Anderson Silva is 36 years old and likely near the end of his athletic prime. There's an open debate about whether being in his prime is essential for success or how much longer his prime will last. However, there is no little evidence to suggest that eventually either Silva will retire or he'll pass the tipping point where even an athlete of his considerable skill can no longer make up for physical decline.
We don't know any of these presuppositions or answers to these questions with any certainty. Popular figures such as Bernard Hopkins or Randy Couture demonstrate combat athletes can have success late into their fourties. But both are the oldest men in their respective sports to compete at the elite level at an advanced age. Hopkins is, literally, the oldest man to ever win a major title in boxing.
The overwhelming majority of athletes (combat or non-combat) are not able to compete at a professional, much less elite, level in this age range. For every Couture at 47, there is an equally gifted Fedor Emelianenko, who, at 34, is experiencing a wide range of problems not least of which are clear signs of physical deterioration.
Not every sport is as unforgiving regarding age and there's some reason to believe fighters may be able to fight until their late thirties. Sports that reward the most skilled athletes rather than the most physically gifted reward older athletes and reward them for longer periods of time. Some studies estimate the peak age for golfers to be approximately 35. Not one, but two studies suggest skill and role playing on teams in soccer is as important as athleticism, if not the most important indicator of success. For a sport as physically demanding as professional soccer, that would ordinarily be a fact that gives the competitive athlete hope. And yet, there are a mere handful of elite soccer players above 32 years of age.
So, what determines athletic performance and prime? It depends not only on relative skill of competitor (often a function of participatory rates), but the sport's physical demands: "In events where flexibility is paramount (for example, gymnastics and brief swimming events) the top competitors are commonly adolescents. In aerobic events, performance usually peaks in the mid-twenties, as gains from prolonged training, improved mechanical skills and competitive experience are negated by decreases in maximal oxygen intake and flexibility." Put more simply in sports where muscular strength, oxygen uptake, and cardiovascular efficiency are essential to success, the aging process plays a much more critical and determinative role.
- "Since 1950, the average age of world champion distance runners in the 3-mi (5,000 m) races through to the 26-mi marathons (42.2 km) ranges between 28 and 32 years of age."
- "From this peak of ability, runners will continue to perform at levels close to their personal best into their late 30s and early 40s; performance then declines at a rate of approximately 2% per year through age 80."
- "Swimming, which like running places a premium on cardiovascular strength, shows a similar regression from best performance times as an athlete ages. The success of female swimmers at early ages (there have been numerous Olympic gold medals and world records set by female swimmers under the age of 20) is related to both the earlier physical maturation of female athletes, as well as the physical dynamics of the female swimmer in the water; the progressive decline in the performance of female swimmers due to age is similar to that of male swimmers.
- Swimmers' prime age for competitive performance? Just 29.
- The average age of Olympic male athletes from 1896 to 2008? 25.4. Female Olympians from 1920 to 2008 average out to a barely adult 22.4 years of age.
- The average age of an NBA player going into the current season was 26.77.
- Every team in the MLB last year had an average age somewhere between 25 and 29.
- The average age of the top 10 men's tennis players in 2011? 26.3.
- Ice hockey players peak at 27, according to some measurements.
"Physical prime" is a fluid concept that loosely means the peak years of athletic ability. That doesn't necessarily correspond one-to-one with professional success, but the correlation is positive enough to arguably be the strongest determinant of achievement. If you need a metaphor to better help you understand physical prime and how it impacts professional athletes, think of players' prime as melting blocks of ice: every athlete is melting. We don't know how big each athlete's block of ice is or at what rate it melts but the trajectory is clear. And the early signs don't show up as starkly as abject failure. The melted ice only slowly begins to turn into a puddle: a boxer's jab is just a tick slower, soccer players elect to slide tackle every other defender they see, running backs rush for 4.1 instead of 4.8 yards per carry and baseball pitchers still throw 90 miles per hour but for 6 innings, not a 8 or a full 9.
Every time I present this argument, someone responds by underscoring the achievements of icons in sport who defy this inevitable decline, or at least stave it off longer than others. And it's worth acknowledging. For all of this data and science and understanding about the fragility of the human body, some athletes defy all the rules we think we know.
The truth even for the outliers, however, is there's usually a method to their madness. They don't luck into competing into advanced age without understanding how they were able to last so long. Not surprisingly, allowing the body to properly heal appears to be a key ingredient:
When Martina Navratilova retired from the summit of doubles tennis just before turning 50, I asked her for her secret. She talked for a bit about eating fruit, but then admitted: "I don’t know why I can still play as well as I can. Here I am, older than most players’ mothers. Gordie Howe [who played in the National Hockey League at 51] is the only athlete I know that’s done it at this age."
Navratilova had only one useful tip for others seeking sports eternity: "As soon as I felt something twitch a little, I would stop, take care of it. Playing through pain -- that’s bullsh*t."
It might be bullsh*t for the tennis great, but it's standard operation procedure in mixed martial arts. Deadlines, opportunities and duties rarely, if ever, afford a fighter the requisite time off. Aside from what must be innumerable training-related injuries or chronic pain, Silva famously fought both Travis Lutter and Chael Sonnen with debilitating injuries. Add in years of sparring, damage from other fights and the widely-rumored bare knuckle sparring sessions at Chute Boxe. There's no underselling the tax those activities have forced his body to pay.
MMA cannot lay claim to having a sport whose rigors produce the best conditioned athletes or the toughest men (and women) in professional sports without recognizing those accolades come with a performance trade off later in a fighter's career. A few factors will keep athletes performing better and longer in MMA despite the physical toll: late entry into the sport (and therefore less accumulative damage), lower participatory rates than traditional sports and promotional viability or box office attraction. But prolonged stay in MMA is not tantamount to prolonged success, particularly at the elite level. Fighters may be able to have careers where they earn paychecks long past their prime, but they very likely won't be hoisting UFC belts into the air.
When will Anderson Silva leave his athletic prime? There's no way to know. Against Vitor Belfort, not only were his strikes breathtakingly quick, he was also nimble and fluid in the scramble. There are no visible signs he's slowing down. Not right now, anyway.
The problem for Silva (and any championship-caliber fighter in their late thirties) is that as technically gifted as he may be, his style and methods of success are predicated on certain basic levels of athletic execution. To slip punches, throw surprising front kicks and control opposition in the clinch, one must be able past a certain threshold of physical ability. Silva might be able to win with more prosaic techniques than devilish front kicks should his physical ability begin to wane, but that's merely a delay of the inevitable.
Silva's body will eventually betray him, but there's no way to pinpoint a date. However, consider how sudden and relentless the decline can be. When Chuck Liddell stopped Tito Ortiz for the second time and defended his light heavyweight belt in 2006, he had just turned 37 that month. Before he could turn 38, he lost the belt to Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson. He would then go on to lose five of his next six fights and eventually retired at 41.
As for Anderson Silva, he turns 37 next April. I don't know when Silva's prime will melt away, but it's likely much closer to being a puddle than a chunk of ice.