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Editorial: On The Hill And Over The Hill

Six mixed martial arts peers performed in the Octagon on Saturday night as headliners for UFC 92, each of them at a comparable stage of life. Their outcomes helped illustrate a hard and fast MMA truism.

A fighter’s prime potential doesn’t always match up with his prime of life.

That might be because there’s no magic formula for helping a career take off and maintain ascension. There’s no cookie-cutter launching moments, no how-to manuals for MMA professionals that espouse shoo-in paths to stardom.

Career trajectories are case sensitive.

Something that’s not, however, is the brief period where a man enjoys his physical prime.

Believe me, I know. I’m 30. I’m there, dude. Forget the fact that I haven’t played a competitive sport in 12 years, pull muscles while lifting laundry baskets, and would have my ass handed to me by a ninth-grader in just about any athletic event.

The point is, if I was in serious training for the last 15 years or so, I probably would feel my best right about now, and it might last a few fleeting years.

In MMA, that stint of superiority doesn’t necessarily correspond with the pinnacle of a fighter’s career. For instance, let’s examine Saturday night’s primary combatants, each of whom fall into this ideal age category:

– Quinton Jackson is 30; Wanderlei Silva, 32.

– Frank Mir is 29; Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, 32.

– Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin are both 29.

Though they have taken different routes to the sport’s upper echelon, Saturday’s victors – Jackson (29-6), Mir (12-3) and Evans (13-0-1) – seem to be exhibiting their finest form while at the ripest stanza of life. Griffin (16-5), too.

The same cannot be said for Silva (32-9-1) and Nogueira (31-5-1), two MMA luminaries who appear to be on a Favre-like downward swing despite a few recent glimpses of their previous greatness (Silva against Keith Jardine; Nogueira against Tim Silvia).

The major differences between the two groups might be rooted in steady improvement of skills and evolution of style. Then, there’s the fact that Silva and Nogueira have been beaten in the head more often than their compatriots in this discussion (with the possible exception of Rampage).

The four men who are thriving can exercise one or more disciplines with excellence, but possess enough of a well-rounded arsenal to hang with any brand of opponent.

Evans and Jackson are among the top boxers in the sport, having poured enormous effort into attaining that status over the last few years. They also possess impressive wrestling credentials and terrific toughness that can carry them through the scrapes.

Meanwhile, Mir’s jiu-jitsu is rivaled by few heavyweights. In the past, his endurance and stand-up have been questioned. However, the former wasn’t needed against Big Nog (surprisingly), and the latter appeared much-improved – considering he notched a second-round TKO against someone who was previously “unfinishable.” Mir’s extended break after a horrible motorcycle accident may have helped ingrain a sense of urgency and focus in the only man who actually reserves the right to take potshots at UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar (which Mir seems fond of doing with subtlety).

Griffin, lastly, is a poster boy for the kind of all-around scrapper we’ll likely see more and more of as this sport continues to sprout. His weaknesses are nary, although Evans took advantage of an unsound guard to deliver a conclusive ground-and-pound assault and snatch the light heavyweight crown.

Silva? It appears “The Axe Murderer” isn’t so scary when his implement isn’t sharpened. In other words, if he can’t land the kind of vaunted haymaker that sent him on a vicious victory streak in Pride, he’s just another slugger putting on a show for blood-thirsty spectators. There’s money in that, no doubt, but extended greatness in this day and age, probably not.

As for Big Nog, his propensity for taking beatings is unmatched. So, too, is his BJJ. But being thrashed repeatedly for several years and living to tell about it is over-rated, no matter how many wins and what kind of mythology it has produced.

All six of these men are commodities that the UFC will continue to trot out and milk for big money. It’s just that Evans, Mir, Jackson and Griffin are hitting their strides at the right time.

Saturday didn’t spell the end for Silva and Nogueira, but neither will be in contention for championships, perhaps for the duration. That’s what can happen in this sport when a fighter is past his prime even though he’s still in it.