-way street for Overeem.
That's different now. With time and mileage piling up (and that drug-test failure and suspension didn't help matters), Overeem has taken a more conservative approach in recent years, implementing a counter-striking approach along with more clinch work. No one should pretend he'll ever be anything other than an aggressive striker, but a lower-output approach is probably necessary and desirable if Reem wants to continue his career.
Oleinik is easily the more engimatic of the two. He's also on a bigger streak, winning four of five to Overeem's one consecutive win.
The Ukrainian is even more of a specialist than the favorite, with a decidedly old-school game based on some moves that are only simple from a physical point of view. Oleinik was born with old-man's game. His approach is simple, it's effective and it's all between the ears. He's won 57 contests; 45 of those were submissions.
Those four wins all came using chokes, with three of those courtesy of the so-basic-it's-complex Ezekiel choke. The Ukrainian is a hard man, and so is his signature move, which he can even pull off from the mount position. Essentially, he just needs to get his arm around your neck and find just the right angle at which to cut off your arteries and put your lights out. With Oleinik, it's gotten so easy that it becomes a matter of chumming the waters and grabbing whatever jumps into your boat.
Oleinik's best chance will be on the ground. But Overeem is no spring chicken with his defensive wrestling, stopping a respectable 73 percent of takedown attempts, per UFC stats. Oleinik is an irrestible grappler when he gets his hands on you. Even the attempt is the last place Overeem wants to be, which means he needs to use kicks to keep the fight at long range. No one can implement a strategy like a veteran.
In all seriousness, this is Overeem's fight to lose. Whenever the action is on the feet, Overeem's going to have miles of advantage. To date, although Oleinik's record is impressive and his fights are fun to watch, he doesn't seem to have the more well-rounded skill set you need at this stratum of a fight card. Submission holds like the Ezekiel choke require the opponent to put himself or herself in a compromising position. It takes a veteran to capitalize on such a rookie mistake. Will a fellow veteran give up that kind of opening?
The answer should be no. On a night when two wily veterans square off, Oleinik's bag of tricks won't be enough against a smarter attack that may still have some pop. Combined Fight No. 132 goes to Overeem with a convincing unanimous decision.
Scott Harris writes about MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report.